Tag Archive: Metroidvania

Where’s your head at?

There was a period when the metroidvania was a forgotten category of game, with few developers wanting to take on projects in the vein of two of gaming’s more classic franchises. But times have changed, and with the rise of indies and small teams following through on big ideas, the genre has seen a resurgence in recent years—to the point where we’re getting multiple games in the category a month. So, I was tasked with looking at my second metroidvania of July in as many weeks when a game called Headlander rolled into my office. The genre doesn’t get old for me, though, especially when the game is done well—and Headlander is proof of a metroidvania done well.


In a far off future, humanity as we know it is extinct. In a bid to live forever, people have transferred their personalities into robots, and anytime something happens to their metallic body, their personality is simply shifted to another bot. But Methuselah, the computer program tasked with maintaining this process, has taken things a step further. Methuselah suppresses people’s personalities with special chips, making humanity trapped in a prison of its own design. So, what happens when a lone human head, still feeling and made of flesh, wakes up in a self-sustaining thruster-propelled space helmet? It becomes the Headlander, and must find out why humanity fell so far while trying to fix this haywire program once and for all.

Developed by Double Fine, Headlander carries all the trademark humor and insanity their games are known for. Starting with the visual design, I imagine Headlander is what would happen if Tim Burton decided to make a retro-futuristic film in the 1970s. Neon lights, groovy dancing robots, and twisted security bots with laser beams called “Shepherds” flood many of the rooms you’ll explore on your outer space journey. Even the sideburns on the Headlander—unless you choose the female head—made me flash back several times to Logan’s Run.


The real joy in Headlander comes from its gameplay. Set up as a side-scrolling shooter, the Headlander’s greatest ability is that he can use a small suction device on his helmet to remove the head of any given robot and screw himself onto the remaining body to move through the world. Citizen robots have access to general areas, but removing the heads of a rainbow-assortment of Shepherd security bots (thus taking them over) provides offense with their respective laser cannons, along with access to different parts of the world depending on their color. Red robots can only access red rooms, but purple robots can access all rooms because of where they sit on the color spectrum. You can also detach your head at any given moment to access air ducts or hidden passageways, sometimes finding power-ups, other times finding recordings that fill in holes of the story, and the Headlander’s missing memory.

Finding the right robot body to advance past the world’s various traps, puzzles, and locked doors plays right into the best parts of most metroidvanias: the exploration. Backtracking with new robots or the Headlander’s floating dome (after some upgrades) to get new power-ups or complete the game’s handful of side quests allows you to both become familiar with the game’s world, and bolster that sense of accomplishment when you clear an area of every secret. One of my favorite moments came when a side quest had me take over the body of a robot dog, having to work my way back to its owner without any of the special abilities that come from humanoid robot bodies. Moments like those highlight some of the Double Fine humor we’ve come to expect, and some of the interesting challenges the game posed on a regular basis.


Of course, as fun as exploring the world in Headlander is, and how ingenious a lot of the puzzles are, it does become a bit stale after a while. Part of this, I think, is because even though the Headlander has a massive upgrades tree with four separate paths that you can max out by game’s end, you’ll rarely find yourself ever needing to do more than the mechanic given to you at the beginning of the game—popping robot heads off bodies and putting your own in their place. Some upgrades for the Headlander’s helmet do come in handy later—and are even required to collect all the items in the game—but when it comes to combat, really all you ever need is to just jump onto a Shepherd’s body and start blasting away with its laser. And, considering you won’t die if the robot body dies, evading laser fire via cover or rolling (I’d say jumping, too, but oddly enough you can’t do that in the game) you can just snatch another body and continue to mow down Methuselah’s mindless minions.

Headlander is a prime example of the greatness that can come from metroidvanias done right. It’s zany setting, retro-futuristic design, and tight gameplay come together in a nice package that should please all fans of the genre. It might lack the replayability of some games after you one-hundred percent it, and the gameplay can get a tad tiresome when you start approaching the endgame about six to eight hours in, but Headlander is a great summer pick-up if you love exploration or old-school side-scrolling shooters. Just don’t lose your head over it.


Developer: Double Fine Productions • Publisher: Adult Swim Games • ESRB: T – Teen • Release Date: 07.26.16
Headlander is a great metroidvania whose retro-future style, humorous story, and tremendous exploration come together in one of the summer’s most complete experiences.
The Good Clever puzzles, tons of exploration, and a retro-future world that is nothing short of groovy.
The Bad Lots of powers, but not much need for them.
The Ugly The Headlander’s sideburns don’t belong in any decade.
Headlander is available on PS4 and PC. Primary version reviewed was for PS4. Review code was provided by Adult Swim Games for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of 1 to 10, with a 5.0 being average.

Not much lies hidden beneath the waves

At this point in my gaming career, I’m more surprised when Insomniac Games doesn’t try something different. Whether it’s the over-the-top mayhem of Sunset Overdrive, the creepy atmosphere of VR games like Edge of Nowhere, taking on superhero projects like the new Spider-Man game, or just the insane weaponry in almost every other game they’ve made over the years, Insomniac is one studio that is never afraid to take risks. Unfortunately, not all of those risks turn into great games, and that happens to be the case with the latest step outside their comfort zone, a metroidvania called Song of the Deep.

Song of the Deep follows a little girl named Merryn whose fisherman father has been lost at sea. After having a vision of her father still being alive but trapped beneath the murky waters, Merryn realizes she’s the only one who can save him. She gets to work putting together the most rickety submarine you’ve ever seen, and unable to be deterred, Merryn plunges beneath the waves.

