Gears of War developer Epic Games is releasing its first Xbox Live Arcade title next month. Surprisingly, Shadow Complex is a very modern reimagining of the classic Metroidvania formula.
Metroidvania? That's a conjunction of Metroid and Castlevania, the 8/16-bit exemplars of the exploration-based platformer. Metroidvania games let you explore a huge, sprawling 2D world, finding new power-ups and unlocking abilities that enable you to open or reach previously inaccessible areas. Backtracking is a key feature, with plenty of secrets awaiting the player who takes the time to revisit earlier areas with his new powers.
Shadow Complex leverages this formula with a near-future setting loaded with Clancy-esque industrial/political conspiracy. Intrigued, I sat down to play through the first hour of the game, and here's what happened:
00:00 - Right let's go! 00:01 - Oh wait, let me select the difficulty first. Uh... Normal, I guess? It's the second of four options. Apparently this means "You play games and are ready for Shadow Complex". Hey, that's right! I do play games and, boy, am I ready for this one. 00:02 - Opening cut-scene shows some combat-armoured dudes in a shoot-out with some men-in-black dudes on the streets of Washington DC. A bald space marine dude appears out of nowhere and the game starts, with me controlling him. I take a few moments to experiment with the controls. 00:04 - OK, so yes, this is a 2D side-scrolling playfield. Left-stick moves me, right-stick aims my gun. I press A to jump and clamber up an exterior fire escape. I jump to another fire escape and grab the ledge before hauling myself up. The walkway extends into the background around the corner of the building, but I can't move that way. Yep, this is a 2D game. 00:06 - I run out of an alley and into street, shooting the combat-armoured dudes. Moving into the background is a no-no, but shooting isn't. There's a guy on a balcony down the street, so I just aim at him and my round fires into the screen, taking him down. All combat-armoured guys are dead. 00:08 - Although you aim with the right-stick, your accuracy assisted by a red targeting laser, it seems that once you hit an enemy a subtle lock-on kicks in. This means you can keep moving while maintaining a bead on a target without having to keep adjusting your aim. Of course, if you nudge the right-stick onto a different enemy, you'll target him instead. 00:09 - Now there's a black chopper at the far end of the street. And it's launching missiles at me. This isn't good. Holding left-trigger, I crouch behind some cover, popping up in between each missile volley to empty a full clip into the gunship. Eventually it goes down in a flaming heap. 00:10 - Cut-scene suggests I've been duped by someone at the Pentagon and the US vice-president is now dead. Think I might have been meant to save him. Not sure. Oh well.
00:11 - Cinematic transitions to the woods around Washington where Nathan Drake and his girlfriend are camping near some caves. I'm now controlling Nathan Drake, wisecracks and all. 00:13 - Following my girlfriend into the caves, I realise I'm no longer in possession of the previous protagonist's firearm. Instead I have a torch. Still, it illuminates the dark tunnels to impressive effect and the way the light makes the waterfalls glisten is rather lovely. 00:15 - I seem to be lost. Can't find my girlfriend, but I have found her backpack. I crack wise again. Backpack grants me ability to climb, ie. I can now grab ledges and haul myself up. (Wait, the other could do this without a backpack. I want the other guy back!) 00:16 - Stumble upon a locked metal door, seemingly the entrance to some underground facility. Drop down hole near it because there's nowhere else to go. Hole soon closes over by what I realise is a retractable bridge. 00:17 - Oh look, there's my girlfriend. She's being manhandled by a group of bounty hunters (well, they appear to be wearing Boba Fett's helmet) across the bridge and into the facility. Once they're inside, bridge retracts and I can climb out of hole. 00:18 - Looks like they forgot to lock the door. I'm in!
00:21 - Inside the base, I run past a security camera, through a supply room with shelves stacked with what appear to be medikits, and find a computer terminal that conveniently adds a portion of the facility's map to my journal. The map will be familiar to anyone who's played a Metroid or Castlevania game, with its grid layout delineating rooms with thick white lines and sectors by slabs of colour. Looks like I need to head to the Interrogation Room, the route to which the map helpfully plots with a blue line. 00:24 - Nearly there now. I've walked through a bunch more grey metal rooms full of crates. Some rooms have corridors branching away from you or doors on the walls in the background, none of which you can interact with because - as I've said, but feel I should reiterate - this is a 2D game. The inclusion of such environmental details creates an awkward variation of the uncanny valley: by adding illusory depth to the world, Shadow Complex doesn't convince you of its realism, it makes you wonder why it isn't more realistic. It feels weird and I keep having to suppress the urge to push up to walk into these tantalising glimpses of a world where a Z-axis exists. I guess I'll get used to it. 00:26 - Shuffling my way in the courch position through some ventilation shafts now. My torch keeps highlighting vents with a golden glow, but I can't do open them. Spotted a health powerup in a room I couldn't reach. Must remember to come back later. 00:29 - Reach the monitoring station outside the Interrogation Room and watch my girlfriend protest her ignorance under highly physical duress. The guards give up and mention taking her to the helipad for further questioning.
