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Investigation: Shadow Complex

There are times when I play a game for my personal enjoyment. Then there are times when I play a game to investigate an issue. Sometimes the issue involves seeing if the hype or the positive reception for a game is justified. Other times, I study how games tackle specific design obstacles like motion controls or difficulty design. The great part about having an objective, critical approach to analyzing a game is that I can separate my biases from my research. In fact, when I'm apprehensive about a game I'm investigating, I tend to let a lot of things slide until I can reflect upon the game as a whole. 

With that said, I went out of my way to play Shadow Complex, an addition to the sparely populated metroidvania genre. Many reviewers and consumers loved the game. I have been under the opposite opinion. And as strange as it may seem, I really don't care about my opinion on Shadow Complex. And if you must know, I don't really think your opinion alone is worth considering either. I'm much more interested in being able to very precisely describe what Shadow Complex is and what it does.  

It's Metroid season this winter break. With the recent release of Other M, I've been studying these games. The metroidvania genre is one that I have a firm grasp on. So when the internet claimed that Shadow Complex evolved the genre, I had to see for myself. 

So if a Metroid game consists of these qualities...

  • 2D side scrolling platforming 
  • emphasis on exploration
  • combat with enemies/bosses
  • progression locked behind powerups

...then evolving the genre might including features such as...


Though I haven't finished Shadow Complex yet, I've encountered a lot of problems with this game. Some of these issues may be resolved as I get better at or complete the game. But I'm confident most won't.

  • Bad Controls/Mechanics: The floaty-jerky way that Jason moves around is irksome. Still, it's functional. I have more of an issue with the slippery walking, collision with walls, and the terrible aiming system. Aiming into the background is very awkward and difficult. There were many simple encounters in the game that I couldn't overcome smoothly because I couldn't' get Jason to aim properly. In essence, the 3D auto aiming is like Other M's, but the team didn't go far enough to make it intuitive or smooth. 
  • Really Cheesy Story: Not tongue-in-cheek enough for me, the story came across as too cheesy. The dialog and acting (voice/animation) land in an awkward and uninteresting middle ground. The developers aimed for minimalist storytelling like Super Metroid as opposed to Metroid Fusion's "intercalary" dialog/cutscenes. They obviously failed at this. Cutscenes were sprinkled throughout my experience. 
  • Lame Set Pieces: Shadow Complex doesn't do a good job of presenting solid mechanics and crafting challenges around the primary mechanics (the core). Instead of more traditional platforming and combat challenges, the encounters are too heavily focused on set pieces. In this case, the set pieces are not extensions of the core gameplay. They're new/shoehorned encounters with new rules that are poorly communicated. Examples: The first spider boss you kill with grenades. The first railgun challenge.  
  • Nice graphical style but... the 2.5D presentation clutters and obscures some of the interactive elements. There are a few times when this is used well to hide secrets, though. Also, too much of the action takes place off screen. The first spider mech boss (WSA2 Tarantula IFV) moves forward and backwards so quickly that getting close enough to see what's going on can easily put you into dangerous positions. The MegaManZero series features bosses and enemies that are similarly obscured off screen, but Zero has higher maneuverability and attacks are generally much slower. Getting shot off screen with bullets is acceptable in a FPS, not so much in a 2D side scroller. 
  • To make things worse, Shadow Complex loads up more than one room at a time to create very smooth transitions. The down side is enemies outside the room you're in are still active. Sometimes you can shoot them preemptively. Other times, you can be shot when you think you're safe. The worst is when you're just moving from room to room and you can run headlong into a guard that opens fire on you immediately. 
  • Bad Animations: Not a big deal overall, but the right stick aiming animation, jump animation, and all the cutscene animations are pretty poor. The large machines move well. 
  • Great Ideas From Other Genre: Adding features from 3rd person shooters like Gears of War is a great way to innovate the combat design. (Taking and firing from cover. Right analog stick aiming. Physics based grenade bounces. Assassination take down attacks.) Unfortunately, the shooter based combat additions create new pitfalls that are foreign to the metroidvania genre.
  • Design Issues Guns Create: In Metroid, Castlevania, and even MegaManZero enemy projectiles (bullets) travel slowly so players can react and dodge them. Shadow Complex features more realistic ballistics, and because of this...
    • Enemies that can aim and fire at you from off screen are more deadly and frustrating.
    • It's harder to tell when you hit enemies when they don't flinch.
    • It's harder to tell exactly how much damage (or how many hits) a target can take when firing automatic weapons
    • Missed shots are harder to discern.
    • When your character isn't stunned from shots, you can take a lot of damage stuck in an animation (ie. when ladder climbing). And with little to no invincibility after getting hit, the core interaction of combat is greatly stressed. 
  • Saving is Terrible: Auto saving is a convention that's more akin to shooters than metroidvanias. If you walk into a save room, the game automatically saves no matter if you're low on health or ammo. This is alleviated somewhat with health/ammo packs. But there's still only one save file per game. And when you consider that it's possible to fall through the geometry of the floor and fly past a save room that will automatically save, things get a bit more complicated.  


