etrospective: shadow complex
PublisheR Microsoft Game Studios / Developer Chair Entertainment, Epic Games / Format Xbox 360, Xbox One (Remastered)
As a date isolated from historical events, 2009 doesn’t seem so very long ago. Why, it’s this side of the millennium, even this side of the noughties, and now we’re only… ah. Of course. We’re now on the brink of the 2020s, and I barely noticed that another decade’s gone by. But games are a great way to gauge the passage of time, and when you compare what they were like in 2009 to today, suddenly that temporal blur starts taking on shape. Shadow
Complex is, in one way, very much a 2009 game, however it also laid the (non-linear) path for Metroidvania games to make their big comeback.
Shadow Complex was radical, adopting a Metroidvania framework when the genre was non-existent on home consoles. This was a time when publishers and developers were battling to entrench big-budget blockbuster franchises for the seventh console generation. In 2009, we were introduced to the Batman: Arkham, Dragon Age and Borderlands series.
“Our intent with Shadow
Complex was to take the nonlinear side scroller genre of such beloved games as Super Metroid and
Castlevania: SOTN, and to deliver a new experience with modern graphics and design sensibilities,” explains Donald Mustard, Epic Games’ worldwide creative director when we speak to him about Shadow Complex. “We thought it was a genre that had been abandoned by the advent of 3D graphics and the FPS and action games that followed.”
Amidst the chaos, Epic Games found itself in a cosy position, having already established the first big IP of the entire generation in Gears Of
War, and enjoying excellent early sales of Unreal Tournament 3. The company had the luxury to experiment a little, and in 2008 acquired Chair Entertainment, a small indie developer that owned the rights to Orson Scott Card’s The Empire Duet. Shadow Complex, set in the Empire universe of conspiracies, right-wing paranoia and civil war, was already underway when Epic acquired Chair. The game was made in Unreal Engine 3 and penned by comic book legend Peter David ( The Incredible Hulk, Spider-Man 2099).
Not that Peter David had all that much to write. For a game with such a strong literary heritage, Shadow
Complex is thin on story. It casts you as ordinary hunk Jason Flemming, who goes hiking with his girlfriend Claire in the Olympic Mountains, then stumbles upon a secret underground base where an army of henchmen and mechs is preparing to take over the world; like Metal Gear Solid without the confused plot and eccentric bosses. Claire gets kidnapped, and Jason goes in search of her, though their relationship only goes as deep as sporadic cutscenes where the couple quip one-liners at each other before Claire gets kidnapped again. Sorry Jason, your princess is in another chrome box room. It’s silly stuff, right up to that bizarre ending where Claire turns out to be an NSA agent who tricked Jason into saving the world. His response? To shake his head in mild annoyance, shrug, then obediently follow his fake girlfriend onto the escape chopper. There’s a nice self-awareness to the dialogue and goofy machismo, just don’t expect the authorial touch of Mr David to shine through.
But then Shadow Complex isn’t really about the story; it’s a selfdeclared homage to Super Metroid, albeit layered with the stylistic and design trappings of the time. So you get wonderful abilities such as wall-jumping, grappling hooks and supersonic sprinting, but you also do a lot of cover-shooting and melee instakills. The game world is a vast, non-linear grid filled with sneaky vents
and secret rooms, yet it’s also a cold, generic-metallic environment of greys and browns, and there’s always a big red arrow pointing you exactly where you need to go.
It’s fascinating seeing this tension, as Metroidvania design collides with mechanics and conveniences from the ‘serious shooter’ era. It makes you wonder, had Shadow Complex come out just a few years later, with the indie revolution in full swing and grey-brown shooters losing their influence, would it have included these mechanics? Would it even have been made in a 3D engine? That’s not to say that Shadow
Complex feels particularly dated today. It’s a fluid, responsive platformer, creating plenty of moments where you can string together your arsenal of abilities to spectacular effect; you can hang off a ledge and use your hook to shoot a sniper in a high position, before ground-stomping the two men beneath you and super-sprinting across the room to send the final chap ragdolling into the abyss, for example.
Shades of Metroid
The joys of such perfectly executed actions still hold up, and it’s a testament to the abilities at your disposal that you’re virtually unrestricted in how you tackle a room full of goons. No angle of approach or gravity-defying move feels off-limits, yet some skill and planning is required for it all to come off. When you enter a room, it pays to hunker down behind cover, plan a series of actions – sprint, melee, grapple, shoot, drop melee – then execute them. Shadow Complex is not quite as mindless and brazenly guns-a-blazing as all those explosive trailers would have had you believe.