The story is a short but sweet one, and the need to help a loved one is an easily-relatable plight, lowering the bar of entry for anyone worried about playing as a 12-year-old girl—a definite step away from the norm in terms of gaming protagonists. Dynamic narration helps us get inside Merryn’s head by timely chiming in to help flesh out both the world and her thought process when she comes across points of interest or complex puzzles. Pace-slowing cutscenes are saved for only the most important of plot points, such as meeting key new characters. It all adds up to make our unlikely heroine a stronger character than you might expect.


The world beneath the waves that Merryn discovers is in many ways as charming as the story itself. Ancient ruins, lost cities, mammoth caverns, and ship graveyards are rendered in bright, contrasting color schemes that make it seem as if you’re playing through a painting, and every locations tells a narrative all its own.

Song of the Deep’s beauty is only skin-deep, though. While swimming along the bottom of the beautiful, briny sea, you’ll quickly realize the world in Song of the Deep is much smaller than you’d expect from most metroidvanias. This torpedoes much of the exploration that typically comes in a game like that, and when you need new items to reach inaccessible areas, they’re often very close by. It felt like the game was forcing me through it as quick as can be, making this adventure come off as unusually linear. I never felt compelled to go back and explore areas I had already been to on my own, only ever backtracking during a couple of plot-related fetch quests. This led Song of the Deep to be one of the shortest metroidvanias I’ve ever played; even with collecting most of the items, my first playthrough barely clocked in at the five-hour mark.

I might have been able to forgive the scale of Song of the Deep if the gameplay inside that small world was the least bit interesting. That is not the case, however, as even in only a five-hour experience, I couldn’t have been more bored. In regards to the dangers Merryn will face under the sea, most of the enemies fall into one of four categories: jellyfish, urchins, anglerfish, or crustaceans. As you play, you’ll constantly run into them with only varying color schemes offering up any differentiation within species. The swim and shoot combat with these aquatic denizens quickly grew stale, and it wasn’t long before fighting enemies became a chore altogether. At a certain point, I came to prefer swimming quickly through an area to try to reach the next puzzle than bother fighting them. Even the game’s two bosses—yes, there are only two bosses in the entire game—were pushovers, only made slightly difficult by them flooding the screen with smaller enemies.


The other major gameplay aspect of Song of the Deep is traversing its underwater world. While it was an interesting change being able to freely move in all directions in the submarine, it also felt slow and plodding most of the time unless I was boosting. I upgraded the sub’s boost speed first and foremost whenever I could, and even then I felt like I was often crawling along. This becomes especially evident with some barriers, where you’ll have to drag bombs to blow up otherwise impassible gateways. It took me forever to get the idea of the underwater physics right, trying to cruise along at the right speed to slingshot bombs with the sub’s grappling hook, and often blowing myself up instead.

Not all of the game’s puzzles or barriers deal with weird physics, however. In fact, the light-based puzzles in the game, where Merryn must leave the sub (made possible by another conveniently placed upgrade) and move mirrors to reflect different colors of light around several rooms were a lot of fun to figure out, while also providing an adequate challenge. If the game had more of those puzzles, I might’ve enjoyed myself more on the whole.

Song of the Deep is a very basic, paint-by-numbers metroidvania. It’s got some puzzles, combat, upgrades, and a tiny bit of backtracking, but it doesn’t do any of them particularly well. Where the game does shine at least is its endearing story and colorful world. If you’re desperately looking for a metroidvania fix, Song of the Deep might suffice, but there are so many better ones out there that should be played first that I’d only recommend it after exhausting all other options.


Developer: Insomniac Games • Publisher: Insomniac Games, GameTrust • ESRB: E – Everyone • Release Date: 07.12.16
Song of the Deep isn’t a bad metroidvania; it’s just very basic. It doesn’t do anything particularly well, outside of maybe its endearing story, but it isn’t absolutely unplayable either.
The Good A nice story and some clever puzzles.
The Bad Repetitive enemies, lack of challenge, underwater gameplay needs refinement.
The Ugly Proof that it’s not better down where it’s wetter.
Song of the Deep is available on Xbox One, PS4, and PC. Primary version reviewed was for Xbox One. Review code was provided by Insomniac Games for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of 1 to 10, with a 5.0 being average.


Day of the dead

The hardest part of reviewing Severed wasn’t adjusting to its unique touch screen combat, or the old-school room-by-room adventure game movements you have to make. It was finding my damn PS Vita in the first place, and then locating its charger because the battery had run out long ago. You see, Severed is the first game I’ve played for the Vita in 15 months. It’s a system that suffers from a lack of original, non-JRPG software. But the folks over at DrinkBox Studios—who also produced the last original game I played on the Vita, Guacamelee!—continue to impress, showing the potential the handheld always had if others had simply kept with it.

Severed is a dungeon crawler that sees players take on the role of Sasha, a girl whose life has been ruined by unexplained circumstances. Along with losing her family, she has lost her right arm, and is now drifting through a sort of Limbo-like world. A mysterious force, however, grants her a sword, a chance at escape, and possibly redemption—if she can unite her family in this mystical realm and conquer her demons made manifest.


Much like Guacamelee!, Severed touts a colorful, abstract art style that permeates the game world from its environments to its characters, but instead of seeing it from a side-scrolling perspective, this game is set in the first-person. The bright colors interestingly enough act in direct contrast to the game’s dark tones and macabre enemy design, giving off a vibe that should leave you just uncomfortable enough to always be on your toes—but not so much that you’ll ever want to stop playing as you hunt for Sasha’s family.

