Sorry Samus, your Metroid is in another complex.
Some say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and it couldn't hold more true in regards to Shadow Complex. Chair, the developer, was unflinchingly clear about it when the game was first announced: They wanted to make a game like Super Metroid. Such great aspirations were met with knee-jerk disdain by the general gaming audience, calling it out for a lack of originality or even laziness. Now that Shadow Complex is finally out, it's easy to see how wrong the unwashed masses were.
[image1]At first glance, Shadow Complex might seem like a re-skinned Metroid game, from the general character progression to the square-by-square map structure. As in any common Metroid adventure, you are given a little taste of a fully-powered character before all of it is stripped away, or in this case, before you're introduced to a whole different person, the main character.
Neither a flashback nor a flash forward, the first section of the game serves as an introduction to the events in the story and is a great setup to what you can expect to see and acquire once you really start playing as Jason, a run-of-the-mill normal guy on vacation with his girlfriend in the Washington wilderness. He starts out by just carrying a flashlight to explore a cave right after his better half goes missing and ends up discovering much more than he bargained for, stumbling upon a massive secret underground facility under control by a rebel army of Cobra Commander rejects who want nothing more than blow up a couple of U.S cities, starting with good old San Francisco. Won't someone think of these poor GameRevolution folks? [Good, we have fooled them into thinking we weren't rejected by Cobra Commander. Bwa ha ha! ~Ed.]
Shadow Complex is powered by the Unreal engine, lending great, crisp 3D visuals, even though it is a two-dimensional side-scrolling game. However, Jason can shoot in all eight directions, including the foreground and the background, adding a whole new axis to the playing field. This makes for some confusing moments, though, since the controls are made more for two-dimensional shooting - aiming into the background is more of a case-sensitive action than something you have any control over. Weirdly enough, at certain moments, you are given control of a turret, at which point you have an over-the-shoulder view of the action and complete control over aiming with full a full 3-D range of movement.
Even with this uneven choice for controls and somewhat half-baked gimmick that seems like an attempt to make Shadow Complex more than a side-scrolling shooter, it's still a very enjoyable game in the "Metroid-Vania" genre. As you might expect, you will run across areas with seemingly unreachable items that will make you backtrack later on, but Chair makes this exploration easier than the usual Metroid by marking the map with the location of special items as question marks. It even draws a linear path showing the best route to the current objective, which becomes increasingly useful as your map grows, though it would have nice to be able to set your own objective markers. Special doors and hatches are color-coded for a particular weapon as well, enticing to backtrack to those areas once you acquire the appropriate powers.
[image2]You'll start Shadow Complex pretty much defenseless, but sooner rather than later, you'll come across nifty weapons, trinkets, and even a set of power armor. Almost all of the powers you'll acquire are derivative of those in a Metroid game, like sonic-running boots, a jet-pack, and a freezing... okay, sorry, foam gun. That's not to say Jason won't have his own tricks up his sleeve, like a variety of new guns that become increasingly stronger as he levels up and armor pieces that make him look more and more like a holy Iron Man as crazier, stronger powers come into effect.
Leveling up is much more than just getting more hit points or "dinging" XP, with each level providing a new stat increase like increased precision, longer-lasting stamina, or even infinite ammo. Along with leveling, you'll have access to upgrade tanks along the way that bump up Jason's total hit points and weapons capacity; more than that, he can even gain access to pimped-out golden versions of guns that not only look cool, but give you more experience. Experience comes in a variety of ways - generally, killing enemies and map exploration. And if you need an incentive to explore and gain every item, there's an Achievement for squeezing 100%.
Fighting bosses is thrilling, with each having their own patterns and sometimes cheap tactics, seemingly cheaper as you level up and acquire more upgrades. None of them, though, are that difficult to defeat and are prone to certain weapons and tactics once you figure them out. Standard grunts aren't very smart either, having a very short range of vision, to the point of sometimes not even noticing you jumping by and over their heads. In a way, these faceless grunts just seem to be there just to die, and the developers even toy around with that idea in the clever and borderline hilarious dialogue you'll hear between unsuspecting enemies. That's not to say the writing in story in the game is particularly engaging, not going past the usual summer action movie plot. You won't go around scanning the environment in order to learn about the enemies' intent or anything - you'll run around and blow stuff up. And given what the game aims to be, that's not a bad thing.
[image3]If you want to strip whatever there is of a story out of your action altogether, other than the fairly lengthy six- to nine-hour main campaign mode, there is a chunky challenge room mode, which like in Bionic Commando: Rearmed, places you inside a environment of nihilistic intent with the sole objective of conquering obstacles and reaching the end. Completion times in both this mode and the campaign are posted in online leaderboards, making the game a contender for crazy speed run videos and competitions.
In fact, Shadow Complex does a great job in stirring the race between you and people in your friends list, as it counting how many kills or even seconds you are behind a friend's best score. Even if you don't have friends playing the game, it keeps track of your stats and challenges you to reach higher benchmarks in terms of kills, style, and even discoveries.
It's easy to see why Shadow Complex is such a good game - it follows the mold of some of the best and most enjoyable games ever, retaining that feel even though it's built with today's tech behind it. Sure, there's a bit of Super Metroid, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, and even Bionic Commando and some of its unique features feel overly gimmicky or just downright broken, but it manages to stand out as one of the better Live Arcade games out there, especially for only 1200 Microsoft Points ($15).