If I didn't go out of my way to take a closer look at Shadow Complex, I wouldn't be able to express exactly why the game falls far short of greatness. Still, Shadow Complex attempts to innovate in the metroidvania genre with new 3rd person shooter-like combat elements and a blue line to guide you to your next destination. I'll keep these things in mind for future projects. Stay tuned for those.


I'd rather play awesome games than disappointments. And I'd rather have a game I'm skeptical about turn out to be amazing. I see no point is pretending bad games are great. Going hands on to form my own options/analysis is the only way I can truly understand a game. Even after going hands on, I've been known to be pretty critical of games. N+ is just one example of many that I have been less than trilled with. It's been years since I've been in contact with the developers of N+. At the time, I couldn't fully express my thoughts on N+. So with Super Meat Boy coming out soon on the Wii, I picked up a copy of N+ to re-investigate the game and possibly post an update about it.

It's all about learning.

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Reader Comments (5)

Nice list of Metroid qualities. :P As you know, I've been writing a bit about these games lately, so you wrote this article at a great time. Shadow Complex is a title I hadn't considered.

"The developers aimed for minimalist storytelling like Super Metroid as opposed to Metroid Fusion's "intercalary" dialog/cutscenes. They obviously failed at this. Cutscenes were sprinkled throughout my experience."

Is this something you inferred from the game or did the developers actually say this at some point. I remember that they talked about Super Metroid as an inspiration, but do you know if they mentioned this specifically or not?

This guiding blue line intrigues me. The Metroid games don't really need aids like this as they lead the player by interaction markers and mechanics. For example, I see a morph ball slot, but can't enter it. Later, once I get the morph ball ability,I remember exactly where it is I have to go next--that morph ball slot! This type of player stringing is communicated through the language of interactivity which makes it so wholly effective (while also fooling the player into thinking they are so smart). Metroid games are just constructions of these strings mechanisms. Using a guide like the one you mention suggests that the designers of Shadow Complex cannot lead the player forward in such a naturalistic way.

November 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel Primed

Ah this was finally great to be able to fully "get" one of your articles as for once you talk about a game I've actually played! I'm glad to see you found many of the same problems I did with this very uninspired title. I still cannot understand the mainsteam adoration of it - it seems to be purely based on graphics. I only differ from your opinions slightly in that I really liked the feel of the motion of your character - you describe it as floaty-jerky. I really liked the level of momentum and 'weight' it had.

November 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRik Newman (Remy77077)

@ Daniel Primed

I read something on wikipedia about the developer intent for a minimalist story. I also remember them referencing Super Metroid as a heavy inspiration on videos before the game came out.

I wasn't sure whether to credit you or sharkey on the metroidvania bullet points. Do you think these 4 points are common enough knowledge?

I like some of the animations of Jason and some of the mechanics. I think when they don't line up perfectly I noticed a big difference. Like.. the way he jumps makes it difficult to jump around and hit targets like you can in Metroid/Mega Man games. This isn't so big of a deal. The developers probably wanted players to walk/climb around on the ground and play more like a 3rd person shooter.

I like the running jump and the quick crawl movement.

Thanks for the comments all.

November 28, 2010 | Registered CommenterRichard Terrell (KirbyKid)

...then evolving the genre might including features such as...

making the experience less map dependent
new powerup locks
pure organic level design (feature suspension and decay dynamics)
more rougelike elements (permadeath/randomization/unique items)
multiplayer co-op, counter-op, co-ounter-op (shared screen, still working together even when separated)
new features for adjustable difficulty
new combat mechanics/dynamics

OMG you just decribe a 2d Minecraft, you should check this game (paid version wuth survival mode)

November 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterNeoshaman

They're common knowledge, I'd say.

November 30, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel Primed

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