Shadow Complex - Brutal Backlog
Brutal Backlog is a semi-regular feature where the JDR team plough through some of the unplayed games on their shelves (both digital and physical), disregarding their age or the technical limitations of their era. Only the very best games will stand up to scrutiny today.
You know when you go hiking, take a wrong turn, and end up uncovering a secret evil corporation buried in a mountain who kidnaps your date? I hate that. So, too, does Jason Flemming in Shadow Complex, the best-selling Xbox 360 platformer from 2009. It’s a game I started playing multiple times and had to stop after ten minutes because something urgent landed on my desk. Tucked away in my Xbox library, I thought it was time to give it a fair roll of the dice and see what all the fuss was about, given the multitude of awards it won on release.
Twenty Minutes In
This feels like the kind of game that every 2D platform developer dreams of making, shortly after indulging in way too many 80s action films. There’s the faceless, vast empire of evil men (yes, every voiced antagonist is male), the pretty yet apparently useless damsel-in-distress, and the plucky everyman / incredibly competent killing machine who just wants to have a normal life and is clearly not happy about this shit.
Poor Jason is voiced by Nolan North at his Nolan Northiest. Armed with a backpack containing an infinite amount of ammo but only a limited supply of grenades (because, reasons), he needs to infiltrate a massive underground lair which is laid out in an incredibly inefficient way, and appears to have very little actual operating purpose, like a government project overseen by a team of goldfish. What it does contain is a Metroidvania layout, and a 2.5D perspective allowing you to interact with background adversaries, which was pretty innovative at the time.
Even today, Shadow Complex looks lovely. The perspective is pulled back just enough to make the polish shine, and even the cutscenes hold up well. The gameplay will be familiar to anyone who has played a Metroidvania game before: navigate to a goal via a map, acquire item that gives you access to previously inaccessible area of that map, go to new area to receive new goal, and repeat. So far, it feels responsive and fun.
Two Hours In
Some of the repetition is beginning to grate a little. The 2.5D field of vision is a nice touch, but the auto-aim renders it little more than window dressing — even if you can make lots of things explode and hurl enemies into the foreground in pleasing ways. The platforming itself is a bit of a slog at times, little more than a series of leaps from ledge to ledge, shooting or blowing up multiple grates, crawling through vents, and so on. It’s not that I’m not enjoying the game as a whole, just that elements of it feel a little too familiar within its own world.
Saving is done by reaching rooms marked with a star on the map, and thankfully they are numerous enough to take the pain away from certain areas which have heavily armoured enemies and powerful ceiling-mounted machine guns. You will soon upgrade from a puny pistol to bigger weapons, and careful scouting of your surroundings will reveal numerous collectibles — some like gold are aesthetic, while others are more beneficial, like upgrades to armour and your special weapon pouches.
The actual gunplay is controlled with the right-stick for laser aiming, and the trigger button to fire. Once you get used to the auto-aiming for enemies in the background, it becomes natural. However, it does feel like there is too large a time gap between the hordes of grunts populating rooms, and larger boss enemies which need a bit more thought to defeat. Switching between your special weapons using the D-pad, which is a necessity for some bosses, can be a serious pain at times.
My biggest criticism so far is that I’ve not really been surprised by anything that’s happened. As soon as I reached some mine tracks I expected to take a ride in a mine cart and wasn’t disappointed. I’m almost certain that I’ll need to get something that lets me swim underwater for longer very soon, if only because I’ve spotted the telltale glow of collectibles in an unreachable place. The genre tropes are being ticked off at an alarming rate.
So far, it’s pretty and competent, but a little predictable.
Eight Hours In
Despite having no military training or, indeed, knowledge of the facility until today, Jason is told that he is the only person capable of bringing down this uber-secret organisation. That sums up Shadow Complex nicely — it’s one of those games you need to sit back and roll with. It isn’t overly tongue-in-cheek in the way that something like Serious Sam DD XXL is. It’s an uneasy blend of serious corporate world-ending and quips, like if Dalton-era James Bond was played by Nathan Drake.
But the claustrophobic platforming elements — combined with a dour story about the rise of a faceless adversary with a “Make America Great Again” mission statement — often feel like they are holding back a game which is bursting to let loose. Nowhere is this more apparent than two-thirds of the way in, when you obtain the Omega armour and have the ability to smash your way through screen after screen at breakneck speed in a joyous ode to Sonic The Hedgehog. In combination with the ultimate one-hit kill weapon you pick up, Shadow Complex casts aside the restraints of its environment and the result is irresistibly nuts.
If the game had settled for this approach from the get-go, it would have been tremendous. Instead, Shadow Complex holds many of its trump cards back until it’s too late to fully appreciate the intricately mapped world, draping a dull story, pointless villain and bait-and-switch finale over it which had me rolling my eyes. Even so, I cannot fault the time I spent with Jason, even if my guess about the longer underwater sections came true. The frustration I experienced was more to do with the flashes of pure joy I experienced, in comparison to the majority of the game which felt competent but not outstanding. It also feels like an experience aimed at gamers who love collectibles, given a standard playthrough saw me only pick up around half of the available secrets. To me, this is unnecessary padding - your mileage may vary.
Even nine years on, Shadow Complex holds up as a solid, fun title. I played the original Xbox 360 version, though the Remastered version came out a couple of years ago and added a lick of paint, but not much more. I’m not convinced it really deserved the plaudits it was showered with upon release, but I can’t say it wasn’t a fun experience — just one I feel didn’t realise its full potential.
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