Every now and then, a game comes out that's kind of a sleeper - no large advertising campaign, not even a lot of word-of-mouth, but still very worth picking up. For players on the Xbox Live Arcade service, I'm going to be recommending Shadow Complex today as one of those games.
For players of classic 2D adventures - Castlevania, Metroid, etc - the formula's going to be pretty easy to understand. Players run around a defined world, killing enemies, acquiring powerups, beating up bosses. Nothing overly unique exists about this storyline or concept, and indeed, that's one of the strengths of the title. Rather than try to create the newest thing in the 2D explorable genre, Epic instead took the formula and made it as tight and clean as possible.
The storyline of the game is rather simple. Based loosely on the world of Osron Scott Card's novel Empire, a shadowy organization has been storing up advanced weaponry and troops with the goal of launching mass attacks on the leaders of the US, to topple the government and rewrite the nation under their thumb. Meanwhile, a pair of lovebirds - Jason Fleming, and his girlfriend Claire - have planned a hiking trip and cave spelunking vacation. Claire gets a head start, and by the time Jason follows, it turns out that the mountains conceal a Restoration base, with Claire having been caught and imprisoned as a "spy" by the group.
Jason, having been raised by a military family, proceeds to do the dumbest thing possible and just brawl his way through, stealing parts for one of the Restoration's high-tech powered-armor suits, running through the area killing their troops, and generally causing all sorts of mayhem. Did I mention that the player gets to be Jason, and that's just the sort of thing a gamer or action movie hero would do?
Down to the nitty-gritty - Shadow Complex doesn't entirely play as your standard 2D title. Many enemies are "off line", standing in the foreground or background, but the game will automatically target them when the player aims in their general direction. Rather than a simple jump mechanic, the player can climb ledges, eventually pick up a double-jump with a jetpack attachment, swap out a basic handgun for much more powerful military models (including eventually an energy-based weapon), and pick up missiles, grenades, and a sticky goop substance. For the obligatory hidden item search, players are equipped with a flashlight, which both illuminates darkened passageways and causes destructible objects to glow with the color of their assigned method of destruction, avoiding the Metroid-style "bomb every corner of the map" approach. For special weaponry like the foam and grenades, the game gives an increasing supply, the final upgrade of which will simply switch to "infinite ammo" mode. Enemies can also be stealthily shot, or dealt with by physical attack, which will cause a small cutscene-like closeup followed by the end result. In the case of the little spider robots, the punting animation's actually darn funny.
In terms of exploration, Shadow Complex gives the player not just a reasonably usable game map, but also a highlighted line of the "encouraged" path to the next storyline or required mobility/weapon upgrade. This is useful if you haven't played the game in about a week and are trying to remember where you were and what you were doing, and I applaud it. It also does highlight (with two silly exceptions of map squares with multiple secret upgrades) the location of upgrades, helping players track down what they've missed or need to double back for later on.
If anything, I'd love to see a sequel that expands the map somewhat, as Shadow Complex was quite a joy to run around and play in, but leaves very little replay value following completion. On the other hand, the $15 price tag makes it well worth it.