The Complex Review
Reviewed on Sony PlayStation 4Also available on Sony PlayStation 4, Microsoft Xbox One, PC and Nintendo Switch
The pedigree of the interactive movie has certainly come a long way since the days of the Mega CD’s Night Trap, with recent entries like the BAFTA award-winning The Late Shift and Netflix’s acclaimed Black Mirror: Bandersnatch proving that movie-quality production values and performances are in fact possible.
The Complex boasts prestige talent both in front and behind the camera with a screenplay courtesy of Lynn Renee Maxcy, whose work was previously seen in acclaimed drama The Handmaid’s Tale, and a cast with a shared resumé that includes Game of Thrones, Letterkenny, and Grantchester.
Following a bio-weapon attack on London, Dr Amy Tenant and Rees Wakefield are trapped inside a locked-down laboratory with a limited air supply. The symptoms of the attack resemble a crisis Amy encountered in an Asian totalitarian state stand-in called Kindar. It is down to Amy to save the patient and uncover the truth behind the attack as outside forces loom.
Dialogue is presented with two to four options on a timer, if you have played a Telltale game then you know how this works but early in the story, you are presented with a very serious decision to ease you into the notion of making tough calls in a matter of seconds.
‘Relationship tracking’ is one of the core mechanics of The Complex, you can check on your status at any time and the game presents you with an easy to understand interface which lists each character with a percentage. Alongside this tracker is a ‘personality status’ which details key traits like honesty, bravery and intelligence, among others. Decisions made during the story will alter these percentages. It is very much like the systems found in Until Dawn.
Based on the promised features and the talent in front and behind the camera, The Complex had every opportunity to be a worthy new standard for the format.
Unfortunately, it does not succeed.
Many of the choices made throughout the story seem to be meaningless. Much like with Telltale titles, they offer the illusion of choice but the story will always take over the wheel where necessary. You have a selection of options, one option is the right option for the story and the other options will take you on a series of contrivances in order to reach the correct one. Sometimes when a simpler binary choice is offered, both choices will play out because the story requires it, meaning you only get control over the order of revelations. The biggest choices are predictably the ones that appear in the endgame run of the story, where the character’s fates are determined and there is no need to worry about follow-through.
There are supposedly nine different outcomes to the story but after two runs, the changes to the story as it played out were so arbitrary and ultimately insignificant that the motivation to play any more times was lost.
Similarly, the relationship tracker means nothing. On one playthrough, I had 30-40% relationship with a character, on my second playthrough, I had a 70% score and the response received was exactly the same. Even on the 70% version, the character says “regardless of what we think of each other right now,” which suggests a contentious relationship that should not exist. Nothing you do throughout The Complex really matters.
The illusion of choice is not inherently problematic, The Walking Dead and Until Dawn pulled this trick but they peppered in moments of real substance every now and then. Minor character deaths, mostly, but it still felt like your actions had consequences even if they were largely immaterial to the bigger picture. The illusion of choice is rarely an issue when the writing and performances are good, The Complex was working at a disadvantage in that regard.
Performances range from solid to downright embarrassing, certainly not on the level of quality seen in Black Mirror: Bandersnatch. There is a sense that many of the cast are acutely aware this is a video game so they do not push themselves too hard. Even an established veteran like Kate Dickie, who made Olde English roll off her tongue with natural ease in The Witch, appears visibly uncomfortable delivering her lines.
Lead star Michelle Mylett feels especially flat, especially compared to her lively and charismatic work on Letterkenny, so this may be because her performance is at the behest of the player and working at a baseline like this helps every iteration of the character remain consistent. Amy has to feel like the same character making these decisions in every playthrough, too much versatility in her different takes might kill that immersion. It is understandably a tough position for the lead, something the supporting cast do not have to worry about, so it cannot be held against her.
Despite its notable low budget, The Complex makes the most of its resources and comes across looking like a quality drama that you might find on ITV. The visual effects are kept to a minimum and when they are used, they are kept at an appropriate distance so the seams are not apparent. Efforts were made to at least make sure the movie looked good even if everything else about it falls short.
The Complex is a tricky thing to asses in light of current events, it may come across as a little disturbing to see a horrific virus threatening the UK, especially when the patient zero is an Asian woman. The optics are not ideal. Initially, I dismissed this as just poor timing and would not hold it against the filmmakers but, without revealing too much, there are certain creative choices within the story (and the in-game trophies, in particular) that suggest an attitude that is either tone-deaf at best or downright racist at worst. This realisation hit me late in the story but muddied my view of everything that preceded it.
The Complex is presented with enough polish to seem like it is trying something great with the format but it lacks the quality writing and pacing of The Late Shift or the excellent performances and branching, experimental storytelling of Bandersnatch. The Complex plays out in a predictable manner, the sense of choice is far more limited than advertised, and the problematic subject matter gets in the way of what could have been a tense thriller. If I was not obligated to play the movie more thoroughly than most, I would not have felt compelled to attempt a second play through let alone attempt for the other offered endings.
I would honestly have a hard time recommending this title to anyone when there are better examples of the storytelling format available to you for a much lower price, especially when the cost of your Netflix subscription will get you things like a terrific Black Mirror special, a charming Minecraft movie for the kids, and an upcoming Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt interactive episode. If you are a fan of interactive movies, you have better options.
The Complex, a live-action, interactive Sci-Fi thriller, is released worldwide through PC, PS4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch on March 31.