TWO STEPS FORWARD, THREE JETPACK LEAPS BACK
Shadow Complex is a game whose reputation precedes itself. Heralded as one of the greatest releases on Xbox Live Arcade, it reinvigorated the 2D Platform Adventure genre, which now has a strong presence with titles like Guacamelee and Axiom Verge. It’s been six years since its initial release and a PC port entitled Shadow Complex Remastered is now available. Along with the typical improvements and options that come with the platform, this version also has additional gameplay elements and improved graphics thanks to a new engine. Being a fan of the genre but having never played the original, I jumped in with hopeful expectations, which were both exceeded and severely let down.
Shadow Complex stars Jason, who while backpacking in the wilderness discovers an underground base where his girlfriend Claire has been taken captive. Jason now needs to infiltrate the base and rescue Claire. Despite being tied to Orson Scott Card’s Empire series of books, the plot is predictable, banal, and barely present. Nothing in the story is presented with any real sense of weight and all attempts to develop the characters, and give the player backstory fall flat. For example, the prologue section of the game, which has you play as someone else, is presented without any context. I don’t even know who the guy I play as is, even after having completed the game.
Luckily, the gameplay makes up for the story’s shortcomings. Shadow Complex is a Metroidvania-style game with an emphasis on action. Combat comprises of shooting enemies while utilizing objects and the area around you as a means of attack or cover. Shooting is gratifying, as the free aiming gives you a lot of control over your attacks. Performing headshots and other precise shots is simple even in the chaos of a firefight. Shadow Complex, despite being a 2D game, also allows you to attack enemies in the background. This is done mostly automatically and it works well enough most of time. However, it occasionally fails to work when you try to make more precise shots or are standing too close laterally to the enemy.
In addition to shooting, you will gain equipment and other means of attack as you play in the way of various grenade types and melee takedowns. You can also aim the trajectory of your grenade launches with the free aim, resulting in them being a more flexible option. Melee takedowns are pre-determined animations and are quick and satisfying ways to dispose of one or two enemies quickly. Occasionally, the game will drop you into a turret section, which are brief but adrenaline filled thanks to an impressive switch to a 3D perspective and a multitude of enemies attacking you from numerous angles.
Speaking of enemies, the game features a wide variety of human and mechanical enemies. Guys with mini guns, body-length shields, and grappling hooks, as well as little bomb and spider droids, huge bipedal mechs, and more will stand in your way. The game does a good job of throwing a mixture of these enemies at you at once to keep the combat interesting. Boss fights are especially impressive, as they are huge and uniquely designed. Unfortunately, the AI can be downright stupid at times. Enemies will try to shoot you through the floor, won’t be aggressive enough, and will sometimes blow themselves up. As a result, Shadow Complex is a fairly easy game on normal difficulty.
When you’re not gunning down grunts, you’ll be exploring the base to find secret pathways and hidden items. The game teaches you really quickly to look for vents and hatches to break open and jump and climb into in each room using your flashlight, which highlights places you can destroy as well as with what weapon. Your due diligence is rewarded frequently with various bonuses and experience points that level you up and improve your accuracy, precision, and stamina. This was the most addictive portion of the game for me and I quickly was compelled to fill in each square of the map and find all the items in the world.
The game takes care to make the exploration more natural and not something that’s too overbearing or an uninteresting requirement. The design of the map is such that you cover a lot of ground quickly and the next new section of the map, equipment, boss fight, or story section is not too far away if you want to just blow through the game. However, there are several, but not too many, options for you to go off the beaten path along the way if you’re curious. Unfortunately, the exception to this is the final hour or so of the game, which is padded by having you revisit previously visited areas of the map. This feels unnecessarily tedious, especially with no fast travel feature in the game.
Controls are responsive in Shadow Complex, aside from the platforming feeling a bit floaty. However, they never really felt good to me – even towards the end of the game, I could never find a comfortable configuration of the buttons. I’m glad custom button mappings are an option (aside for aiming and use/melee separately) but I found myself reconfiguring my controls every hour or so. This game has you hold buttons more often than pressing them while simultaneously maneuvering both your character and your aim, which feels restrictive on both gamepad and keyboard and mouse, though the latter benefits more accurate shooting. I managed just fine in the end, but the controls never felt second nature to me.
Story mode clocks in at around five hours long, eight if you get 100% of the items, and it’s possible to do a speed run in under two hours. Despite its short length, the game feels comprehensive enough to not feel like it’s lacking something. Multiple runs are encouraged as levels carry over between playthroughs. Outside of the main campaign, there are short trial missions to accomplish in a mode called Proving Grounds. Those who like to show their skill in the game will find this appealing as there are leaderboards and rankings to earn for achievements and bragging rights. However, I found it completely uninteresting and didn’t bother with it after completing a few of the tutorial and challenge missions.
Presentation is a mixed bag. The game has an unnatural aesthetic with an industrial and technological setting that’s well contrasted with some natural outdoor sections. Sound design complements this further with inorganic beeps and mechanical hums throughout the base, as well as restrained but satisfying gun and grenade effects. The PC version features improved lighting effects and is noticeably brighter but since the character models, textures, and animations haven’t been improved, they are noticeably dated and stiff. Nolan North and Eliza Jane Schneider give good performances as Jason and Claire, but Graham McTavish’s performance as the villain is wooden and way too over the top.
But none of that compares to the issues Shadow Complex Remastered suffers in performance. I was able to play the game in 1080p, and it ran at 30 frames per second most of the time, which is completely playable. That said, there is no reason why I can’t run a six year old game at 60fps with my computer specs (Intel Core i3 2105 CPU, Nvidia GeForce GTX 550 Ti graphics card, and 8GBs of DDR3 Ram). Furthermore, whenever I went into the outdoor areas, the frame rate would drop to below 20fps. All of these problems are still present even when I dropped the graphical settings to their lowest and at 720p. This game was not properly optimized and does not run well on PC.
If that wasn’t enough, there are numerous glitches in the game. Melee takedown animations occasionally won’t line up properly, enemies when killed will fly across the screen for no reason, clip into the environment, or just freak out sometimes thanks to the ragdoll physics, and Jason’s model once locked into one position, not allowing me to turn around, resulting in the gun literally phasing through my body when I aimed in the opposite direction of my body. Finally, the dialogue audio is much louder than the rest of the game’s audio and often peaks and sounds blown out. This is clearly a slapdash PC port and while this version is ultimately playable, a lot of this is just not acceptable.
The Verdict: 6.0 out of 10.0
This is a complicated review for me. Despite control issues, some questionable AI, finicky background shooting, and a padded final hour, the gameplay is stellar. Even the lackluster presentation and story didn’t prevent me from enjoying the game as a whole and I actually really enjoyed my time with Shadow Complex Remastered. However, this PC version suffers from so many technical issues that it makes me rethink my experience with it. This PC port is not the ideal way to play this game. Shadow Complex is great, but Shadow Complex Remastered is not.
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Esteban Cuevas is an Associate Editor for Middle of Nowhere Gaming and knows how to use the friction dampener if you know what I’m saying. You can follow him on Twitter, and check out his other work on WordPress.