That said, the game really only scratches the surface of its deeper themes of life and death, leaving a lot open for interpretation about the beginning and end of Sasha’s story—and the various characters she meets—than some might like. Part of this is undoubtedly due to the game’s short length; it only took me five hours to complete the story’s three temples and find about 70% of the game’s hidden items/power-ups. Short as it may be, though, Sasha’s adventure through a pseudo-underworld should leave you wanting more, and that’s not really a terrible thing.

Even though Severed is played in the first-person, your control over Sasha’s movement is limited. You can spin Sasha in full 360 degrees when she enters a room to look for items and switches against the walls, but she always remains in the center of the room and can only truly move in the four cardinal directions (north, south, east, west) if there is an open door. While this limited control might not sound appealing, it actually makes it easier to remember where to backtrack to (along with the game’s map, of course), participate in combat, and allows you to better focus on the puzzles presented to you.


The puzzles have a Legend of Zelda feel to them, particularly in the game’s three temples, which make up the bulk of the game. In them, you’ll be required to find hidden switches, the missing pieces of broken keys, or alternate paths to get items past magical barriers that won’t allow you through with said item in your possession. This extra wrinkle to the exploration that comprises most of Severed’s gameplay helped keep me interested when outside of combat.

Combat is really where Severed tries something new, and it acts as both its shining star and its greatest hindrance at times. Players must swipe their finger vigorously across the Vita’s touchscreen to symbolize Sasha slashing her sword. Regular attacks are used in conjunction with special powers that freeze enemies, rage moves that increase Sasha’s offensive power, or charge attacks. You’ll also fill up a focus meter while in combat, which allows Sasha to perform brutal finishers that have her lop off enemy body parts before finishing them for good. Collecting these body parts is critical to the game’s upgrade system, which our heroine can use to strengthen the different powers she will come across during the game.


Besides trying to get more body parts for upgrades, fighting enemies is never a dull moment because you’ll face an ever-changing hodgepodge of characters with different strengths and weaknesses. This means your tactics will have to change as fluidly as the foes you face, keeping you moving and your strategy changing from battle to battle. As you progress through Severed, though, battles will become more frantic. As many as four enemies can attack at once, while Sasha can only attack one enemy at a time. Complicating things further, she can only parry—not block—incoming attacks, meaning timing and bouncing between enemies becomes critical to your strategy. While this provides an extremely involving and fun balancing metagame to combat, it can feel like things start to fall apart when the touchscreen itself fails you. There were many times where, in trying to keep up with the speed of what the game required from me to make it through each battle (especially late in the game), the touchscreen would often misinterpret my swipes, or my haste would lead to the inevitable human error more frequently.

This aspect only becomes more heightened in the game’s three major boss battles, each one larger and more epic than the last. You’ll be swiping so frantically you might burn a hole through your Vita if you’re not careful as you’ll be parrying attacks from every angle and using every new trick you come across in order to overcome the monstrous guardians found in Severed. Each one serves as a fitting culmination, however, to each of the story’s major acts.

Severed is a perfectly capable dungeon crawler. It’s gorgeous visuals will draw you to it like a moth to flame, but its combat—an idea perfect for touchscreens—is what will keep you going, even if it becomes occasionally frustrating. There may be few great reasons to dust off your PS Vita nowadays, but Severed definitely appears to be one of them.


Developer: DrinkBox Studios • Publisher: DrinkBox Studios • ESRB: T – Teen • Release Date: 04.26.16
DrinkBox Studios pushes the boundaries on the Vita’s unique hardware once again. Although from a technical perspective it occasionally lets them down, Severed’s unique combat system and beautiful art style carry the day on what is a fun, if not short-lived, dungeon crawler.
The Good Beautifully designed world filled with creative puzzles and fantastical creatures.
The Bad Swiping the touch screen can be inaccurate at times, especially in more frantic battles.
The Ugly Beatable on one decent length plane ride, and the people sitting next to you on said plane don’t take “I’m fighting a dragon” as a valid excuse as to why you keep accidentally elbowing them.
Severed is a PS Vita exclusive. Review code was provided by DrinkBox Studios for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of 1 to 10, with a 5.0 being average.


Usually when people think of Insomniac Games, over-the-top action and insane weapons are the first thoughts that come to mind. In a creative field like video games, though, patterns are meant to be broken and comfort zones are meant to be stepped outside of—and that’s what’s being done by a fifteen-person team within Insomniac. This small group of staffers is hard at work on Song of the Deep, a side-scrolling metroidvania-style passion project that definitely moves away from what some may consider the studio’s bread and butter. I was recently able to play about 30 minutes of the game, and you’d think Insomniac had always been working within that genre.

Song of the Deep follows 12-year-old Merryn, a young girl whose fisherman father has been lost at sea. When Merryn has a vision seeing her father trapped on the sea floor, she decides the only way to save her dad is to find him herself. So, she puts together a makeshift submarine and sets off to explore the murky depths. What she soon realizes, however, is that all the old bedtime stories her father used to tell her about the sea might actually be true, and only by navigating various hazards will she ever be able to bring him home.

Dropped into the middle of Merryn’s adventure, I began by trying out the variety of tools and weapons that her sub has to help it navigate its surroundings. A grappling hook can be used to tether the sub to craggy surfaces in strong currents, pull and carry objects around a level when solving puzzles, or even to try to punch enemies. The sub also featured sonar with pulses that can stun certain enemies, a turbo booster which can really crank up the engines on the sub, and lasers and torpedoes to either defend yourself with or destroy crumbling walls for entry into submerged ruins.

