Review: Shadow Complex

Jordan Deam | 27 Aug 2009 09:00
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In retrospect, what's most surprising about Shadow Complex is that it's taken this long. That's not a shot at developers Chair and Epic, who have produced a game of almost staggering quality on what is probably a relatively standard development schedule. It's a critique against the game industry's collective assumption that 2-D gameplay became obsolete with the advent of 3-D graphics. Since Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, adventure platformers have pretty much been relegated to mobile developers and indie revivalists; meanwhile, AAA studios have been forced to shoehorn their gameplay concepts into three dimensions in the interest of getting funding. Over a decade later, Shadow Complex proves in no uncertain terms that the industry has some making up to do.

Set in the same universe as Orson Scott Card's 2006 novel Empire, Shadow Complex tells the story of Jason Fleming (voiced by Uncharted's Nolan North), a not-quite ordinary guy who stumbles into a high-tech weapons facility while on a spelunking trip with his girlfriend Claire. As Jason delves deeper into the complex to liberate her from her shadowy captors (see what I did there?), he learns of the organization's plans to incite a civil war and overthrow the U.S. Government. Aided only by his wits - and later, a near indestructible exoskeleton that can effortlessly climb any surface and sprint at Mach 2 - Jason must travel through the compound in search of the group's leader and put a stop to his plans before it's too late.

While it's a notch above standard videogame fare, perhaps the best thing about Shadow Complex's plot is that it knows when to get out of the way. More engrossing than the overarching narrative are the smaller moments, many of which occur in-game rather than resorting to cut scenes: brief exchanges between Jason and Claire, bits of overheard conversation from unwitting soldiers, first encounters with new boss enemies, etc. It takes guts to relegate crucial plot elements to the background, but by trusting players to piece together the story on their own, Chair and Epic have created a 2-D world with more depth than all but the most intricate first-person shooters.

That subtlety extends to the game's visual presentation. While you may be stuck in two dimensions, that game's camera fluidly moves to give you the ideal perspective of both the action and the scenery. It's perhaps the most obvious mark of Epic's guiding hand - with the Gears series, the veteran developer proved that videogames can surpass Hollywood cinematography in audience engagement with the right camera techniques, and in Shadow Complex, they're on full display. In tight corridors, the camera pans in to nudge you even closer to claustrophobia; on the world's surface, it opens up to give you a panoramic look at the (surprisingly scenic) terrain. Unlike many games told from a third-person perspective, Shadow Complex's camera is less a problem to be solved and more of an artistic tool at the developers' disposal.

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