Shadow Complex (Xbox 360)
Given its standing among developers, critics and fans, it's surprising that there aren't more games that blatantly rip off Super Metroid. Where Super Mario Bros., Street Fighter II and DOOM inspired whole movements of cash-in clones, Super Metroid's distinct item-based, nonlinear action-platforming has been confined primarily to two franchises: Metroid itself and Konami's Castlevania series.
There are a few exceptions in recent memory -- indie hit Cave Story, for one -- but the subgenre has been coined "Metroidvania" precisely because of those two series. With the release of Shadow Complex, though, the genre may just have to be renamed. I'm still undecided on what that new name should be. Metroidvaniacomplex? Shadowmetroidvania?
After a quick introduction, the game gives us Jason Fleming -- a strapping young lad who's a bit too bumbling to be believable as the one-man army he eventually becomes, and just a bit too skilled to be believable as the everyman he's supposed to represent. What starts as a simple hike for Jason and his shallow-as-a-kiddie-pool female companion quickly turns into a ridiculously over-the-top mission to single-handedly stop a heavily armed revolutionary group aiming to take over the United States.
We get bits and pieces of the revolutionaries' plans through overheard snippets of conversation and overwrought, mercifully short cut scenes, but the enemy operation never really comes together as a believable plan. So they killed the vice president and are sending their army to take over ... San Francisco? Because that one city will somehow cause the entire American experiment to crumble? The game-ending twist reveals an even more unbelievable backstory and motivation for at least one character, and just muddies things even further.
But it's hard to care about the thinness of the plot when the world of Shadow Complex is such a vibrant playground. From winding caverns to sterile white rooms; from leaky mine shafts to rusting industrial waterways; from an undisturbed lake house to a soldier-filled mess hall; it's all rendered with enough depth and lived-in detail to make exploring a joy.
This is important, because you'll spend a large portion of the game looking into every nook and cranny. In the greatest Metroidvania tradition, the mazelike corridors start off with more dead ends than open paths. Finding new weapons and items not only increases your firepower, but also your possible paths through the impressively sized map. This system does a good job of teasing at upcoming areas long before you can reach them, though the balance between tease and delivery here feels a little back-loaded. The final few items, which open up a surprisingly large portion of the map, come only near the end of the game, when the action is clearly declining toward a finale. By the time I finally got the last power-enhancing bit of my super-suit, I had forgotten half of the dead ends that I had made a mental note to come back to only hours before. A detailed and easy-to-use map function does help in remembering these locations, but without the ability to make notes directly on the map, exploring that last bit of the base can be a little aimless.
Not that this is necessarily a bad thing. In fact, the design of the maze is so strong that aimlessly wandering is a joy. It can also be the best way to stumble upon the copious power-enhancing items hidden throughout the base. The map helps again here, marking these items with hard-to-ignore question marks. But the level designers have done a great job figuring out clever, counterintuitive hiding places for the items. It can be tough to figure out exactly which piece of scenery to blow up or how to coordinate the set of careful wall jumps needed to reach the trinket. While most are simple enough for an experienced gamer to unearth, a few will test the thinking and platforming skills of even hardened game veterans.
Ironically, the best part of all this item-hunting exploration is the freedom that Shadow Complex gives you to ignore it. Turn on the "blue line" feature on the map screen, and the map immediately displays the most efficient path to take to your next objective. You might still have to find some hidden passageways and secret jumps to follow said path, but you can use a flashlight to illuminate exactly which pieces of scenery will give way to those necessary paths. Both these features are totally optional, but for those like me who constantly get lost, they are a game-saver.
The long, enjoyable periods of quiet exploration are punctuated by some incredibly intense and somewhat frustrating firefights. These add a first-person shooter sensibility to the slower-paced shooting of the Metroid games. You have to reload your gun from time to time, for instance, leaving you dangerously exposed to what can be punishing strafing fire. Finding cover is crucial to staying alive, as is being able to stay moving as you lay down cover fire. It's quite easy to get overwhelmed by large groups of enemies if you're not careful, and the game isn't afraid to let you lose five to 10 minutes of progress to a brutal firefight just before a save point.
Shadow Complex also shakes up the Metroid formula by layering enemies in the third dimension. Even though movement is confined to a two-dimensional plane, enemy soldiers are frequently found in platforms and hallways that sink into the background. You can aim and fire back at them with some careful use of the right analog stick, but this system doesn't work as well as it could. It can be hard to tell whether or not you have a clear shot at enemies that are standing in sometimes cluttered backgrounds, and even if you do, the aiming controls are touchy enough to make total misses a common occurrence.
Like the combat controls, the enemies themselves are a bit disappointing. There are only five or six distinct types in the game, and killing the first of each type feels remarkably the same as killing the 100th. Maybe they'd feel more satisfying to dispatch if they had a little life to them, but despite some impressive animation the enemies tend to act like blind, deaf automatons more than, um, trained guards.
I can't count the number of times a nameless grunt screamed out in pain without alerting another guard standing just five feet away. Soldiers will also often fail to react when you shine a flashlight in their face or actively bump into them from behind. At least they occasionally run for cover at the higher difficulty levels, but the only time they provide any sort of challenge is when they're offered in overwhelming numbers with limited cover opportunities. The large robotic bosses, while nice to look at, are no smarter, harder to figure out, or interesting to destroy than their human counterparts.
Shadow Complex's heavily old-school sensibilities are a bit of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the exploration challenges and carefully crafted level design are a throwback to a style of game that has fallen out of favor in recent years. But in focusing on bringing back an old, neglected style of gaming, it's also brought repetitive enemy design and pattern-dependent bosses along with it. Still, after completing the game's main storyline in seven or eight hours, I found I wanted nothing more than to go back and keep exploring, finding those last few items I needed for a 100-percent completion or perhaps running through some more of the timed platforming challenges that show off the game's seamless controls. Shadow Complex shows that, despite its name, the Metroidvania games are long overdue to break out from the Metroid and the 'Vania, and become a well-respected genre in their own right.
This review is based on a downloadable copy of the game provided by the publisher.