For many games, the term "Metroid clone" would be something that developers want to avoid. After all, the Metroid franchise is one of the most highly regarded in gaming history, and it's tough to live up to such high expectations. Shadow Complex, on the other hand, embraces the "Metroid clone" wholeheartedly. Every aspect of the game is inspired in some way by Samus Aran. One of the in-game achievements is even called "Jason Bailey," a reference to the infamous "Justin Bailey" code for the original Metroid. In some ways, the game feels like a lost spin-off instead of its own franchise. The end result is a game that is Metroid through and through, although we're missing the vampiric space jellyfish. Considering we haven't seen a new 2-D Metroid since the GBA's Metroid Fusion, the concept of more Metroid-style gameplay, even without Samus Aran, is deeply welcome.
Shadow Complex is set in the universe of Orson Scott Card's "Empire" novel series, but except for a few mentions of events that occur within the novel, the game stands on its own. Shadow Complex stars Jason Fleming, a rather normal young man who is out on a spelunking expedition with a new girlfriend. While spelunking, they come across a mysterious paramilitary organization's hidden base, where a hidden army is launching a plot to take over the United States. Jason's girlfriend is promptly caught and since Jason is an upstanding fellow, he tries to rescue her. Along the way, he encounters the Omega Suit, a special prototype power armor that grants him the ability to take on the mysterious organization's strongest troops. Before long, he'll have to use the suit's powers to save America from the organization's deadly plans. Shadow Complex follows the Metroid idea of storytelling. Its cut scenes are few and far between, and are mostly ignorable. The plot is paper-thin. Almost nothing interesting happens throughout the game as Jason takes on cardboard villains with poorly explained goals. The title attempts to toss in a few twists and turns, but most of them are so predictable that I wasn't even aware they were supposed to be twists until the game told me so. Fortunately, the strength of Shadow Complex isn't in its story line but its gameplay.
There are two basic ways to play Shadow Complex. The first is more clearly based on Metroid Fusion instead of Super Metroid. The player has a bright blue line that guides him through the complex, taking him from location to location until he's completed the story. You can deviate from the line to find the various power-ups and hidden items scattered throughout the game, but you'll mostly be following a linear story line. The alternate choice is to turn off the line and try to find your own way around. This is a lot more like the Super Metroid-style gameplay, where you have to figure out exactly where you're going and what you're doing. There are a number of possible paths through the game, and they're determined by how well you use your inventory.
"Sequence breaking" is a term for a popular game within the game in Metroid titles, where players are encouraged to use all of their hidden abilities to discover ways to access areas that they normally can't. Metroid Fusion even hides a hidden message in the game for players who are exceptionally skilled at this. Shadow Complex, like Metroid, is built around the concept of sequence breaking. You can finish the game and find everything in roughly seven hours or so your first time through the game. The real fun is discovering exactly how to use Jason's abilities and weapons in ways that the game never asks you to do during a regular play-through. If you find hidden paths or use Jason's abilities in clever ways, you can skip entire sections of the game. To give you an idea, the minimum number of items you need to complete the game is only 4% out of 100%. Players who seek to earn all of the game's Achievements will actually have to play the title multiple times, trying to find new methods of sequence breaking and new ways past obstacles.
Shadow Complex is mostly a game about exploration, and there is a lot of exploring to be done in the mysterious underground base. As the game progresses, you'll gain more abilities that allow you to access new areas. As mentioned above, not all of them are necessary, but most of them are a blast. It's great fun to travel between areas with a grappling hook or run Sonic the Hedgehog-style across a lake using a super-speed power. If you're the kind of gamer who enjoys exploring, there's a ton here for you. Those who don't will find that they can get through the entire game without venturing off the beaten path, but they'll be missing a good amount of the game's fun and adventure.
With that said, there are a few annoying bits involved with exploring. Despite being made up of grids, the game's map doesn't seem to be divided up evenly enough to let you know that you're in exactly the right area. Trying to find a hidden item can be annoying when the game shows that you're in the right square, but the actual location involves a long, backtracking loop to get to the other side of that square. It's also annoying to try to squeeze into vents that are positioned overhead. They seem too small to easily jump into, and it may take two or three attempts for what should be an easy task. Fortunately, these nagging problems do little to take away from the overall fun of finding your way around the complex.