Speaking of ruins, as I explored the world around me, I began to realize that some of the story was being told via the vibrant environments I was navigating. Large tendrils of seaweed acted as window dressing on larger set pieces, but also at times visually obscured hidden pathways. Intricately-carved stone, long lost to time, had eerily been preserved in the deepest recesses of the ocean. Unknown clockwork technology still operated when Merryn interacted with it, opening up new wonders to explore. Song of the Deep is nothing short of beautiful when it came to providing a visually captivating experience.


As I began to make headway during my hands-on time, I soon came across my first upgrade. It was a special suit that Merryn can wear in order to freely exit the sub. Being much smaller than the sub, the suit allows her to explore tiny crevasses and pathways that lead to special items or solutions to different puzzles. It basically serves the purpose of Samus’ morph ball from Metroid, but Merryn is far more vulnerable in this mode than Samus ever was, leaving Song of the Deep’s heroine open to far more danger.

And danger is something Song of the Deep is fraught with. Being underwater, Merryn and her sub provide a unique twist to other games in the same genre in that there is no platforming. Being submerged, you can always move in every direction as long as there isn’t a wall or other obstacle in your path barring progress. This means bottomless pits or spike traps aren’t on Merryn’s list of concerns, but in their place, Insomniac needed other ways to provide challenge along the adventure.

One way of doing this is to fill each level with hostile wildlife, with jellyfish, urchins, and other sea creatures trying to turn you into dinner if you’re not careful. Another way of upping the difficulty is with puzzles. Navigating labyrinthine corridors with jet stream currents trying to toss you to and fro, using your grappling hook to throw items through narrow openings in order to open up ancient, rusted gates, or working steampunk-like machinery to reflect light at different sensors were just some of the head-scratchers I came across in my time with the game. Although not impossible to overcome, they definitely added a welcome challenge to the adventure.

Although my time with Song of the Deep was short, its appeal is evident. Whether a longtime fan of metroidvanias, or just looking for another endearing digital story to experience, the team at Insomniac is showing their pedigree reaches far past extraordinary weaponry and mind-blowing action. Song of the Deep should be a game to keep an eye out for when it releases sometime before the end of the first half of 2016 on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC.



Out of the Shadow

Shadow Complex was sort of a game out of time when it released back on the Xbox 360 via Xbox Live Arcade in 2009. A side-scrolling action-adventure reminiscent of metroidvanias from years past, Shadow Complex put players in control of Jason Flemming, an ordinary man put in extraordinary circumstances.

When Jason’s girlfriend goes missing while they’re camping in the wilderness, he has to track her down. What he finds instead is a secret military installation run by an anarchist group called the Progressive Restoration that wants to overthrow the government en route to world domination. As he explores the facility, Jason will use a variety of super-powered armaments he finds inside to save his girl and possibly the world.

Now, with a remastered edition of the game on its way for Xbox One, PS4, and PC almost seven years after the release of the original, we sat down with ChAIR Entertainment co-founder and creative director Donald Mustard to discuss why now was the time to bring Shadow Complex back to gamers.


EGM: Why bring Shadow Complex to current gen, and why do it now specifically?

Donald Mustard: It’s always been one of our goals at ChAIR to bring Shadow Complex to as wide of an audience as possible. When we first finished Shadow Complex, we started working on and moving on to a sequel, but then the opportunity to make a game with Apple for their budding game platform presented itself to us. And we thought that would be a really great use of Unreal Engine technology and so we paused development on Shadow Complex 2 and started work on this iOS thing that ended up becoming Infinity Blade, which then became this huge thing and that we didn’t anticipate happening.

Then led to some sequels and once we finished work on Infinity Blade III, we started work on this new original IP with J.J. Abrams that we announced a few weeks ago called Spyjinx. But while doing that, enough stuff kind of finally aligned where we had the time and resources and could take the original Shadow Complex and it get it converted over to our most recent code base and get it prepped in a way that we could bring it to PC, Xbox One, and PS4 and man, I’m so excited. I’ve been wanting this to happen forever. I know it’s taken a while, but this was literally the first opportunity that we could do it, and so we did it.


EGM: Originally Shadow Complex was an Xbox 360 exclusive. Was it difficult to bring Remastered to current gen consoles and PC?

DM: Well, we have a couple of awesome things going for us. One is being part of Epic Games and we use Unreal Engine technology, which is super-versatile and is already very good at cross-platform performance. So, it’s been a relatively painless process to take the original Shadow Complex code and bring it up to date with our current version of Unreal Engine. And we’ve had a great partner in Hardsuit Labs that has helped us in doing that.

So we got everything moved over code-wise, and then luckily when we first developed Shadow Complex, we authored all of the art and textures at a higher resolution, and then turned and scaled down the textures and art to fit what the Xbox 360 could do. But modern consoles are a lot faster now, PCs are a lot faster now, and that allowed us to go back into the original source art and use it at its highest resolution settings, which is awesome because now all the art is in its original authored state. And everything looks amazing while still playing super-tight. So it hasn’t been that crazy of a process. Lots of work to make sure everything still looks and plays well, but it’s ready and we’re excited.


EGM: The original game ran on Unreal Engine 3. Is Remastered still running on Unreal 3 or did you switch over to Unreal 4?

DM: No, Remastered is running on Unreal 3 still, but it’s interesting because the engine has evolved a lot over the years. Unreal Engine 3 from 2009 is very different from Unreal Engine 3 in 2015. In fact, a lot of current gen games still use Unreal 3, like Batman: Arkham Knight. And there’s a lot of really awesome stuff we’ve done engine-wise. What we did do was move the entire code base to our most current version of Unreal 3.


EGM: You mentioned earlier that you had to “pause” production on Shadow Complex 2. If Remastered does well enough, do you think you’ll start production back up on the sequel?

