Shadow Complex starts as a cautionary tale against spelunking, with everyman Jason Fleming quickly finding himself in a shadowy paramilitary lair to seek out a kidnapped girlfriend who clumsily wandered ahead. The complex's inhabitants, a high-tech band of mercenaries working for something called the Restoration, consider her a spy, convinced she's there to throw a spanner in the works of their malevolent, nefarious plans to do something ambiguously massive and undeniably evil. The moral of our story? Don't go down weird looking holes. What follows is five hours of unashamed homage to industry darlings Super Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night.
But we live the 3D era, and whilst Jason is fixed to a 2D plane his enemies are more than happy to jaunt around in their spacious extra dimension. This means you need to aim the right stick into the screen before pushing the right trigger to fire, but such perspective trickery often instigates deceptively fiddly aiming scenarios, especially on the extremely punishing higher difficulties. Combat is initially quite simplistic, with poppy pistol shots more than sufficient to take out lowly guards. It gets more exciting when you unlock more intricate weaponry, and when the lowly guards are replaced by the devious likes of guard with shield and guard with black suit and grappling hook.
On top of that you also have the mechanical monstrosities that form the game's boss monsters: quadrupedal mechs with more than a passing resemblance to spiders, bipedal walkers with miniguns and a giant, hugely impractical spinning wheel. It's sad, though, that these hulking behemoths, whilst hardly deficient in a sense of the grandiose, lack menace. Their weak spots are painfully obvious, and lack of threat is their fatal flaw.
Before long you've stumbled upon the ultimate prize: a series of cybernetic contraptions that cement Jason's transformation from everyday American to bona fide super soldier. He can triple-jump, fling missiles, stomp the ground, fire a grappling hook, run at super-sonic speed and, ultimately, absorb all damage when moving slowly. Even melee attacks hit with so much force that enemies fly off the screen. At the end of the game, Jason's enemies plunge to their deaths in abundant waves, completely unable to function as even a minor hindrance. The complex, which once seemed like a sprawling, enormous maze of tunnels, now feels too small to contain someone with Jason's new-found powers.
Exploring the ominous base is Shadow Complex at its best. A functional map is only ever a button press away, and like the game's ancestry the areas are stitched together by a series of square tiles. The map points out what areas contain a power-up, but they're almost always hidden within the geography. There's a definite thrill to the exploration, and players seeking to obtain all of the buried treasure will find plenty of instances that leave them momentarily dumbfounded. Woven as it is from the excellent threads left by Metroid and Castlevania, the sinister base is riddled with plenty of temporary obstacles: locked doors, stacks of crates and masses of vents block your traversal of the environment.
The answer is never as simple as locating a key, but always comes from acquiring another item of fancy weaponry or learning a new high-tech trick. Shine your flashlight on an obstacle and it'll glimmer in a particular colour: red obstructions need to be blown open with missiles, green blockages can be torn apart with grenades and purple contraptions need to be jammed up with foam. To help, Chair have graciously drawn an (optional) blue line to point you in the right direction. For that reason, you're never quite as lost within the militia complex as you were in Dracula's gothic labyrinth or on the planet Zebes.
Jason levels up as you play, with a maximum level cap of 50. Rewards from hitting a new level are commonly a small boost to your stamina and accuracy, but upon reaching higher milestones the treats go as far as awarding infinite ammo for your special weapons. Seeing these more lavish rewards in your first playthrough of the game is unlikely, however, but even such a simple design feature ensures Shadow Complex has enough momentum to continually push the player forwards.
And after the end credits scroll, Shadow Complex effectively ekes you into having another go straight away. This is partially due to its diminutive length but also because of crafty design; collect enough of a certain hidden item, for instance, and you'll unlock golden weapons at the start of your next game. Achievements encourage you to see the game to completion multiple times, with awards for obtaining the bare minimum and absolute maximum of available items. The game is further extended by the inclusion of a series of VR challenges that are refreshing in their accessibility, with harder scenarios proving themselves taxing without becoming insurmountably overwhelming. Gamers with sub-superhuman reflexes stand a good chance of completing them all, albeit with an unspectacular bronze medal.
The script and storyline are functional, but slightly underwhelming. Comic book veteran Peter David handles the writing, and Jason's voice work is done by voice acting superstar Nolan North, whose extensive vocal prowess sounds exactly the same as it did in Uncharted and Prince of Persia. Much of the narrative is explained in fragments as Jason overhears mercenaries having conversations, a nice touch that helps highlight Jason's position as an outsider who has stumbled into a conspiracy: you never get a firm picture of what the Restoration actually is, outside of a few loose ideals and a list of potential targets.
Of course, you can't talk about Shadow Complex for more than 100 words without a mention of Metroid. But the truth is that Nintendo's much-loved series was left to die in the 16-bit era, with nothing but a couple of unremarkable handheld sequels to satiate eager fans. Chair have picked up the discarded baton, and are now competently running with it. As an 835mb download, it's a bold step away from Microsoft's original policy of sub-50mb creative nuggets, but it's a prime example of what can now be achieved by using the Xbox's digital channels.
With competent combat, thrilling exploration and the inherent joy of becoming a world-conquering super soldier, Shadow Complex is a triumph. The journey might be short, but it's one of the sweetest you'll have all year.