Review: The Complex
With the folding of TellTale Games a couple of years ago, the genre of choose-your-own adventures has largely receded back into the shadows. This void in narrative storytelling is disappointing for some, myself included, in a gaming scene rife with multiplayer non-narrative juggernauts. Wales Interactive are trying to fill this void with a twist of their own in The Complex.
The Complex was developed and published by Wales Interactive and released on March 31st, 2020 for PC, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One. The PC version was played for this review.
Adapted For The Screen
It was fairly common in the world of PC gaming in the 1990s to see live-action footage featuring real actors to assist in the storytelling, with franchises like Wing Commander and Star Wars: Dark Forces being among the more popular. As graphics got better and we rapidly approached the Uncanny Valley, the need for this waned as digital characters could provide for more narrative freedom. Wales Interactive want to bring a bit of that old flair to the modern landscape, and The Complex is their newest addition.
It’s arguable the only reason to play a game like The Complex is to experience an engaging story. While the plot here isn’t bad it’s also not very engaging. The Complex revolves around two scientists trying to figure out how their new super secret nanotech (it’s always nanotech) escaped from their high security lab and ended up in the bloodstream of a young woman.
I am a firm believer that a story doesn’t need to be original to be good. I also believe that if you are going to dive into heavily explored territory you have to spend the time to make your adventure a unique one. The Complex fails at this. Coming in at a cool 90 minutes, The Complex just barely hits the average runtime of a blockbuster. The problem is that there just isn’t enough time to make this story compelling. Trying to get to know brand new characters, empathize with them, and feel like they’ve grown by the time the game is over is impossible.
All of this is a shame because the performances are mostly pretty good. I say mostly because really the only character I just couldn’t buy into was the main character of Dr. Amy Tennant. I don’t think the actor was really at fault either. The script didn’t seem to be giving her much to work with. Of course this is a game about narrative choice so there are many different ways events can unfold, but during my experience she remained pretty flat and unemotional throughout. By the time the credits rolled all I could muster was a shrug of the shoulders.
You’re In My Shot
Normally I would spend some time talking about graphics but we are dealing with something entirely different here. Fortunately for you and Gamer Escape, I am a trained videographer so this is my time to shine.
For the most part, The Complex is decently shot. Scenes are well lit and I would say generally are on par with what you would expect from cable TV these days. Unfortunately, it is glaringly obvious where shortcuts were taken to keep the budget down. The effects and composite work is some of the worst I have seen outside of a college classroom. While The Complex does, smartly, keep effects shots to a minimum, the few that it does have are so bad as to overwhelm any action the scene may have.
The green screen work is the most egregious offender. There are multiple extended sequences where it is frustratingly obvious that the actors are the only real thing in the scene. Maybe this won’t bother most of the people who play this but I couldn’t get over it.
It is evident that filmmakers are capable of creative absolutely breathtaking narratives one a shoestring budget. They do this by recognizing where they not only can but should allocate their limited funds. The Complex unfortunately seems like it is unwilling to compromise on vision to its own detriment.
Oscar-Worthy or Razzie Offender?
All of this might have been easier to overlook if The Complex was able to keep its story flowing while allowing player agency but it doesn’t really do that either. Almost all of the choices in the game are binary and the awkward silence every time one comes up is palpable. What’s worse, even if you make your choice quickly the game will continue to have the actors sit in absolute silence as if they are still deep in thought. This absolutely murders the pacing of the scenes and just makes the whole thing feel artificial.
Because of these sparse choices I didn’t really feel like I was having an impact on the story. Supposedly the game tracks Dr. Tenant’s relationships with each character she interacts with but I couldn’t really figure out exactly what the game was measuring. When pausing the game to look at the relationships menu all it shows is the character’s image with a percentage. No other information is given and I frankly found myself not really caring how I interacted with them.
The Complex is an interesting experiment that sometimes yields the fruits of its labor. More often, though, it reveals precisely why developers stopped using live-action video as a means to tell an interactive story. With a minuscule budget and equally small ambitions for its narrative and characters, The Complex just doesn’t replace the gaping whole that TellTale left behind.
I don’t want to discourage Wales Interactive from continuing down this path, however. While it didn’t shine often, there were glimpses of a world in which this can work and work beautifully. I just hope they can secure the funding necessary to achieve their ambition.
Review copy provided by Wales Interactive for PC. Screenshots provided by Wales Interactive and reviewer.