DM: That’s certainly a distinct possibility. One of the reasons why I’ve been so excited to bring Shadow Complex to a wider audience is for the express purpose to open the door and pave the way for more opportunities to do more in the Shadow Complex universe. We loved working with Peter David so much and writing the game with us. He’s always been one of my favorite comic book writers and we loved working with him and he wrote the first game. So one of the first things we did for pre-production on the sequel was for him to write a script for that sequel. So we’ve got this really awesome Peter David script for the sequel along with some other things. I mean, we’ve got some really awesome stuff that we’d love to do if there’s interest. So yeah, our hope is that if people are interested and they love the game and they want more of it across multiple platforms that this will open the path for us to do more. Nothing would make me happier.


EGM: So, what new things can we expect from Shadow Complex Remastered besides the improved upon graphics?

DM: One of the things when we sat down and said we were going to do this was that it was very important to us that we keep the core gameplay experience as close to the original as possible because it is such a beloved game. People really loved Shadow Complex and we love Shadow Complex. So while we were willing to allow ourselves to turn up the resolution and put in some of the original high-res art, we very deliberately didn’t change any of the core gameplay. The game is the original game in terms of how it feels and how it plays and the layout of the world and where all the power-ups are and what they do. That said, we did allow a few little things, a few tweaks here or there and a few little things we’ve hidden for people to find.

And we allowed one other cool thing. Early on in the development of Shadow Complex, we had created this melee system where if you got up near enemies, you could take them down and do this quick, cool, little cinematic takedown like snapping someone’s neck, or punching them, or kicking a bomb guy or whatever. And that was the like the 1.0 implementation of that system. So, one of the first things we were changing for Shadow Complex 2 was a more contextual melee takedown system. Like if you had ran up to a guy and jumped in the air and then hit the melee button, you’d do this flying jump kick. Or if you were hanging on a ladder above a guy and hit melee, you’d reach out with your legs and snap his neck or pull people off ledges. And that system was so cool and was pretty much finished, so we had all that and put all that into this as well. So that’s a cool new thing we added to the game and there’s a couple things like that, but for the most part we didn’t want to alter the game beyond what it is because we think it is so great as is and didn’t want people to not experience the same thing people experienced six years ago.


EGM: Back in 2009, old-school side-scrolling metroidvanias like Shadow Complex weren’t really being made at that time. Since then, particularly through the Indie scene, the genre has seen resurgence. Do you think that might help Shadow Complex Remastered hit a larger audience this go around?

DM: I agree and that is something we had hoped would happen because yeah, in 2009 not only were people not making non-linear exploration-based side-scrollers, people really weren’t making side-scrollers period. When we were talking to people about making this 3D-looking, but strictly 2D playing game, people thought we were crazy. And we said it wasn’t crazy and thought people were going to love it and decided to build it on our own. Then we said we’d make a Metroid-esque non-linear side-scroller.

To me, Super Metroid in 1994 was the pinnacle of 2D game design. Then all these 3D systems like the PlayStation and the N64 came out and we moved away from some of those design lessons. To me it was crazy. It would be like Grand Theft Auto came out and then no one made an open-world GTA style game for 15 years. So I felt we had to do this and we made the game and people loved it and we loved it.

Since then, I agree there has been this resurgence of non-linear side-scrollers, which was half the reason I even wanted to make Shadow Complex. Because I love playing those types of games and I love all those games that have come out over the last couple of years in the style I used to play. I’ve had the fortunate opportunity to be able to talk to the creators and teams behind some of those games and share our experiences making those games and it’s been really cool.


EGM: There appears to be some heavy subject matter throughout the story of Shadow Complex, with topics like terrorism and the NSA, among others coming up. What was the inspiration behind that when making Shadow Complex?

DM: When we sat down to make the game, we wanted to do two things. We wanted to explore our love of Metroid-style games and we also wanted to explore our love of G.I. Joe. We all grew up in the 80s and we loved G.I. Joe. I always loved the dichotomy between G.I. Joe and Cobra and the idea that there was this hi-tech enigmatic bad guy that had all these resources versus more low-tech military people. And we thought it’d be really cool if we could make our version of that and that was really our idea behind the Progressive Restoration. To make these hi-tech bad guys versus this lone hiker who had no technology, and then stealing their tech and using it against them. That was really our aim and goal.


ChAIR Entertainment announced at the 2015 Game Awards they’re bringing their critically acclaimed side-scrolling action game, Shadow Complex, to current gen.

Originally released in 2009, Shadow Complex was an Xbox Live Arcade exclusive for the Xbox 360 that put players in the shoes of Jason Flemming. While camping with his new girlfriend, Jason accidentally discovers a secret military installation in the mountains and must uncover the reason for the base’s existence while saving his would be bae.

Shadow Complex was written by acclaimed comic book writer Peter David, and runs parallel to the events in Orson Scott Card’s novel, Empire, before the two stories dovetail into the events of the book, Hidden Empire. Whether the sudden return of Shadow Complex to the gaming realm signifies a possible new entry into this series coming down the line, either in gaming or novel form, is yet to be seen.

Shadow Complex Remastered will tout improved graphics, new melee takedowns for Jason, and a whole new batch of achievements and trophies, all wrapped in a classic metroidvania that will have Jason explore, backtrack, and upgrade himself via the mysterious military installation’s various armaments.

ChAIR has also revealed that Shadow Complex Remastered is not a Microsoft exclusive and will be available for PS4 and PC along with the Xbox One.

