Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet has the benefit of a fine name. It’s not quite in the same league of naming brilliance as Escape From The Planet of The Robot Monsters, but it’s a title that’s guaranteed to rouse some interest if dropped into conversation. Were you to blurt out “Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet!” in a cinema queue, halfway through a dental procedure or during a moment of intense intimacy, I’m pretty sure you’d get some attention. Hey, why not give it a try?
Once you’ve got someone staring at you with eyes that are almost certainly expressing interest rather than fear and suspicion, you can start telling them about the game.
The star of Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet (ITSP) is undoubtedly the planet itself. Artist Michel Gagné’s beautiful and disturbing graphic design work has resulted in a planet flourishing with organic life, pulsating caverns and the monolithic machinery of a strange culture. The bold visual style is somewhere between the artwork of Patapon and the fairytale silhouettes of Jan Pienkowski, giving each encounter a unique, unsettling feel. Too many titles portray other worlds in a form that seems derivative and overly-familiar. ITSP looks fresh. ITSP looks alien.
It sounds just as alien, too. Weird, earth-bound tentacles squelch and undulate when attacked, while squid-like horrors emit unearthly screams. Gigantic cogs clank into place, saw blades whir with menace and entities made of ice shatter with explosive force. While these sounds are less gripping than the title’s artistic style, they do a thorough job complementing the planet’s hostile nature.
So why travel there at all? Well, it seems the shadowy goop that makes all of the fearsome fauna of ITSP possible has hit your home world and its nearby star. That means it’s up to your little UFO-esque craft to travel to the star (which is in the process of being terraformed into a shadowy world), find the source of the contagion and unravel those dark, binding threads… most likely with the help of some newly acquired firepower.
The game itself adopts a style that’s broadly referred to as ‘metroid-vania’: exploratory, non-linear 2D movement and a gradually expanding arsenal of tools, with an emphasis on returning to certain areas once a specific tool is obtained. You begin the game with nothing, only to end with an array of weapons (player-guided missiles, laser, a buzzsaw) and gizmos (grabbing arm, tractor beam and that same buzzsaw). There are nine in all, including the invaluable info-scanner.
This particular tool can be aimed at various points of interest (including alien foes), offering helpful pieces of visual advice like clues as to an object’s use or highlighting the best weapon for a given situation. ITSP takes a wordless approach to guidance, so you’ll have to make good use of the info-scanner in order to figure out what’s required of you. The absence of any recognisable language helps to shape the otherworldly experience; and for those with a passing familiarity of videogame puzzle logic (for example, using pools of water to cool air-combustible rocks as you carry them to vents that must be blocked in order to raise a tide level) it’s unlikely to cause too much confusion.
Although the game encourages you to progress through each of the five different thematic areas of the planet in turn, it’s entirely possible to return to earlier zones at any time in order to explore further or hunt for hidden collectibles or weapon upgrades. If you get lost at any time, it’s easy enough to pull up an in-game map that automatically tracks your geological discoveries. Despite being connected by pipework, the different areas still manage to feel like one cohesive, alien whole.
Each of the nine weapons can be accessed at any time through the right shoulder button in a radial menu, but it’s easier to assign a handful to the X, Y, B and A buttons. Astute mathematicians will have realised that this is five fewer hotkeys than you really need, and you may well find yourself cursing when you inevitably want rapid access to a fifth tool during a frantic boss encounter. It surely wouldn’t have been too hard to let you assign other stuff to the d-pad but this, sadly, is not an option.
Another minor annoyance is the occasionally quirky camera, which is rather good about pulling back to show you more of the world in context-sensitive situations, but can also allow you to move too close to the edges of the screen and lose track of off-screen dangers. I also ran into something that I assume is a bug involving giant cogs that turn the entire world on its 2D axis (often opening up fresh pathways). Having died at an inopportune time, I was sent back to one of the numerous checkpoints in the game, but found the world was still semi-reversed, totally screwing up my in-game map. Happily, making my way through the cog sequence again righted the problem.
ITSP is pretty short, clocking in at around five hours (and almost certainly less for some people, as I was quite crap at dealing with some of the boss fights). This isn’t something that I tend to count as a negative for a game, as title’s which outstay their welcome are far worse; but ITSP does feel a touch on the short side.
Multiplayer doesn’t do a great deal to alleviate this, as it’s a single mode of play (involving up to four players) in which you have to flee through caverns and avoid of the tentacle grasp of a chasing eldritch horror for as long as possible. It’s an engaging diversion, but unlikely to seriously extend the longevity of your experience.
But while ITSP may end sooner than you’d like, the five or so hours for which it lasts are some of the best metroid-vania gaming since the release of 2007’s Aquaria. Michel Gagné’s splendid creature and plant design, combined with the minimal approach to exposition, give the title a convincing alien quality that drives a desire to map as much of the shadow planet as possible. Along with fellow Xbox LIVE titles and , Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet is a game that’s adding considerable shine to an already bright summer.