In trying to explain the inspiration behind The Legend of Zelda, game designer Shigeru Miyamoto recalled a childhood spent wandering the Japanese countryside looking for caves and hidden spaces. This hits on something essential and true about the appeal of video games: they give players not just an opportunity to visit new worlds but the satisfaction of discovering them. Shadow Complex, a sidescrolling action-adventure for Xbox Live Arcade, understands this. It begins with a man and a woman setting out, like the young Miyamoto, to explore a cave in the woods.
In games, a cave is never just a cave, and it takes only moments to discover that this one conceals a military installation of staggering size. The hero, Jason Fleming, enters the complex after thugs in white armor kidnap his girlfriend and drag her underground. We learn in flashback that Jason has extensive combat training but is reluctant to put his skills to use. His reluctance lasts about five seconds, after which his aw-shucks exterior falls away to reveal a genocidal prowess unmatched by anyone since John Rambo. He pummels enemy soldiers, swats away bullets like mosquitoes, and leaps dozens of feet in the air.
Like its stated influences, Super Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, Shadow Complex is more about exploration than action. There's plenty of cannon fodder, for sure, and frequent boss battles against lumbering robots. And the aiming system is nice — given a bit of auto-assist, you can shoot in 360 degrees with the right analog stick.
Another innovation is the periodic use of 2.5-D gameplay. Although Jason can move in only two dimensions, the game world is rendered in three, and enemies often attack from deep in the screen. It's a fresh approach to combat in a game of this type. Still, on default difficulty, your enemies pose no real challenge. Which is as it should be, because they exist only to give you an opportunity to play with your toys.
The complex is packed with experimental technology that Jason acquires in the course of his explorations. He picks up deadlier weapons, plus armor upgrades to jump higher, run faster, and breathe underwater. These are helpful for killing enemies; they're even better for accessing new areas. Almost every room contains access points that are blocked off until you acquire a key item; green obstructions can be cleared only with grenades, whereas red ones will need to be blasted with missiles. Often you'll be tempted by a glowing upgrade nestled beyond reach in a corner of the screen, knowing you'll have to double back later.
There's not much to say about the paper-thin plot, but I should mention that Shadow Complex takes place in the world of Orson Scott Card's Empire series of books, a bizarre critique of the dangers of liberal political thought. Its antagonists are part of a left-wing organization called the Progressive Restoration whose aim is to overthrow the government and, it would seem, institute a policy of mandatory gay marriage and strict recycling laws. There isn't a whiff of this in the game, or of Card's notoriously anti-gay beliefs, apart from the identification of the terrorists' primary target as San Francisco.
All the same, the connection has caused some gamers to question whether they want to buy something that will put money into Card's pocket. That's a choice for the individual to make. If, on the other hand, you want to signal your support for great games, then buying Shadow Complex would be a really smart move.