“Bringing Shadow Complex to a larger audience of gamers across multiple platforms has always been one of our goals at ChAIR,” said Donald Mustard, co-founder and Creative Director at ChAIR. “We’re super excited to introduce a remastered version to fans, old and new, and for the opportunity it creates for us to do more in the Shadow Complex universe.”

In addition to this, the PC version of the game will be available for free from now until December 31, 2015, via www.ShadowComplex.com, and coming to the other consoles sometime in 2016.

The last guardian

Ori and the Blind Forest speaks to the best of what video games can offer. It’s rare that you find a game that’s not only beautiful to look at and to listen to, but that also delivers a poignant, powerful story—which is told while providing a wonderfully tight platforming experience that pushes your reflexes to their limits.

The game begins when a freak storm catapults a young guardian of light named Ori from its home among the branches of the greatest tree in the Forest of Nibel. Found by a citizen of the woods, a bearlike creature named Naru, Ori is nursed back to health and quickly looks to Naru as a mother. While it’s seemingly innocent in nature, this turn of events serves as a catalyst that will shake the whole of Nibel to its very core. Ori must set off on its own to reclaim its purpose as a guardian of the light before Nibel succumbs to an encroaching darkness.

From the opening cutscenes to the end credits, the one thing that consistently amazed me about Ori and the Blind Forest was its beautiful look. The game offers a variety of different locales—icy caverns, flower-filled grottoes, volcanic mountaintops, barren woodlands—and they all look stellar. The exquisite hand-drawn art style offers a bevy of bright colors that seem to jump off the screen and make each area feel special.

Once you start playing, though, it might be easy for the graphics to fade into the background as the story takes hold. Complemented by a hauntingly beautiful soundtrack, Ori and the Blind Forest tugs on your heartstrings in such a way that it stays with you long after beating the game. At its core, it’s a coming-of-age tale plainly divided into three acts, but the themes the game conveys about life and death, falling from grace and finding one’s redemption, and persevering in the face of adversity are all things that we, as humans, can relate to. And they’re driven home all the more emphatically when playing as the undersized Ori, alone in a world on the verge of being torn asunder.

As good as a game may be creatively, however, it can always easily come undone if the technical side doesn’t hold up its end. Fortunately, Ori succeeds on this front, too. With an emphasis on puzzle-solving and exploration, the game offers only a limited combat system, forcing you to instead focus on deftly guiding Ori through a labyrinthine world full of traps and hazards.

The game also incorporates some RPG elements, and Ori can learn a dozen different moves over the course of its adventure that will help open up new areas and allow for more efficient traversal across previously discovered locales if you decide to backtrack. The Forest of Nibel is a massive world, but I found that with Ori’s full complement of powers, I could run from end to end in no time flat.

I also enjoyed the fact that combat only came in short bursts—usually just enough to put me back on my heels a bit. This allowed me to better appreciate the overall design. As a platformer, Ori and the Blind Forest toes that fine line between being too forgiving and too punishing. I died more than 300 times on my first playthough, which took me about eight hours—an average of one death per 90 seconds of gameplay. Not once did I feel frustrated during my entire time playing, though. Some sequences, of course, skew these numbers, where you’ll likely die a lot, such as in the seemingly Metroid-inspired dungeon-escape sequences.

What also helped quell any possible annoyance was Ori’s quicksave system, a rarity on consoles. Just by holding the B button down, I was able to place a marker almost anywhere in the world that would serve as a makeshift save point. So, if I saw a harrowing-looking cave filled with spiked walls up ahead, I’d just drop a quicksave. Admittedly, it took some time to get used to the game not having any sort of traditional checkpoint system—and I sometimes had to play large sections over because I forgot to save—but once you get used to it, this method allows you to be a bit more reckless than normal, which is especially nice when exploring new areas.

Unfortunately, unlike Ori reaching its full potential by game’s end, Ori and the Blind Forest slightly stumbles in a couple of key areas. For example, I experienced some noticeable framerate drops at various instances—almost two dozen times during my playthrough, most often when moving quickly through different areas.

The most grievous issue, however, may be the fact that, once you complete one of the game’s three main dungeons, you can’t re-enter them, leaving any possible collectibles you missed lost. This goes the same for the end of the game—if you finish, you can’t replay that particular adventure and instead must use one of the other three save slots and start completely over. Consider this a warning for all you completionists out there.

If you’re less worried about seeing 100 percent of the game, though, and just want to have an action-packed adventure, Ori and the Blind Forest fits the bill completely. It’s the kind of story that knows how to find the soft spots in even the most hardened of gamers (like me!), and once it digs its adorable claws into you, it’s polished enough to rarely break the immersion it inspires. Ori and the Blind Forest had me coming back just to reexperience all the wonder and fun I had along the way the first time through, and it’s one of my favorite titles of 2015 so far.

Developer: Moon Studios • Publisher: Microsoft Studios • ESRB: E – Everyone • Release Date: 03.11.15
A terrific blend of story, gameplay, and graphics, Ori and the Blind Forest is an unforgettable debut for indie developer Moon Studios.
The Good Beautiful world, amazing soundtrack, and an unforgettable story.
The Bad Similar-feeling powers; occasional framerate issues.
The Ugly Forgetting to quicksave before tackling a spike-infested area.
Ori and the Blind Forest is available on Xbox One and PC, with a version for Xbox 360 coming later this year. Primary version reviewed was for Xbox One. Review code was provided by Microsoft for the benefit of this review.

Whip it, whip it OK

One of the more frequent complaints about the first Lords of Shadow was that it got away from what players have come to expect from the franchise. Most still generally agreed, however, that it was probably the best 3D Castlevania ever (not that that was saying much), so the hype—and the hope—was pretty high for the follow-up.

