Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet – Review

Platform | Release Date
XBLA| August 3, 2011
Developed by Shadow Planet Productions
(Fuelcell Games & Gagne International)
Published by Microsoft Studios

The Pitch:

In Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet, players will experience a captivating adventure set in a unique, rich and insanely twisted world, blending exploration, intense shooter action, and puzzle-solving with gorgeous visuals, and rich story telling in a Hollywood quality presentation. Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet draws you into an epic journey full of surprises, danger and wonder.

Player direction is a concept that receives scant focus when done right. When a game competently introduces the world, our vessel for navigating the world, and the means of controlling that vessel, we barely recognize the potential discomfort associated with animating the new skin that’s been draped over our shoulders. In other games, those with conspicuous tutorials and ramrod introduction of new mechanics, the highly noticeable learning process feels patronizing; like we can’t be trusted to learn on our own. Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet takes neither of these approaches, instead attempting to be subtle by providing as little direction as possible. The result is a fairly mixed bag; a game with more misses than hits.

Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet (henceforth referred to as ITSP until Splitkick can afford worker’s comp plans that cover Carpal Tunnel injury brought about by unnecessarily long game titles) feels very much like a game we’ve all already played before, and in bits and pieces it very much is. This is not intrinsically a bad thing, as games can beg, borrow, and steal from one another and end up greater than the sum of their parts. ITSP is reminiscent, in varying capacities, of Pixeljunk Shooter, Metroid, Limbo, LittleBigPlanet, and Patapon. Unfortunately, with the exception of some stellar art direction, ITSP does not improve, streamline, or crystallize any of the finer points of those games.

The game opens on a very short video that will provide the entirety of the story you’ll receive throughout the game. Something hits the sun on some distant planet, quickly expanding and infecting the orbiting planets. One of these planets happens to be the home of a sentient race of creatures whose defining characteristic is apparently that one of them is a player character. What luck!

The first hours of ITSP were, to put it blunt, agonizing. Your main gun is laughably underpowered until you manage to find some powerups for it, and there are relatively few puzzles to solve. The early areas of the world look largely the same, which would be fine if these sections were among the more visually appealing. Instead, the art becomes stale and boring, with a few exceptions, until you’ve pressed through to close to half completion.

The Metroid connection has been widely discussed, with many players of the early demos saying the game captured that branching map structure that is the hallmark of the classics in the series. The formula is simple:

  • 1. Let the player see an area they cannot access
  • 2. Make it evident they need some piece of equipment to get there
  • 3. Eventually give them the equipment in some other far-off section of the game
  • 4. Observe their euphoria when they realize they can now access that area from earlier in the game

ITSP can check all of these off the list, and if the formula stopped there this game would have received a far better score than it did. But there is a 5th step, a step that Shadow Complex fulfilled at every opportunity, and a step that ITSP seems to forget exists.

  • 5. Reward the player

For all the talk of Metroidvania and branching map structure, the game does not reward you for going back to these sections. With the exception of an occasional upgrade to your gun and shield, the game rewards you with concept art and 5 second clips of the intro video. Wait, allow me to rephrase that because I need to get this point across with no misunderstanding.

In Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet, you could track completely across the map to unlock a door and your reward is one piece to an artifact that when completed will replay 5 seconds of a video you could have watched at any time through the main menu.

There are bright spots to be found for those who are looking. The boss fights, though inconsistent, were largely enjoyable. The later sections had gameplay elements that were superb; firing laser beams off ice crystals never got old, nor did rotating the entire world through the cogs of the mechanical zone. Those that enjoy the early segments of the game will surely find these areas a treat. Though most of the game’s puzzle consist largely of using the right ship attachment in its sole design and function, there were certainly instances of well thought-out puzzle design. You can change your data storage location from the main menu, a feature every game should have for anyone with two USB sticks and poor recollection as to which holds what game save.

Also deserving special mention is the unique multiplayer mode called “Lantern Run.” You are able to play co-op with 3 other players, and all of you receive lanterns you can carry with your grappling hooks. You’ll have to drop the lanterns to defend yourselves against enemies or move obstructions from your path as a massive tentacle monster slowly plods forward behind you. Once all lanterns have been destroyed by the creeping menace, the run is over. This is a good example of multiplayer done right in a smaller-scale game, and with couch co-op it can be a uniquely appealing experience for a few hours.

It’s a difficult time to recommend a game like Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet, with so many amazing downloadable games vying for your dollar. Released even a couple years ago, it would probably have been something of which we’d all take note. The movement and grappling will seem tired to anyone who has played Pixeljunk Shooter. The puzzles and minimalist presentation will pale when compared to an experience like Limbo. ITSP feels like the shadow of many different games, with the clear purpose of none.

About Adam Bash

Adam Bash was the host of the Fall Damage podcast and is currently a contributor to Splitkick. He helps make the site do things.
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