If there was ever a game title which truly lived up to its name, then it’s Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet (ITSP).
A collaboration between developers FuelCell and artist Michel Gagné, it begins with a mysterious shadowy mass descending from the depths of space, corrupting any unfortunate planets that happen to be in its path. When it collides with one star, the otherworldly inhabitants in the surrounding solar system find their planet being showered with the all consuming blackness. Amid the spreading chaos and corruption one lone starcraft takes off in a bid to try and save the day.
With recent XBLA release Bastion being happy to keep chatting away at you to great length, ITSP’s more reserved method of telling its story, without narration, feels far more mature. Instead, using a powerful combination of music, art and style, it doesn’t feel the need to keep on and, just like Play Dead’s Limbo, conveys the happenings and mood in a succinct and rather masterful way.
With Gagné having worked on a large number of well know animated titles such as Star Wars: The Clone Wars and The Iron Giant, you’d certainly expect the game to pack a visual and creative punch. ITSP certainly doesn’t leave you wanting, with its wonderful colour pallet and heavy use of black, harnessing the same bold feel as the PSP Patapon titles (but with a much more ethereal slant). The presentation is undeniably striking and used to beautiful effect – in fact throughout the time the game lasts you’ll be hard pressed to become bored with it, something where it actually excels the aforementioned Limbo whose constant black and grey tone lost the majority of its impact by the time you reached the end.
With the design of the huge intertwined levels, the game really lives up to its titular ` twisted` moniker. Strange foliage sways in an unfelt alien breeze, eerie structures and shapes move just out of sight in the hazy distant backgrounds, while huge monstrosities lie in wait to catch you unawares. From the inky blackness of the environment, envious red eyes watch you sail by, and tendrils clutch at you longingly from the darkness. Just a warning that Tripophobia suffers will damn near have a heart attack at one of the scenes before the games climax and even those among us who don’t posses an irrational fear of holes will still find it one of the eeriest gaming moments ever created.
Taking the form of a Metroidvania exploratory title, the player must guide the lone craft through the various different sections of the planet, from its frozen crust to the mysterious industrial heart. Along the way there are numerous upgrades to discover such as extra shielding, and additional weaponry or skills for the ship. These range from a basic scanner which can be used to identify parts of the strange planet and provide hints, a reflective laser beam which can be bounced off certain surfaces to damage enemies or open paths, and a large circular blade which can be used to chisel through rock into secret / closed off areas. These skills are all drip fed to the player almost right up to the climax, making them feel like well earned additions to their arsenal rather than perfunctory toys.
All items are selected by the use of a circular wheel and can be assigned to any of the four coloured pad buttons to speed up access, allowing the player to kit themselves out with whatever armaments they think they might need. While serviceable, the wheel can be cumbersome to change when under pressure, but thankfully the restart points are plentiful if they’re the cause of your demise. In a clever fashion ITSP doesn’t have much of an in-game HUD, aside from this selection wheel. Instead information regarding damage to your craft is conveyed by its visual state and thankfully there is a map screen, necessary to find your way around the sprawling mass.
The game’s mixture of action and puzzles feels just right, and some of the solutions to the obstacles in your way feel downright devious and incredibly satisfying to solve, reinforcing the sense of earning each upgrade. There are very few puzzles which might have you baffled, but this won’t last for long and its certain to be a forehead slapping moment when you realise what you’ve been missing.
To a certain extent the relative ease of ITSP’s puzzles could be seen as a slight negative. Aside from what felt like some major difficulty spikes right at the very end of the campaign, it won’t take you too long to complete. However leveling that criticism at it feels a little underhanded for two reasons; firstly because for the time it lasts it’s a clear case of quality over quantity and so enjoyable because its well put together (ala similar titles like Shadow Complex). Secondly there’s a few hidden goodies and upgrades to go and search for if you want to gain 100% completion, stretching the experience out a little longer. It should be noted that there is a four player multiplayer mode called Lantern Run where the players must outrun monsters to stay alive. While it features local play, this reviewer was unable to test out the multiplayer over Xbox Live prior to launch to be able to tell you how it plays.
There are only a few minor gripes with ITSP which prevent the game from being an out and out classic. Aside from those already mentioned, the other is the lack of warp points to the different sections of the map, meaning retreading old ground if you want to explore further with new abilities. While these might take some of the shine off during extended play, it should be stressed that they are relatively minor and don’t actually spoil the enjoyment to any great degree.
With ITSP FuelCell have created something that is not only great to play but also impressive to look at, with Gagné’s art style creating a remarkable looking adventure game for those who like the thrill of exploring something a bit different. The sense of clamoring through a truly alien world and uncovering its dark, twisted secrets is an adventure to be savored and something which arguably hasn’t been achieved in this two dimensional way since the original Metroid titles. Even then, very few titles have managed to combine this with the almost tangible and primeval sense of unease you find here as you explore, making foraging through the Shadow Planet’s depths a unique experience.
Here’s hoping that this isn’t the last we’ve seen of the Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet in some form, as it’s a title which is definitely this reviewer’s current contender for the crown of the Summer of Arcade titles.