Review: Shadow Complex (XBLA)

Let's get this out of the way: You'll need to forgive Shadow Complex its generic trappings. For one of the most hyped elements of the production, author Orson Scott Card's contributions are underwhelming. The hero (everyman Jason Fleming but let's call him ... Nathan Bourne) and the story are both entirely forgettable; however, the real star of the game comes from the other half of this collaboration: the gameplay. Put simply, Shadow Complex is the easiest Xbox Live Arcade recommendation I can make and one of the best games of the year.

To detail those trappings (happening in parallel with the Card / Chair Entertainment novel, Empire), Bourn ... err, Fleming (voiced by video gaming's omnipresent superstar, Nolan North) is the son of NSA brass and a natural soldier ... but all he ever wanted was a normal life. Filling in the role of "bad guys" are the soldiers of the Restoration, a fringe military group driven by ideology (Right? Left? You can't tell in Shadow Complex). Holed up in their Washington-state, mountain-fortified hideout, the Restoration is planning its first major outing: the "Liberation of San Francisco."

And that's it – the entire story. It's enough to keep you moving forward ("must kill Mother Brain") but luckily moving forward (and backward, and upward, and downward) is what Shadow Complex is all about. The reference to Metroid's Mother Brain is no mistake – Shadow Complex unapologetically places itself into the increasingly anachronistic genre of "Metroidvania" titles, typified by large, open-world maps wherein progress is limited by access to equipment (think: you'll need the missile launcher to get past that door). Couple that with Shadow Complex's beautiful 3D graphics and 2D gameplay – powered by Unreal Engine; Chair is owned by Epic Games after all – and you've got an experience that, were it not for the wonders of digital distribution, would not exist.

the foam gun – foe of Restoration baddies, friend of sequence breakers everywhere

At the center of the Shadow Complex experience is the enormous map. The hallmark of any Metroidvania title, the map quickly becomes an oft-checked resource. Finding shortcuts, discovering hidden rooms, and ultimately canvassing the entire thing are all encouraged. Your efforts earn you more powerups, more components of your combat suit (lifted from a secure room ... oh, hello air duct) and, of course, an achievement. Shadow Complex does an incredible job of gradually stepping up your character's abilities. Beginning with the ability to climb and ending with the ability to double jump using boosters on the shoes of your badass combat suit; it's a significant delta and it feels like it.

By the end, you're able to breeze through the baddies, taking down the biggest mechs with barely a scratch. Actually, if you've unlocked the final component of the suit – found at the very bottom of the map and only accessible once you've found all twelve pieces of the key card needed to access the room – you'll best most enemies, quite literally, without a scratch. While the shooting mechanics are, for the most part, highly refined, there is one scenario that works better in theory than in practice. The game's 3D environments put enemies above you and below you, as is to be expected, but you'll also find enemies occupying the normally empty z-axis. Shooting into and out of the screen leaves something to be desired; however, to be fair, it's rarely a hindrance.

Littered with challenge rooms, live stat tracking comparing you to your friends (how many robots have you kicked?), unlockables, dozens of ways of navigating the map, and plenty of sequence breaking (there's already a 30-minute speedrun on the leaderboards) – not to mention the excellent campaign mode – Shadow Complex is easily one of the most robust downloadable titles to date. And here's the catch: at $15, it also offers a disruptive ratio of content to price. Shadow Complex has set a highwater mark for Xbox Live Arcade and at only $15, we'll all reevaluate the value of downloadable games going forward.