Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Shadow Complex, or The Past Becomes the Future

shadow-complex-game EDITOR’S NOTE: There will not be an Audiosurf Radio post this week due to time constraints.  Believe it or not, those posts do take time.  Also, Andrew and I failed to discuss who would review Shadow Complex.  So…here’s another one.

This year Microsoft wisely countered the typical summer game drought with its “Summer of Arcade” promotion.  On the whole, it seems to have worked.  They picked a perfect launch window for five games well-suited for affordable download: games new and old with a retro feel.  Fighting fans have been clamoring for a Marvel vs. Capcom 2 release since the Xbox Live Arcade was invented.  ‘Splosion Man (see Gene’s review) channels old-school platformers with its charming idle animations and precision-demanding level design.  Trials HD dresses up your average Flash tilt-bike game with slick graphics and leaderboards galore.  (We won’t worry our pretty little heads with the slack-jawed rehashing that is Turtles in Time: Reshelled.)

Shadow Complex, with its Metroid-meets-Castlevania 2.5D gameplay, fits nicely into this group.  Hit the jump for my thoughts on Chair Entertainment’s love letter to gaming’s past.

I’d be remiss in discussing Shadow Complex without acknowledging the controversy swirling overhead, which we discussed on our recent podcast.  Orson Scott Card, the Ender’s Game author who wrote a book (Empire) set in a world created by Chair Entertainment, disagrees with same-sex marriage.  Actually, “disagrees” is a bit of an understatement – he abhors it.  Because the marketing behind Shadow Complex prominently features Card’s name, liberal gamers are crying foul and boycotting the title.  Kotaku’s Stephen Totilo did his best to round up statements from all involved (gamer and developer, but no Card), and Gamasutra’s Christian Nutt puts the issue in context both personal and national, arguing that the “It’s just a game” defense insults not just the developer but gamers themselves.  In my opinion, Shadow Complex is so divorced from any ideology that I have no problem playing it while also disagreeing with Card’s political stance. 

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk about why you should play Shadow Complex.  I’ll admit, in the interest of full disclosure, that I have limited experience with the franchises it so loudly harkens back to.  I’ve never played Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, and I never beat Super Metroid.  I do, however, recognize the classic elements that set Shadow Complex apart from the majority of modern games. 

Sometimes rooms contain giant robots. When gaming leapt into the third dimension, a myriad of problems were born: wonky cameras, inadequate draw distances, clunky controls, and uncanny valley full of awkward animations.  We also lost one of the hallmarks of 2D design: tile-based maps.  You can look all the way back to Mega Man and find games designed around levels with fixed camera points.  Some argue that the Resident Evil series lost something in the transition away from fixed-camera environments; it’s much harder to create suspense when the player has full control over what’s being seen.  Shadow Complex tackles this style head-on, providing a mix of open warehouses and tight, constraining rooms.  The tile-based environments also lend themselves to the immensely helpful map with its wonderful (and optional) Blue Line, which points toward your next objective at all times.  Also, the tiles allow for encounters with expertly crafted balance and pacing, something free-roaming cameras can often muddy up in three-dimensional spaces.  With current-gen technology, rooms transition smoothly – whether they be pockets of a cavern or a rooms in a barracks – which keeps the game moving at a comfortable pace.  The 2.5D sometimes make for some awkward aiming with the right stick, but a healthy auto-assist function should curb frustration.  Plus, by the end of the game, you’ve become so powerful that a few missed shots won’t matter – you’ll have time to fire five times before the enemy has the courage to stand up to you.

Shadow Complex all but says, “I’m a game.  Here’s some cool shit.”  Your pause screen is a series of progress meters, whether it be map exploration or item collection.  And the items, though they all have their Metroid analogs, are tons of fun.  All of your weapons, including missiles and grenades, can be fired on the game’s Z-axis, sending enemies in the back- or foreground screaming for cover.  The hook shot and the Friction Dampener feel like toys dreamt up in an issue of Popular Mechanics, and many of the puzzles requiring them elicit “a-ha!” moments upon completion.  Not all of the power-ups come easily, however.  You’ll have to work, hunt, and perhaps even do a bit of Internet research (I know I did) to get that 100% item Achievement.  It feels like the old days when games were happy to kick you in your cognitive balls, but had no problem rewarding you handsomely if you were up to the task.

You can build houses out of foam.

For all the hoopla surrounding Card and the buzz about scriptwriter Peter David, Shadow Complex’s story is rather on par with what you might expect.  In David’s words (from the aforementioned Totilo piece), it’s a “story of a reluctant warrior being forced to find something worth fighting for.”  I reckon that’s the case.  You play a dude who follows a girl into a cave, watches her get kidnapped, and goes after her into an underground facility.  Your competence with weaponry is explained via one ten-second flashback.  Honestly, I can’t complain.  Playing the game was engrossing enough.

Shadow Complex is a testament to what can and should succeed on platforms like the Xbox Live Arcade.  It’s reasonably priced, ambitious, slick, and explores a genre that modern titles wouldn’t dare enter for fear of lackluster sales.   I spent eight hours completing the main campaign and I’m still hungry for more.  Controversy aside, Shadow Complex deserves to go down as a modern classic and should be spoken in the same breath as the predecessors to whom it pays homage.