I can’t quite remember how long ago it was that I first saw a trailer for Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet, but I know it has been quite some time. I managed to forget about the game, be reminded, forget again and then finally squeal with delight like a ten year old girl who just got to touch Justin Bieber at the news of its’ pending release in the Summer of Arcade promotion. While I knew little of what exactly the game would entail going in, I knew from what I had seen that the art style was amazing and that the experience looked solid as well. While I did find more than a couple of surprises, my expectations were, for the most part, fulfilled. That squeal has admittedly quieted to a respectful nod of approval, but ultimately I enjoyed my time on the Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet.
First let’s talk aesthetics. Yes the game looks, in a word, awesome. But everyone already knew that from the trailers and screen shots. What I had previously been unaware of though, or it simply managed to slip my mind, was that the game had several different zones that all look noticeably different from one another. While I didn’t care for one of the zones, more on that later, the overall variation made the fantastic art style even more appealing. I imagine though that this is one of those games, like Limbo, where everyone is going to be talking about how great it looks without offering much in terms of how it relates to the game.
The most notable part of the visual presentation is the lack of a HUD, an aspect that isn’t all that apparent till you stop and think about it. You do have “pop up menus” such as a tool selection, but most of the time the screen is simply full of the game. This of course meant that there was no real indication of the ship’s health other than when it started flashing red (something that could be missed when the camera is zoomed out and you aren’t playing on a large HDTV). Beyond that, it also means it is very easy to accidentally select the wrong tool on the fly since nothing is informing you that you have selected the missile launcher. The game takes a minimalist approach in general when it comes to communicating with the player; most everything is conveyed in less than clear picture form (and is especially unclear in the beginning). This approach worked in the game’s favor for the most part by building atmosphere, but at times it was unclear just what you should be doing.
Overall the game’s art style provided another level to the game play. While there were times where important items failed to stand out, the vast majority of the game everything just simply looked good; damn good even. If I were rating the game on visuals alone I’d probably give it a 9.5 out of 10. Everything is done in a very simple style, as if drawn with only a couple of different colored pens, but yet the whole thing manages to feel very much alive at the same time. Very well done.
Gameplay is unfortunately a bit more hit or miss though. The first thing that I found surprising as I started was that the entire game is all one big map. I had been expecting a series of levels: a starting point, a bunch of stuff you had to do, and then an end. What I found instead was a winding, twisting map that even had you going in circles at times. I was constantly referring to the in-game map to see just where I was, where I needed to go, and what random tunnel I might have overlooked. The game was most likely shortened by going this route, but I liked that everything felt like it had a location in relation to everything else. Made it feel bigger while actually being smaller.
As for the planet itself; the various zones all had notably different styles to them, with some working better than others, mostly due to the pace. One zone that completely failed in my book though was the final one; set mostly in the dark. Rather than finding it challenging, not being able to see anything, I was just horribly annoyed. Back to the pace of the zones, the first zone you encounter once you are transported to the Shadow Planet seems to take forever. This is in part because you are still learning the ways of the game, but also because it is about twice the size of any other zone (maybe even larger) and you will also end up returning to it later. The rest of the zones felt incredibly short by comparison. That may not even be an accurate statement, the rest of the zones just simply felt short unless there was an area where you died numerous times. It didn’t help that I spent several minutes attempting to figure out how to get out of the first zone only to have the answer be painfully obvious as well.
That is something else the game often does, and I’m not sure how I feel about it. On numerous occasions I was stuck for 15-20 minutes in an area because I had absolutely no idea what exactly the puzzle was; let alone how to solve it. One spot, for example, required you to pick some sort of fruit and then hitch a ride with a monster than went to eat it; two things that had not been done in any way shape or form in the game before, or after. While I did have a bit of the “I’m a genius!” feeling when solving some of the puzzles, it usually came after several minutes of banging my head with my controller. In the end I was constantly wondering if I was stupid or if some of the puzzles were just odd. I’ll have to get back to you all on that one.
Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet’s second big surprise came in the actual gameplay. I had kind of been expecting, no, worried is the better word, that Shadow Planet would be “just another twin stick shooter.” It was obvious from the trailers that the game’s primary mechanic involved moving with the left stick and aiming a weapon with the right; but the full scope is not made apparent in the trailers. As you progress through the game you collect a series of tools (all of which are accessible by pressing the RB button and selecting it with the right stick). The tools vary from a missile launcher to a robot arm that can grab random items in the environment. Four of those tools can be added to A, B, X and Y as hot keys, which is nice in a pinch if the tool for the job is mapped (but you’ll be wishing for a more reliable way to switch weapons as you gain more tools). While at its’ core the game is a twin stick, the various ways the tools are used, and the types of tools, helps to make Shadow Planet far more.
The game’s main campaign is surprisingly short for a 1200-point ($15) title, but it does contain a fairly simple multiplayer to milk some extra time. Lantern race can be played single player but it is quite frankly a dud if you do. Online is far more interesting. The basic premise is that you, and up to three other ships, must carry at least one lantern as far as you can. There is a catch of course; a giant monster is slowly coming your way and the path is blocked until all enemies in that area are dead. Upgrades pop up here and there and so long as one player can survive to the next upgrade tube (with a lantern) the others will respawn (but only with the one lantern among them). It was an interesting game choice to add on to Shadow Planet, and the teamwork required to do well in this mode makes it surprisingly fun while the various ships flying around keeps it hectic. You wouldn’t buy Shadow Planet just for the multiplayer, but it was a nice surprise.
In short, Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet doesn’t play as well as it looks, but it looks damn good and does play well (enough) with others. The simplistic yet vibrant art style will suck in those drawn to game’s for their visuals, while the solid game play will make for a good time for the casual to hardcore gamers. While the latter might find the game a bit on the short end and the puzzles at times more frustrating than challenging, the experience is both interesting and entertaining. The game has highs and lows, but luckily the lows never really sink very far. If the art style really grabs you than this will probably be a good buy for you at full price. Otherwise, if the visual style doesn’t do it for you, this is still well worth picking up on sale down the line as the length is a bit on the short side for a 1200-point title.
Final Rating: 8.5/10
CBR Break Down:
Console Played On: Xbox 360
Gamer Score Earned: 110/200
Price Bought at: N/A – Furnished by Fuel Cell Games
Current Price: 1200 Microsoft Points ($15)
Recommend Purchase Price: While worth full price, $15 does feel a bit steep due to the length