If Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet were a person, it would be the type who bursts in on a civilized Friday night soirée, gets everyone dancing on tables and drinking tequila slammers, then suddenly disappears just as things are getting interesting (and shortly before the cops arrive).
Available on Xbox Live Arcade, the game features classic 2D scrolling shooter action (minus the restrictions of an ‘on rails’ side scroller), as well as puzzle, adventure and exploration elements. You could say there’s a bit of something for everyone. You take the role of an alien creature whose planet and sun have been infested by an aggressive, parasitic life form, which turns its formerly beautiful home world into a toxic, hostile environment. The Greens wouldn’t stand for it, and neither does our little friend… so he jumps into his agile little spacecraft to fight the invading menace.
The ship is initially equipped with a single scanner tool, but during your travels you will pick up others, as well as shield and weapon upgrades for your craft. Just like that new MP4 player you bought from some dodgy importer, it doesn’t come with a manual; however you are credited with possessing sufficient intelligence and patience to work things out for yourself (which you eventually do, courtesy of trial and error). There are a few basic visual instructions on how to operate the tools, and thankfully these are very consistent. The use of hot keys makes it easy to switch between your arsenal of gadgets and weapons, which includes a grabber tool, a basic blaster, guided rockets, a rock-eating buzz saw, and a reversible tractor beam.
Controls on the whole are extremely responsive, and your little ship can dart nimbly around the screen, dodging obstacles and enemies. It is equipped with tools and weapons which often require precision direction/aiming, and on occasion these can be tricky to direct – especially in situations where timing is critical, such as certain boss fights or trying to solve puzzles whilst evading enemies.
There’s a variety of breathtaking environments to explore, including an organic landscape (which feels like you are inside the intestinal tract of some gigantic beast), an underwater section, a crystalline ice area and mechanical/industrial zone, complete with giant wheels & cogs. A sizable and colour coded map ensures you won’t get lost in the labyrinthine tunnels, and points of interest are well highlighted. These include upgrades, collectible artifacts which unlock brief snippets of cinematics, and concept art. Some areas of the map are inaccessible until you obtain the required tool or upgrade, so there’s a bit of backtracking involved. Revisiting previously explored sections of the map isn’t too much of a chore however, since there are short cuts to most of them. Strategically located checkpoints have the added bonus of offering sanctuary from enemies, and repairing any damage your ship has sustained.
Puzzles range from the simple - such as using the (obviously) right tool for the job, to challenges requiring several steps to solve – often whilst avoiding critters who want a piece of you. We found the difficulty frustrating at times - especially without any written instructions for guidance, but never reached the point of throwing in the towel. Consequently, solving a tricky problem brings with it a real sense of satisfaction and an eagerness to tackle the next, which is the mark of a good puzzler. Enemies come in all shapes and sizes, from tiny, tadpole-like creatures to massive, screen-filling bosses with all manner of nasty tricks up their tentacles. The variance in their behaviour, attacks and defences will certainly keep you on your toes.
Graphics are very striking indeed. Effective use of stylish, black silhouettes against a colourful, multi-layered background gives the impression you are watching a cartoon, or an elaborate shadow puppet show. It’s visually reminiscent of Patapon (albeit with more depth and detail). The home world’s organic landscape is both beautiful and unsettling; we spent a good deal of time simply admiring the alien flora and fauna. Talented animator, Michel Gagné, has done a wonderful job here. An epic orchestral score accompanies cut scenes, and the incidental sounds aren’t bad, either.
The sole disappointment with this game was its duration – or lack thereof. We completed it in around 6 hours (and that includes getting seriously stuck at one point). A few more levels would have elevated this indie gem to even greater heights; however we’re not complaining too much. There are a couple more hours of fun to be had in the multiplayer game (Lantern Run), which you can play locally or online. However, once the novelty of being pursued through tunnels by a slow-moving-but-relentless beast wears off, the game has pretty much done its dash.
With its well crafted, cleverly designed levels and impressively high production values, Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet is a ‘must play’... but like that fanciful Friday night party, such a pity that it’s all over too soon.