Shadow Complex

Let’s get one thing straight: Shadow Complex is not Super Metroid. Pretty much the entire internet is buzzing about how it is Super Metroid. The developers have bragged about how much they cribbed from Super Metroid. There was probably some stirring in Nintendo’s legal team. But they needn’t worry; Shadow Complex is not Super Metroid.

That having been cleared up, the question is how close did it get? Answer: damn close. Closer than probably any game I’ve played since… well, since Super Metroid. Close enough that you can tell the guys who designed it got their ideas from a specific game rather than a vague genre.

Freeform platformers are nothing new. A lot of people like the term Metroidvania (excepting the guy who originally coined it), but really only a subset of these games are inspired by the Metroid/Castlevania design philosophy. By which I really mean the Metroid philosophy, because Castlevania was the first to so closely imitate what Metroid had already done. The design of the map, the idea that new areas are blocked off by your limited skillset, treasure and upgrades hidden in every nook and cranny… these are some of the features that set those two series apart from games like Cave Story, Shantae or Mega Man ZX.

Well, now Shadow Complex stands with them. But much, much closer to the Super Metroid side of the family. It doesn’t associate so much with its crazy uncle Dawn of Sorrow who drinks too much and makes a fool of himself. And the less said about his short-bus-special second cousin Metroid Fusion, the better.

The biggest deviation Shadow Complex takes from its Super Metroid roots is the large focus on combat. In Super Metroid your biggest adversary was the world itself, and if you were focusing a lot of your energy on making something die it’s because you were locked in a boss room. Shadow Complex kind of dilutes that intensity over the entire game; you’re still spending most of your time trying to figure out how to get from one point on your map to another point, but stepping into a room your first concern is going to be “now how do I take out all these guys?” Early on when you have a small amount of health and a sissy little handgun this can be a real challenge. Working in your favor are all the little environmental quirks you can use to dispatch bad guys. If there’s a robot within reach you can shoot it down and kick it at them as a sort of makeshift bomb. Sometimes you can crush them with bits of scenery. Sometimes they’re marching around next to exploding barrels. On many tricky screens a little bit of observation can save you from a prolonged and dangerous gunfight.

Unfortunately combat is also the clumsiest aspect of the game. Aiming has been a problem in Metroid games for as long as there have been Metroid games. Initially Samus could shoot only forward or upwards, leaving her helpless to reach the little insect monsters crawling around on the ground. Later she could aim up and down at an angle, but that uses up two shoulder buttons which could have been used to further streamline all her other abilities. By the time she got to the GBA the d-pad got involved causing movement when you wanted to aim and aiming when you wanted to move.

Shadow Complex’s solution is to use the right thumbstick to aim wherever you want. Which… doesn’t work very well, actually. I’ve never been very good at aiming in games; I always tend to want to carefully line up my shot first (helped along in Shadow Complex by a fairly precise laser sight) which usually leads to me soaking up a lot of damage. I did a lot of this in Shadow Complex. In the scenes where I wasn’t afforded the luxury of time and had to rely more on my instincts I constantly found myself in trouble because I had been shooting a degree or two over some jackass’s head rather than hitting him. That caused a few deaths.

Compounding the problem, enemies often lurk in the background. Shadow Complex is a 2D game, but the game world is 3D. You can only interact with things on your little slice of the Z-axis, but bad guys can be anywhere they want. This causes more problems than I think it solves, largely because it’s difficult to tell what is and isn’t “solid” on the screen. More than once I made a jump to what I thought was a safe platform only to go plummeting through a piece of scenery; more often it was just a pain figuring out where my bullets were going to travel. There’s not a lot of play between “aim at a guy who is 37 degrees above you” and “aim at a guy who is on your level but occupies a place on the screen that looks to be 37 degrees above you”. If you’re right on you’ll hit your mark, but if you’re slighly off your bullets will sail harmlessly across the room in front of whatever you were trying to hit.

Death often comes swiftly. My jaw dropped at how quick my health went down in some firefights. If you go underwater you drown almost immediately. There are quite a few “step in the room and die” moments which have no analogue in Super Metroid. This caught me off-guard but didn’t really bother me since save rooms were so plentiful, but it’s worth noting.

So the combat kind of doesn’t work, and there is a lot of it. I’ve always felt that the challenge in games like this should come from the world, as noted above, and not its inhabitants. I like to approach these games as a puzzle box rather than a gauntlet, so I had no problem playing Shadow Complex on Normal rather than Insane difficulty. In this regard I think the game works really well. You start off with a flashlight which is the functional equivalent of Super Metroid’s X-Ray Scope; shining it around will reveal parts of the environment you can destroy with your various guns and abilities. Closely examining the map reveals where you need to go but often not how to get there; I spent a lot of time looking for areas that needed to be explored more thoroughly and, indeed, this turned up a lot of secret areas and pickups.

The world is fairly large, and there aren’t enough shortcuts. There’s a giant surface area which you can clear one end to the other once you have the mobility, and there’s a straight shot at the bottom the hero even clearly identifies as a shortcut, but anywhere in-between is just you slogging through the map. There seems to be a large variety of paths and interconnections between the various game areas, but this can be misleading as sometimes paths are one-way for whatever reason. There were a couple times I thought I was taking the quickest route to my goal, only to find that the path was blocked from my direction and I was pointed the wrong way entirely. (I especially liked the death laser room. By which I mean, I didn’t like it at all and it made me want to die. And then killed me.)

Setting and story: blah blah blah unimportant. I’ve seen folks mention how “refreshing” it is to play this style of game outside of a sci-fi or gothic setting, but honestly I don’t care. Here’s the plot as I understand it: you are Some Dude, and there is this Big Underground Dungeon. Get to work, fatty.

I believe I wrote more about Shadow Complex this week than I did about Bioshock, which should be some indication of where my priorities lie. Interestingly the two games have something in common: I guessed the plot twist in Shadow Complex too, and for largely the same reason. I figured things were too straightforward, but only one twist made sense. And, well, wouldn’t you know…

So this game was, what… fifteen bucks? I’d have paid thirty. Combat sucks but after some growing pains you have enough armor and firepower to pretty much just mow everything down. There were a lot of spots where I was just downright stumped and had to dig in to that good, creamy part of my brain that holds my somewhat atrophied Metroid Sense. The last boss sequence was very well done (if a little cheesy). I’d get it, if I were you.

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