In Lords of Shadow 2, players get to control Dracula himself for the first time ever, and they do so in the modern era as he wages his own personal war against Hell’s best soldiers. After being awoken from a 200-year slumber by necromancer extraordinaire Zobek, Dracula has to shake off some of the rust that’s accumulated over two centuries and must search within himself—and the city that’s risen over the remains of his old castle—in order to reclaim his once-impressive strength.

After a four-year wait for this sequel, I’ve got some good news: MercurySteam took a lot of the first game’s criticisms to heart. The bad news? Some of the solutions create new problems, and some strengths of the first game just aren’t as good here.

The first—and probably biggest—issue that MercurySteam addressed was the linearity of the first game. Whereas Lords of Shadow was broken up into small stages that took place within one of the game’s dozen chapters, this sequel features an open world for players to run around in and explore. Like most games of this ilk, as Dracula regains his lost abilities, more of the world opens up, and previously unattainable power-ups and secrets become accessible. Simply put, an open-world game is an easy fix to the linearity problem—if it were planned properly.

MercurySteam was so ambitious that they essentially built two open worlds, since Dracula often “travels” back to his castle in the past from various points in the modern world. They’re big enough that you’ll easily get lost in them—and that’s the problem. You will get lost, and not in a “I lost track of time because the game is so good” sort of way, but more like “This is the third time I’ve passed that landmark, and I’ve gotten nowhere.” Lords of Shadow 2 is in desperate need of a better map system, especially in the city. It’s hard to remember where collectibles are or if you’re even going the right way. Several sections look so much alike that the areas almost blend together, and the game does a horrible job of letting you know there’s a marker system buried somewhere in the countless menus.

One change that does seem to have worked out for the better? The combat. In the original Lords of Shadow, many players found themselves simply mashing a button or two and only changing strategies for the few enemies who could counter the more basic moves. To encourage players to mix things up this time around, Dracula has three main weapons—the Blood Whip, the Void Sword, and the Chaos Claws—and they all get stronger by using and then mastering different techniques with them. And this Master System is one of the few straightforward things about Lords of Shadow 2. You defeat enemies to get experience points, then spend these points to unlock new weapon techniques. After using those techniques so many times in combat, you can transfer knowledge of the technique into the weapon itself, making it more powerful.

I’ll admit that I still found myself slipping into the bad habit of using only one or two techniques—like the Guillotine aerial smash—now and then, but the combat system is still much improved and far more rewarding this time around. And even if you’re like me and fall into old patterns, you’ll still use more moves total due to the increased enemy variety, even if you develop favorite tactics over time.

One of the strongest elements from the first Lords of Shadow—and one that most players probably hoped wouldn’t change—would be the storytelling. While it started slow, the first game built up nicely to a crescendo and then a cliffhanger ending to make Lords of Shadow 2 possible. This time, it’s a bit of the reverse.

For the better part of the game, the narrative is still solid. Much like how Lords of Shadows 2 offers two worlds to explore, it also includes two major enemies. The first one is obvious: It’s Satan, in that classic man-versusthe supernatural scenario. The second foe? That’s Dracula himself. As explained by a 15-minute cutscene early on, in case you didn’t play the first game, Dracula was originally Gabriel Belmont, cursed forever to fight his bloodline after absorbing the powers of the original Lords of Shadow. This leads to powerful scenes of him racked with guilt over having not known his son, losing his wife, and his cursing a God who’s abandoned him.

Of course, it also leads to some confusion and plot holes for those familiar with the series. How exactly does Dracula go back in time to his castle to unlock his powers? Are they hallucinations? Has his guilt taken form to test him before he can reclaim his power? Is he actually traveling back in time? Is it all of the above? It’s all really unclear, and just when I thought I’d figured it out, the next story beat would happen to befuddle me again. And if I was confused after having played all the previous games, I can just imagine how it might be for someone looking to get into the series. It’s probably not the best idea to start with Lords of Shadow 2 if plot means something to you.

The story also tries its best—but fails—to cover up the fact that many of Dracula’s objectives for 80 percent of the game are glorified fetch quests to lead him back to his true strength. I would’ve preferred more time with all my powers so I wouldn’t have had to backtrack so much to find all the hidden items. The worst part, however, may be that the story builds towards a preconceived end point, only to provide a cop-out finish that left me unsatisfied.

Even with these problems, though, there’s still a solid core to Lords of Shadow 2. The mood-setting orchestral music is fantastic, and I loved the voice acting, led by Patrick Stewart as Zobek and Robert Carlyle as Dracula. What’s more, the epic boss battles rival those seen in the first game. It’s just a shame that MercurySteam’s evident lack of experience constructing open worlds, and letting the story get away from them, keeps Lords of Shadow 2 from being better than its predecessor.

Developer: MercurySteam • Publisher: Konami • ESRB: M – Mature • Release Date: 02.25.14
Lords of Shadow 2 runs into a classic sequel problem. By trying to do more and fix the few issues of the first game, MercurySteam actually does less and creates more problems. Despite this, they’ve still crafted a competent tale with solid core gameplay that should entertain longtime Castlevania fans, even if it’s not quite everything they’d hoped for.
The Good Drastically improved, rewarding combat.
The Bad A pathetic excuse for a map system; objectives feel too much like glorified fetch quests.
The Ugly How fast I’d probably succumb to vampire queen Carmilla’s, ahem, charms.
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 is available on Xbox 360, PS3, and PC. Primary version reviewed was for PS3 using review code provided by Konami.