00:32 - Another cut-scene - a black-and-white flashback this time - shows Nathan Drake's family has a military background and hints at his unseen father's overbearing expectations for his son. Is his father involved in the earlier incident with the vice-president? Perhaps. 00:35 - Oh look there's a handgun on this desk. Cheers! 00:37 - Spend the next few minutes exploring now that my gun allows me to shoot open vents. I return to where I earlier spotted that health powerup and collect it, adding a percentage to my overall health meter. I jump down from a vent into a large room, the camera pulling right back to squeeze the entire area onto the screen. From my platform above I'm able to kill one of the bounty hunter dudes patrolling below. Another is alerted and begins firing my way. I jump to a lower platform as his shots cross the path of a security bot, destroying it with some convenient friendly fire. I leap down to the ground and crouch behind a crate before popping up and blasting him away. I move on a find another computer terminal with another segment of the map for me to download.
00:41 - I'm earning experience points the whole time, from exploring, from finding objects and from killing enemies. Right now I'm at Level-3 and have seen my Accuracy, Precision and Stamina stats each receive a +1 bonus. I'm not entirely sure what they all do, but they all sound positive so let's hope I get some +2s soon. 00:43 - I find another supply room, once again stocked full of medikits. The autosave kicks in as I enter and I notice the room is marked with a star on the map. Drawing upon all my years as a gamer, I deduce these rooms act as save points. I know games. 00:46 - I catch a lift down a few floors, heading deeper underground, and emerge in a large water-filled cavern. The bounty hunter dude ahead hasn't spotted me yet, so I sneak up behind him and - thanks to the tutorial prompt - hit him with my trusty melee attack. The camera zooms in here to show off the neck-snapping up close, making it clear - if it wasn't already - that you're definitely not playing Metroid. 00:48 - There's nowhere else to go except in the water. I swim across the lake. On the other side is a locked door. Hmm. Ah, but I can jump up there and shimmy through there and, yes, here's a ladder. Another bounty hunter and security droid. I shoot the droid first, then let its explosive deathroes take out the dude.
00:51 - Reach a fork in the road. One way there's a door, the other a crawlway blocked by a boulder. My secret-discerning flashlight tells me I'll need a grenade to clear the boulder, so I head for the door instead. A quick check of the map reveals some unexplored areas below the lake I crossed earlier. Huh. Wonder if later I'll find an ability that lets me swim underwater... 00:53 - Pressing on, dispatching a few more dudes and droids, I find my way into a locked storage room via a hole in its ceiling. Well, what do you know? A box of grenades. I crouch near the locked door, place a grenade then hide at the rear of the room. Storage room door is now unlocked. 00:55 - Boss Fight! Anyone who watched the E3 demo will have seen this creature, a giant robotic spider. I duck behind a crate while it fires off its attack. Then I lob a grenade underneath to exploit its vulnerable belly. Eeeek! It lunges at me, crashing through the storage room door, but I manage to drop another grenade on its weakspot. A couple of grenades later and it's a burning pile of rubble. 00:58 - Having completed what I now realise was one lengthy tutorial, a pop-up informs me that before I proceed I can go back to the previous sector and find a whole bunch more pick-ups. Sound advice. I'll do that now. 00:60 - Time's up!
So, the big question is… Do I want to keep playing beyond the first hour?
I'm a sucker for this type of game and count Super Metroid, Metroid Prime and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night as some of my all-time favourites. I'm an explorer at heart and I dig any game that lets me poke around and see where things lead rather than funnelling me down a one-way street. At the end of my hour with Shadow Complex I could feel a sense of something bigger, a world just ripe for exploration. The fairly linear tutorial stage had concluded and I'm about to let off the leash... and backtrack to find more gear.
If I have any reservations, they're purely personal preference. Last Friday I described my initial impression of Shadow Complex existing "in an alternate universe where it was Nathan Drake, not Samus Aran, who encountered the Space Pirates" and an hour's play has done little to invalidate that comparison. Drake's wisecracking, everyman heroics don't do a lot for me, nor does the Tom Clancy style setting with its sinister political organisations and men-in-black and secret high-tech military bases. I guess I'd just rather be Samus, alone on a distant planet and awed by the remnants of an ancient alien civilisation. But that's me.
Overall though, yes, I'm definitely inclined to play well beyond the first hour.
Are you excited about Shadow Complex? What makes a Metroidvania game so special for you? And what are your favourites?