The Complex Review- Not Actually That Complex at All
First off, I should probably be disqualified for reviewing The Complex. I’ve never reviewed, much less played, an FMV video game. FMV stands for full motion video, in case you’re a little baby like me and need all this spoonfed. That means, as the screenshots suggest, The Complex is done by real actors. It’s as much a videogame as a choose your own adventure book. But 95% movie and 5% game means that I still need to review it, so wish me luck.
The premise of The Complex is fairly basic. You “play” as Dr. Amy Tenant (Michelle Mylett), head scientist of said Complex, who finds herself at the center of a crisis involving her biotechnology. Having travelled the world saving civilian lives in warzones, Dr. Amy now works at The Complex creating buzzword based technology. Nanomachine-stemcell-bio-Herbalife-genomic-nootropics, or nanocells for short. These are supposed to be a medical panacea but since someone forgot to program them, they’re actually the opposite.
Dr. Rees (Al Weaver) is the second main character in The Complex, involved in helping Dr. Amy through this crisis. In the beginning we are introduced to Dr. Amy and Dr. Rees treating two victims of nerve gas in the totalitarian state of Kindar (this war crime gas was in a bomb that I can only assume is called a Kindar-Hague surprise). He flees under pressure, probably because of the war going on right outside the triage tent, and when he returns to assist Dr. Amy with the crisis years later, he is shunned. But he’s a bad boy with a snarky ‘tude, so maybe she (you) will change your mind.
So what is the crisis? One of the interns at The Complex, Claire (Kim Adis), has been infected with the nanocells. She has a coughing, convulsing, eye bleeding fit in the metro, and is returned to The Complex in a medical tanning booth. Suddenly, the lab is locked down, and a squad of Kindarian killers are attempting to break into The comically overprotected Compex. Now Dr. Amy is trapped with her former partner who she resents, Claire the infected intern who may be a spy, and a conspiracy for you to hopefully navigate your way out of alive.
That’s the basic story of The Complex, which on its surface level seems perfectly reasonable. Trapped in a lab with a deadly pathogen and time is running out. And the obviously North Korean-y country of Kindar is also involved. An idea done by fifty other films, sure, but why reinvent the wheel. Unfortunately, I feel like The Complex is missing a few key elements that make this formula work. The Steam page and official website say this all comes after a bio-weapon attack, but that’s actually not true at all. It isn’t an attack, it’s just the intern. The nano cells can only be transmitted through blood transfusion, lowering the stakes significantly. The implication of stakes outside The Complex are wiped away immediately. One other character gets infected through seriously convoluted means, but ultimately it’s just not a real problem for anyone but Claire. I can’t say I know what would fix this, but unlike The Thing, where the characters are trapped inside with a very real threat, The Complex feels like a blasé episode of House. Certainly not horror, and barely a thriller.
The motivations of the story for The Complex are also not super interesting. The intern has 100% of the pathogen in her system. Administration wants you to drain her blood to save their research, and for a while Dr. Amy wants to save her. But eventually she just stops bringing it up. They write her off as a dead woman walking (or rather, dead woman chilling and vibing in a test tube). They don’t want to kill her, but are just watching her die. The only thing that seems to be at risk is the company losing progress on this investment—which the characters themselves admit took only a few years, and presumably they still have all the research data on their goofy futuristic computers. Perhaps there’s an ending where you can save her. I didn’t find it, and I certainly don’t care enough to play through for a fifth time.
In the beginning, the science team also has a traitor in its midst, which is dealt with almost immediately. No mystery, no investigating, not even any real sense of risk. Just a brief scuffle and then the problem is done. The story moves on. This was probably my least favorite aspect. Giving us the opportunity to try and investigate the identity of the traitor would have been so much more interesting, but The Complex blows its load right away. It then focuses on significantly less interesting problems for you to deal with. For the rest of the story, it is almost completely unambiguous who is good and who is bad.
The whole thing feels like a SYFY original movie, especially the visuals. Aerial shots of buildings interspersed with quality but very obvious greenscreen. You know the deal. The Complex takes place almost entirely in The Complex, so thankfully it’s shot in a set. But goofy future CGI tech stands out like a sore thumb. An amazing scene of Dr. Amy and Rees walking down an airplane hangar sized bunker looks particularly ridiculous. Close second is the CGI computer touch screen built into a solid block of concrete.
The performances in The Complex are fine, for the most part. However, The Complex suffers from a bad script, and even the best actors can’t overcome that. Michelle Mylett as Dr. Amy is good. She does seem a bit young for her supposed achievements, but maybe she started helping sarin gas victims at age ten, who knows. Al Weaver also gave a solid performance, but his character Dr. Rees, is just unpleasant. In the same manner as Jar Jar Binks, even if we assume they intended for his jokes to fall flat, being annoying ironically is still being annoying. Kim Adis as Claire is probably the best of the bunch because hers is the only character I found at all sympathetic. But also she is acting from inside of a glass jar. Between these three main characters, and the other tangential cast, I think the acting is all perfectly adequate, in fact, pretty good compared to most interactive movies.
I wouldn’t say The Complex has much gameplay. Every few minutes you’re given a choice. As you can probably guess, a few are important, most are aesthetic. Most of the choices are just boring. You can choose to smash a toilet with a blunt object, or you can drop a chunk of raw potassium into the bowl. Either way, now you have a hole in the floor. Whee. Choices like this don’t matter, and only serve to give you the illusion that you have a bit more influence on the story. With a few exceptions, you really don’t.
Granted, there are some significant choices. But unfortunately the nature of these narratives is that you can’t stray too far from the path. Each run of The Complex will take place with the same characters in the same places doing basically the same actions. If one character dies, another will fill their role exactly. Now you might say that this is the same as any RPG. It is. The big difference, however, is that in an RPG, your choices affect gameplay as well as story. In a medium that is nothing but story—interactive film—the inability to deviate becomes increasingly glaring.
The main mechanic of this ‘game’ is your standing with the other characters. Occasionally your choices will influence your relationship with others, which in turn, I assume, influences how they will react to you later down the road. There are a few flaws with this. The main is that for most of these interactions you have no idea what is going to happen. You might choose the “antagonize” button, intending to confront one character who is obviously bad, and instead shit talk another character next to her. That is the problem with summarized prompts. They are not specific enough to actually know what is going to happen, and that can derail your entire playthrough of The Complex. As a cherry on top, at the end of each playthrough shows your relationships to everyone, and describes your style. Just about every time, the relationship meter was around 50% and my style was “neurotic,” because I didn’t know which choices were ideologically aligned.
Thankfully, there is another mechanic in which on your next playthroughs, you may skip scenes you’ve already watched. This speeds up The Complex by like a factor of ten. The Complex won’t force you to spend another hour and a half just to see the other endings. Whether or not you’ll care about seeing the other endings, well, that remains to be seen.
The Complex is fine. I appreciate what The Complex is trying, and I appreciate when games explore new ideas. But the medium is just not that great right now. The y/n style choices are frankly not interesting enough to make the game worth playing, when they instead could just release a few recuts of the same movie. Were it up to me, there would be significantly more gameplay. Deeper analysis of various evidence, dialogue loops that let you hear all the information available before moving on, maybe even some point-and-click style moments. Rather than being a movie you interact with, The Complex is just a film where you’re not allowed to put the remote down.
I recognize that this is a medium still finding its way, but all the same, I can’t overlook some of the glaring problems. The most glaring of these problems is that it’s just kind of bland. I respect the attempt though.
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