It’s not often an Xbox Live Arcade game is released that garners such huge acclaim that it could probably have made it as a stand alone release. Enter Shadow Complex, a new platform-adventure title developed by Chair Entertainment. For us big lezzie gamers though, Shadow Complex also puts us in a quandary given it is based on the works of one Orson Scott Card, this review will also cover this quandary as well as – we hope – being a fair evaluation of the game as a stand alone piece of digital entertainment.
Shadow Complex is essentially an old style side scrolling platformer wrapped up in new graphics with a cool story. Rather than going full 3D the developers of Shadow Complex opted for what’s known as 2.5D, that is to say, the world itself is in 3D, but the player character only ever moves in two dimensions (up, down, left, right with no depth field). There is something magical about modern games utilizing this older styled technique and when it’s executed well, as it is here, it can be a gamers dream.
The story of Shadow Complex is loosely based on the workings of Orson Scott Card (Oh don’t worry, we cover this point further in), with his book Empire stated as the basis. After a small level introducing the story in which the Vice President of the United States is killed, you take over the character of Jason Fleming (who looks suspiciously like Nathan Drake from Uncharted and is voiced by Nolan North who also voices Nathan Drake). Jason is out on a first date with new love Claire and ends up on a rescue mission (to save her of course as to do it the other way around would tear a hole in the very fabric of space time and consume the Earth). This is the start of the story and we’ll press it no further so as to remain spoiler free, suffice to say, it’s good… very good.
Gameplay is old school. To say this title ‘borrows’ from various old school gaming classics is really downplaying the significance games like Super Metroid, Castlevania or Impossible Mission (Amiga version) have had here (amongst others). Simplicity on the surface is only a façade as the simple button presses for shoot, jump, swim etc may seem easy, but these are added to by the overwhelming size and scope of the Shadow Complex you must map and explore. Completist’s will be in their element as new areas open later on in the game when new – more powerful – weapons and skills for our hero Fleming are gained.
As far as gay content goes Shadow Complex throws up questions of separating the artist from the art. According to Cliff Bleszinski (one of the big names behind the game and most famous for Gears of War) it is based on the Orson Scott Card novel Empire. Card as you may be aware has some extremely strong homophobic views including same sex marriage as a “potentially devastating social experiment”. Card himself states he isn’t homophobic, despite also suggesting that laws against homosexual behavior should remain on the books. This year (2009) Card joined the board of directors of the National Organization for Marriage.
The complexity of the issue of art and artist is a tough one. To ignore the significance of Shadow Complex as a stand alone piece of digital entertainment that manages to recapture and in many ways recreate the 2.5D video game would be criminal. Given Card’s book Empire is the basis for the game however, this means gamers purchasing the title are essentially lining the pockets of a man who would just as soon see their personal rights stripped away based purely on their sexuality, and herein lay the quandary for the gay and lesbian gamer.
Female characters are few and far between in Shadow Complex, though there is the usual damsel in distress syndrome, as our male hero Jason Fleming searches the Shadow Complex for ‘new love’ Claire. Hardly surprising is it, one day we’re sure some developer will shock the living hell out of us female gamers and reverse this trend. For a game that on the one hand gleefully re-imagines a genre, with regard to female character discourse, Shadow Complex is mired by sexist notions of hero and weak maiden. Needless to say there are no big queers in Shadow Complex, if there were and the game remained true to Cards alleged beliefs they’d probably be undergoing behavioral electro therapy somewhere deep within the complex.
The old skool / new skool fusion is superlative and Shadow Complex stands out – as a game in itself, political issues aside – as not only the best XBLA game so far released, but also as a re-imagining of a whole genre. Epic Games and Chair Entertainment should be patting themselves heartily on the back for bringing life back to this much loved genre. Older gamers will relish the retro charm of this title, whilst younger gamers will be drawn into to the simple yet depth filled wonder of those old skool classics. Regarding the issue of Card’s involvement, the purchase of Shadow Complex should be a personal decision and will be – we would imagine – based on the ability to separate art from artist.
U-Haul Review Status:
If you enjoy those old school 2D titles with maps to explore, limited movement and huge sprawling environments Shadow Complex won’t disappoint. It’s just a shame such a wonderful game is linked to such an allegedly hate filled homophobe like Orson Scott Card. That truly is the only thing that tarnishes this title from being anything other than superlative.
Our L Word rating for this title is Henry getting with Tine. When Henry got with Tina it was a marriage made in hell based on ill conceived reasoning. On the one hand there was Tina a much loved character and on the other her link to Henry made us all growl with disappointment due to the political implications that story had.