Along the way, you'll encounter a number of enemies who are assigned to guard the base. If there is one area where the game may be lacking, it is in enemy variety. Most of your foes can be boiled down to "guy with gun" or "guy with missile launcher." They're not terrible, but they're a little bland, especially when compared to Metroid's large variety of foes. There are a few interesting enemies, such as tiny robots that crawl around the floors and walls and can be used as makeshift bombs. Fortunately, you're given a fairly wide variety of weapons to take out enemies, which does a good job of decreasing the tedium of combat.
Early on, combat is all about hiding behind boxes, while occasionally popping out to launch a grenade or send a burst of gunfire at the enemies. As you become more powerful, you get more enjoyable ways to take down enemies. You can send them flying with a missile, freeze them solid with sticky foam, or even leap down from high and crush them with a ground pound. You also have access to a melee attack, which can be performed on most enemies if you get close enough. Press the B button, and you instantly kill the enemy. Early on, this is a bit of a stealth move. You can sneak up behind enemies and dispatch them, instead of having to fight them. Later on, it becomes a lot more powerful, as you can march through gunfire to deck enemies with your Omega Suit's fist and send them flying.
Shadow Complex has an interesting difficulty curve. When you start out, your character can barely sustain damage and you're better off sneaking past foes instead of shooting them. As the game progresses, you get more powerful, and by the time you've reached the end of the game, you're an absolute powerhouse. You have weapons with infinite ammo that can eliminate most foes in one or two shots, you have enough health bars so death is almost impossible, and you even gain the ability to become completely invincible as long as you're standing still or moving slowly. Like Super Metroid, the game gets easier, not harder, as it goes along, and by the end, it'll take a nuclear explosion to kill your character.
The exception is if you're going for a low-percentage run because avoiding all but the most required power-ups completely changes the nature of the game. Instead of becoming increasingly more powerful, you'll find yourself in increasingly worse situations, with almost no ammo and no way to advance. Survival becomes a matter of sneaking around enemies and using your melee attacks a lot more often. In a way, the game becomes only as difficult as you make it, mirroring Metroid once again. The only time the combat in Shadow Complex stops being fun is right around when the boss battles start because most of the boss battles are rather boring. The only time they're particularly exciting is when you're going for the low percentage Achievement and you have to figure out how to damage them in the most efficient ways with limited weaponry. Otherwise, most of the fights involve spamming grenades as quickly as possible. This is one aspect of the title where it feels like the developers focused too much on the low-percentage gameplay, leaving the bosses unsatisfying for completionists.
Shadow Complex is a 2.5-D style game, and it takes full advantage of that. While most of your time is spent in 2-D, there are lots of neat graphical tricks that give the game some depth. Sometimes this can be annoying, as it can be tough to tell whether a platform is one that you can land on or is in the background. For the most part, it gives the game a very unique look and helps keep the Metroid feel. Perhaps the only real visual problem is that most of the art design is really uninteresting. While it makes sense for an underground military bunker to look bland and uniform, that doesn't really change the fact that a lot of areas are basically indistinguishable from one another. There are some attempts to keep things fresh with lighting, but it means that you're exploring a faintly yellowish cave instead of a faintly reddish cave. This isn't helped by the endless swarm of nearly identical enemies who populate the place, keeping almost every area feeling similar. To be fair, there are a few standout areas that are memorable and interesting, but the game really lacks the variety of its Metroid inspirations. There were also a few annoying graphical glitches to be found, mostly revolving around Jason's head in cut scenes. At least one cut scene showed his hair as bright white and purple because I had found a helmet earlier in the game, but the cut scene was trying to render him with it off. The game has really solid audio design, and the voice acting is quite good, if slightly cheesy.
From the power-ups to the level design, Shadow Complex is a love letter to Super Metroid. The result is a game that is a heck of a lot of fun, although it would be unfair comparing it to Super Metroid. The only areas where the game really fails are where it strays from the Metroid formula, such as lackluster boss fights or bland art design. Everything else is a total blast. The abilities and powers are easy to use and fun to collect. Those who enjoy a challenge will spend hours trying to find the perfect way to get through the toughest areas with minimal equipment, while those who prefer overwhelming their foes will have a great time as a powered-up armored superman. Shadow Complex is fun, in exactly the same way that a well-designed Metroid game is fun, and I can't pay it any higher praise than that.
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