Platform: Xbox Live Arcade
Publisher: Xbox LIVE
Summer Of Arcade 2011 has reached its third week, heralding probably the most visually appealing title of a visually appealing bunch. Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet tasks players with guiding a UFO deep into the bowels of the menacing eponymous celestial body, exploring its depths and eventually cutting out its dark heart - saving an alien world from certain destruction in the process. Or to cut to the chase: it's two parts twinstick shooter, one part physics-based puzzler and features a fair bit of nonlinear exploration on the side.
Much like Castlevania and Metroid, Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet features a single enormous map populated by thematic zones, terrifying enemies and puzzles to overcome. As you'd expect, the tools to circumvent, manipulate or plain blast through these obstacles are also tucked away into the far corners of the level - rewarding exploration and backtracking in order to revisit areas that you can access with a new toy. You'll soon wield a manipulator arm to move objects directly, a powerful shield, a guided missile (more on that abomination later) and a rotary saw to cut your way through loose rock amongst many others. A solid physics engine chunters along in the background, ensuring that the solutions to each blockade or barrier is a simple matter of common sense.
The puzzles start out slow and simple. A missile opens a red door, for example, or a selection of rocks can be individually excavated with the manipulator. As the campaign progresses, however, the solutions become more intricate rather than more difficult; requiring a intimate knowledge of your equipment and the ability to apply several of them to a larger problem. There's plenty of variety to the puzzling and the 5-6 hour campaign rarely starts to drag or run out of momentum.
You'll also engage in a fair bit of twinstick shooting courtesy of your ever-helpful laser. Sadly, the action tends to overwhelm the puzzle elements thanks to a potent combination of necessary backtracking and respawning foes - but at least the varied enemy types all feature different methods of attack, movement and AI (limited as it is). Shielded enemies will engage you in a tense bullfight, buzzing insects hover at the periphery of your vision and worms split into multiple separate attackers unless you target the head. Boss fights are probably the most exciting parts of the package, many of whom require more than a little puzzling on top of a thorough rinsing with the laser cannon. If you're hungry for more action, a dedicated horde mode known as Lantern Run facilitates a few forgettable multiplayer matches.
There's no delaying the inevitable. It can't have escaped your notice that Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet is a sumptuous work of art, a glorious juxtaposition of sharp silhouettes and blurry, sickening primordial horror. It's evocative of Braid, Limbo and any number of indie masterpieces, but make no mistake: Michel Gagne's masterpiece has an identity all of its own. The five thematic areas all possess a unique and eyecatching aestthetic, be it crisp crystalline ice fields or churning, vomitous biology - and sound design that lurks in the background and occasionally pounces with unsettling audio stingers. A complete lack of voice acting, text or any exposition beyond just doing lends an eerie, lonely feel to the proceedings.
But great art design and great ideas don't necessarily make for a great game. A classic painting, perhaps, or a seminal arthouse movie, but videogames need to be judged by their gameplay. In all but the rarest of cases (see also: Deadly Premonition), games are defined by their mechanics and execution - and sadly Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet contains too many avoidable issues to be considered for greatness.
Firstly, while the puzzles are fairly simple to solve, you'll frequently have to fight the controls in order to actually make it happen. There's nothing more aggravating than knowing how to complete an objective but being unfairly unable to do so, and Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet does its best to make this happen as often as possible with a horrendously clunky guided missile puzzle element, a lack of precise control across the board and a nasty radial ability wheel. The latter is probably the worst offender, as for reasons I can't understand, the four face buttons are used as hotkeys rather than the 8-way directional pad. Quickly switching between abilities is frequently an exasperating chore - but one that's absolutely essential. Most of the gadgets do work exceptionally well on their own, but getting to them is the problem!
The second major issue is backtracking, which you'll need to do often in order to collect all of the goodies and upgrades. However, your map will happily fill in areas that you haven't actually visited (just passed by, meaning that keeping track of unexplored areas can be nigh-on impossible) and compounds the problem by failing to mark obstacle or pickup locations. More vexatiously, puzzles reset after leaving and returning to each area. Having to backtrack is controversial enough as it is, but having to do so while repeating every step is another thing entirely.
Ultimately - and I can't believe that I'm about to say this - Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet suffers from a lack of genuine personality. It may look unique, but the experience boils down to implacable flying saucers shooting disgusting bugs and solving a few puzzles. There's nothing to relate to, empathise or otherwise engage with beyond the very first cutscene, making for a game that feels much more derivative and soulless than it actually is. In this reviewer's opinion, a little more characterisation - or context for the action - would have been appropriate in this case.
Or an XP metagame. A score. Anything to give us a reason to continue playing beyond... well...playing.
- Solid physics engine, great tools, fun puzzles
- Addictive exploration dynamic
- Looks incredible
- Some nasty control issues
- Tedious backtracking amplified by resetting puzzles
- Lacks personality
The Short Version: Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet is a solid game that's great fun while it lasts. It's a feast for the eyes and ears, but manages to fall just short of the greatness its art design and big ideas aspired to.