For all its allusions to contemporary action games, Shadow Complex is also sincere in its reverence to Super
Metroid. This was no mistake, as Mustard tells us. “A few months before
SC came out we had the opportunity to show an early build to Ken Lobb,” he explains. “Ken is a Partner Creative Director at Microsoft, but earlier in his career was one of the key team members at Nintendo who worked on Super Metroid. We spent a whole day together playing through the game, and Ken gave us incredible tips and feedback based on lessons learned on SM. The best part was that he shared two very specific ‘secret sauce Metroid design insights’ that blew our minds! We returned home and immediately incorporated them into the game.“Not only are the two structurally similar, Shadow Complex also gives the player the tools to do a bit of good old-fashioned Metroid sequence-breaking. I recently gushed in OXM about
Prey’s GLOO Cannon, and how it demonstrated the developers’ confidence in their own world design. Well, the Foam Gun in Shadow
Complex is its spiritual predecessor, letting you shoot clusters of globules to create bridges, climb to otherwise unreachable areas, and freeze enemies. Arkane’s system designer Seth Shain even lauded the Foam Gun in the past, admitting that it was more robust than the GLOO Cannon, which didn’t allow you to attach clusters to other clusters due to technical issues it caused for the engine.
Shadow Complex has a curious sense of momentum, too. Yes, it is satisfying to accrue new powers for lughead Jason, but until you had quite a few of them to play with (the triplejumping Thrust Boots spring to mind), it doesn’t
“It’s a testament to the abilities at your disposal that you’re virtually unrestricted in how you tackle a room full of goons”
feel like you are playing the game as it should be played.
Of course, the steady buildup of your character’s abilities is classic Metroidvania stuff, but ideally you’d want to have a good chunk of playtime when you’re fully powered. By the time
Shadow Complex reaches terminal velocity and you’re a gravity-defying supertrooper, the game abruptly ends. During its seven-hour length, you probably spend about one hour with all the game’s mechanics at your disposal, while for the first three hours you’re a bit short on the fun stuff. By the end you’re left wanting more, or rather wishing that more came sooner.
But it would be remiss to hold too much against Shadow Complex for its less harmonious elements, or to compare it to the standard of the best Metroidvania games today. This is a game without much to look to in the way of inspiration. It’s a Metroidvania that arrived at a time when sidescrollers were considered something that people had stopped playing two console generations ago.
With its mech-lab environment of conveyor belts, steel walkways and experimental tech, it feels apt to call
Shadow Complex a prototype for the new wave of Metroidvania titles. Even if subsequent games in the genre didn’t exactly follow its shooterinfluenced blueprint, you could very easily make the case that its success reignited interest in Metroidvania among both gamers and publishers, and let to the genre’s revival.
For years, Nintendo and Konami confined the 2D Metroid and
Castlevania series to handheld platforms, wary of committing resources to a genre that always attracted more critical than commercial success. Xbox Live Arcade opened the industry up to indie developers and their passion projects, but in the four-odd years between the launch of the Xbox 360 and Shadow Complex, there were no new and noteworthy Metroidvanias on XBLA. “When we began designing SC, games were still very much stuck in the old traditional retail model of $60 boxed games and publishers unable to take on much innovation and potential risk,” muses Mustard. What was needed was a Shadow
Complex – a digitally distributed game made by a small team (nine people), yet with the financial and marketing support of Microsoft behind it, and the experience of Epic, who always had a knack for understanding the zeitgeist. It felt like an indie, yet really it was in a more privileged position, from which it propagated the idea that Metroidvania can grab the attention of a modern gaming audience.
“The design lessons we learned making SC formed the core philosophy of design that we now apply to all of our games – everything from Infinity
Blade to Fornite,” says Mustard. “Plus, it encouraged other game designers to consider the larger potential for downloadable games”
Looking at Shadow Complex today, it looks rather murky next to the bold, super-stylised titles that champion modern Metroidvanias, weighed down as it was by the prescribed formula for how a successful game should look in 2009. Look past the aesthetic, ignore the story, and for a couple of hours in the buildup to the game’s climax, you’ll experience a weird, scintillating cocktail of fizzing all-out action and Metroidvania design that’s quite unlike anything else out there.
Above Jason Flemming, your regular noughties dude with a longsleeved shirt under his tee. It was all the rage back then.
above If a hiker wearing a rucksack can take down your giant mechs, you may want to reconsider using them in your plan to take over the world.
Top We’re not sure that helmet is really giving Jason the best head protection.
Above There are plenty of explosive highlights in this Metroidvania revival.