A load of Killer Croc

Batman’s seen so many great representations in different mediums over the past couple of decades, whether it’s animation, movies, or videogames—so it absolutely boggles my mind when someone utterly fails to capture the essence of the Dark Knight. Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate is such an awful depiction of the Caped Crusader, however, that I had to wonder whether Armature had even heard of Batman before being tasked with making this game.

Set several months after the events of the console Arkham Origins, Blackgate sees Batman infiltrating Blackgate Prison—again—in order to quell a riot. Three of Batman’s most notorious foes are at the head of all the chaos, and they’ve divided the prison up into sections that their respective gangs control. Batman must defeat them all if he hopes to save the hostages kept in the prison’s Arkham wing.

Aiding Batman is Catwoman, whom he apprehended a couple of weeks prior to the riot. In exchange for her assistance, Batman will put in a good word for her to be moved to more “accommodating” quarters, since supposedly a fragile thief like her could be torn apart in a place like Blackgate. Batman must unlock new abilities and gadgets to help him traverse the different security systems and hazards of the now-dilapidated prison, often backtracking frequently to do so.

And sure—this sounds like the makings of a decent Batman game. The prologue level that revolves around catching Catwoman at an abandoned construction site gave me high hopes that this would be the Batman game we never knew we wanted on handhelds. But as soon as you set foot on the prison grounds, the game takes a serious nosedive. When I sat down to write this review, two words kept coming into my mind to best describe Blackgate: broken and boring.

The first major flaw? Armature tried to develop the game as a Metroidvania within the confines of the story. As we all know, Batman is never without his gadgets and his utility belt, and he goes to Blackgate of his own volition after being called by Commissioner Gordon. Yet, right from the get-go, all he has are Batarangs. No rhyme or reason—just to stay within the parameters of what defines Metroidvanias as a genre.

Someone who actually knows the character would’ve set up the story so to have Batman kidnapped and dragged to Blackgate against his will. Since we’re talking about a young Batman here, he wouldn’t have all the safeguards in his utility belt to prevent it from being forcibly removed. Batman shouldn’t randomly find a Batclaw in a container—like he does in Blackgate—just because he forgot his other one at home. Breaking the character’s basic traits to fit the genre you want your game to be is not forgivable.

Speaking of breaking character, Catwoman’s always played both sides of the fence in Batman lore, but she fills the role of Oracle/Alfred in this game—again, for no apparent reason. Catwoman doesn’t need Batman to break her out of prison, and she doesn’t really need to help Batman. After what happened in Origins, Batman should know Blackgate like the back of his hand. If he does need help, though, did Batman give Alfred the night off? Were his shows on again? Yes, I could definitely imagine Alfred curling up with a cup of Earl Grey and catching up on Downton Abbey instead of manning the Batcomputer!

The story isn’t the only element that’s broken, though. The game itself, from a technical standpoint, is as glitchy as it gets: items flickering in and out of existence, Batman getting caught on invisible walls, or falling through the floor to oblivion (or a checkpoint reload). At one point, I actually glitched through a wall and into a hidden compartment that had an armor upgrade I shouldn’t have been able to get to at that point. I was lucky I could backtrack with the gadgets I had—otherwise, I might’ve had to start over completely.

And if I had to start over, I might’ve just chalked this game up as a lost cause (more so than I already do). If I had to stare at another gray, bland, repeated prison wall, I’d have broken my Vita. The only good-looking aspect of the game is the comic-style cutscenes.

You can forgive the look of a game to an extent if it’s at least fun to play. But with Blackgate, the combat system that has made the Arkham games great is almost completely nonexistent. You can’t quickfire any gadgets, and you don’t even need to counter most of the time, since you’ll rarely encounter more than three of four guys in a room at once. Sometimes—almost like an early-’90s side-scrolling arcade game—a couple more will crawl out of the background when the first group’s been dispatched, but never will there be more than a few fightable enemies onscreen at any given moment.

Detective mode was also a pain in my cowl. I don’t mind having to tap the touchscreen to turn it on—it actually helped deter me from wanting to stay in Detective mode and served as a unique fix to a persistent problem with the series. But I did mind having to keep my finger on the screen to actually scan or look for things because it prevented me from freely interacting with the environment while I was in the mode. I had to move, enter Detective mode, scan, find I was out of range, turn the mode off, move to a better position, re-scan, turn the mode off, then interact. Just let me scan things automatically—no one wants their thumbs off the sticks for that long!

At least the boss fights provide much-needed variety. New characters to the Arkhamverse like Bronze Tiger actually make you work for your wins, since they’re more or less the only time you need to utilize multiple gadgets or techniques. And even though we’ve seen most of Batman’s gadgets before, the one new addition—an explosive-gel launcher—was something I’d like to see on consoles at some point. It reminded me a lot of a grenade launcher, and it could be used in a lot of ingenious ways in both combat and puzzle-solving.

Some decent boss fights aren’t enough to save this game, though. Never before have I been so disappointed in a Batman-inspired property. Plus, this is also one of the worst examples I’ve ever seen of a Metroidvania, since the backtracking and gadget-finding is kept to a bare minimum. Broken, boring, and just plain bad, everyone should steer clear of this as though you had chiroptophobia (fear of bats).

Developer: Armature Studio • Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment • ESRB: T – Teen • Release Date: 10.25.13
A waste of potential, Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate is a broken, boring game and a stain on the Metroidvania genre. Its positives are few and far between, buried under a mountain of glitches, tedious gameplay, and poor level design.
The Good Comic-style cutscenes look great.
The Bad One of the worst Metroidvanias you’ll ever play.
The Ugly All of Blackgate Prison—and its single shade of gray.
Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate is available on Nintendo 3DS and PS Vita. Primary version reviewed was for PS Vita.