Monday, August 24, 2009

demo (?) monday: shadow complex

sure beats an oedipus complex I know, I know, Microsoft has been doing everything in its power to push Chair Entertainment’s Shadow Complex down your throats, but here’s the thing: this week’s Demo Monday isn’t a Demo Monday at all, because as soon as I blew up a helicopter I bought me up some Microsoft Points and purchased Shadow Complex. Immediately. And I’m going to start this review off by saying that you really should do the same thing.

I’ve said in other pieces that I felt this year’s Summer of Arcade titles, ‘Splosion Man and then Turtles in Time, were not up to par compared to last year’s offerings. While Shadow Complex isn’t a mindbending experimental title that’s going to change the face of gaming, it is the first important game we’ve seen in the Arcade this summer.

Braid, for all of its gameplay-related merits, was also important for another reason – it proved that people were willing to spend 1200 Microsoft Points ($15) on an Xbox Live Arcade title. Gamers were a little upset about this decision, but Braid sold very well and since then we’ve seen more and more titles at that price point and above.

Shadow Complex is breaking some similar ground, albeit on the developer side of the fence. For one, it’s an Xbox Live Arcade game that licenses Epic’s Unreal Engine, which while nearly ubiquitous in AAA retail titles is to the best of my knowledge a rarity in the Arcade. The second innovation, perhaps related to the first one, is that this game is one of the larger Arcade titles currently available from the service, weighing in at over 700 megabytes. This (and the Games on Demand service) is likely the last step in a long journey, one that started with a 50 megabyte limit for Arcade titles just four years ago at the 360’s launch. Nothing says “you should have bought the system with a hard drive” like the fact that the must-have downloadable game of the summer is three times the size of your memory card.

All of that being said, I guess I should actually talk about the game a bit. Shadow Complex is a sidescrolling shooter/platformer with a heavy emphasis on exploration, in the style of the Metroid series and the post-Symphony of the Night Castlevania games. Shadow Complex probably does borrow a bit too many pages from Samus Aran’s book (I think they actually knocked her down and took it), but it’s just so well-executed that it’s hard to fault it for being derivative.

(For those unfamiliar, games like this have an interesting structure: you’re plunked down in the middle of one large, continuous map, with the only thing keeping you from exploring it all being your lack of equipment. Typically, there’s only one passable path, and at the end of it will be a power-up that will make more obstacles surmountable. Rinse and repeat until the end of the game. For those who enjoy meticulousness and puzzle-solving mixed in with your action, this is for you.)

A couple of things do distinguish it from Metroid and Castlevania. One of those things is that it’s not Metroid or Castlevania – those two games have the market cornered on sidescrolling exploring, and it’s refreshing just to enjoy that gameplay without being tied to the conventions of those particular series. It also makes solid use of the third dimension, despite being a sidescroller. Metroid and Castlevania games have, over the years, either been three-dimensional or two-dimensional with no switching in between. Shadow Complex actually populates its backgrounds with enemies and objects, making the game’s world look larger while forcing you to pay attention to your surroundings. It’s a nice, subtle touch, and a welcome one.

Ten years ago, Shadow Complex would have been pressed on a disk and sold in stores for whatever full retail price happened to be at the time. Not so today. This speaks both to our shifting tastes (first person shooter trumps sidescrolling action) and to the skyrocketing costs of and expectations for a modern video game. Shadow Complex has sparse but competent voicework for a handful of characters and a very nice 3D engine, but it doesn’t approach the level of detail or meticulousness that went into crafting the burnt-out Washington D.C. in Fallout 3 or the war-torn surface of Mars in Red Faction Guerilla. Gamers expect not just longer games for their money these days, but bigger and flashier ones too.

Hopefully the popularity of Shadow Complex convinces some publishers and developers that smaller games, if done well, can be just as (if not more) fiscally lucrative as the dozens of monolithic, big-budget releases tossed onto store shelves between November and January. You complain of the skyrocketing cost of game development – maybe you should just consider smaller games?

Chair Entertainment’s Shadow Complex is currently available from the Xbox Live Arcade for 1200 Microsoft Points ($15). I’m not sure how much of the demo I played, because I bought the game after playing the single-player campaign for all of ten minutes. For more thoughts about Shadow Complex, including some commentary on Orson Scott Card’s apparently controversial involvement, you should listen to this week’s Pod Shot!!!.