Shadow Complex - 87% Release Date: August 19th, 2009 Review Date: August 2nd, 2010 Developer: Chair Entertainment, Epic Games Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios Platform(s): Xbox Live Arcade Completed: Yes
Based on the novel “Empire” by Orson Scott Card, Shadow Complex is an Xbox Live Arcade game that takes vintage side-scrolling gameplay and juxtaposes it within a 3D environment—refreshingly simple, yet beautiful to witness. After stumbling upon a gigantic underground military complex while backpacking deep within the forest, your girlfriend is abruptly taken by unidentified soldiers. Now it’s your responsibility to rescue her. As if that weren’t enough, you eventually infer that this organization, termed the Progressive Restoration, is planning a nuclear attack on San Francisco. Naturally, you take it upon yourself to thwart the launches.
The gameplay is very reminiscent of Super Metroid (SNES), in that you can backtrack, take alternate paths, and discover hidden weapon and equipment power-ups (even a Bionic Commando-esqu claw arm). There is an in-game map that provides a suggested path to your next objective, but it’s just that: a suggestion. Your weapons will change throughout the game, but are essentially relegated to automatic machine guns and grenades. Color-coding on the map let’s you know which grenades will be effective in which areas, and firearms are continually replaced as you discover stronger firepower. Let’s just say this game rewards exploration! You can use auto-aim, or do so manually (I thought auto-aim was almost too good).
The Unreal Engine 3 from Epic provides the horsepower for the clean and crisp graphics mentioned earlier. While most sections of the game take place in a detailed yet nondescript underground base, a few are above-ground and look fantastic, including a placid lake. The sound effects are limited in scope, but relevant and clear.
Biological enemies are limited to weak A.I. soldier variants, but are nicely complimented by some gigantic, albeit easy, bosses. Throw-in some slow turrets and you’ve got a good cross-section of what you’ll be facing in this game. Very few puzzles means the action rarely hiccups.
Experience points are earned as you progress, which work to improve your basic abilities. To give you an idea of exactly how much exploration can take place, I completed the game with a final experience level of 10—out of 50! Just in case this game isn’t up your alley, a premature, alternate ending is made available whereby you can escape the base and abandon your girlfriend (thus forfeiting your “Boyfriend of the Year” award). You are then shown driving away in a Jeep, saying to yourself, “Ah, plenty of fish in the sea.” I finished the entire game in five hours, 40 minutes, so either way it’s not a huge time commitment.
Bottom-line: Take a walk down memory lane with this beautifully done modern nod to classic gaming. At $15 on the Xbox Live Arcade, Shadow Complex is a can’t miss title for subscribers.
Limbo - 85% Release Date: July 21st, 2010 Review Date: August 5th, 2010 Developer: Playdead Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios Platform(s): Xbox Live Arcade Completed: Yes
This enigmatic platformer begins in a morose, forlorn forest where a young boy awakens from sleeping on the ground. If you’re wondering why, or what the game’s premise may be, your guess is as good as mine because no mention of a plot, or objective, is ever made. The gameplay is undeniably simple—you can run left or right, jump, pull levers, push crates, and climb ladders, all in an effort to solve environmental puzzles—lots of puzzles. The riddles are generally intuitive, and always logical—I sought help online for two of them (the one with a ladder on rails, and then the final puzzle), so the complexity is not on par with Braid.
The atmosphere is one of hopelessness, isolation, and the unknown. This is brilliantly accentuated by stylish graphics that are entirely greyscale in nature, with virtually no musical score—just ambient sound effects that fade into the darkness—the rumble of rolling boulders, the squeaking of rusty mine cart wheels, and the sound of impending doom as water floods a room. It looks and sounds unlike any game I’ve ever played, and in a good way.
Enemies are sparse and comprised of small humans and even a few gargantuan, aggressive spiders, one of which you dispatch by pulling its legs off! The death sequences (and they will be frequent) are mildly disturbing and reliably gruesome. This is in part due to the notion that the protagonist is, after all, just a kid. Note: a gore filter is available for gamers who have a weak stomach. There were a few times when my wife, sitting nearby, said it was making her uneasy.
It took a little over five hours for me to finish Limbo—culminating in an ending that, well, you've got to see. I'd love to elaborate on what I thought of it, but it would be tough not to give away too much. It left room for a lot of interpretation.
Bottom-line: In Catholic theology, Limbo is a term referencing the edge of Hell. While this game is undoubtedly dark, it’s saturated with an originality that sets it miles apart from the flood of recent Xbox Live Arcade games, and is well worth the $15 price tag.