Xbox Live Arcade Title.
Co-op: Live 2-4 players.
( This title was provided free of charge by the publishers for review)
I feel exceptionally lucky in regards to this years Summer of Arcade event. It’s unusual in today’s world to see games with distinct and unique art-styles to set them apart, instead they compete for who can render a lamppost in the highest amount of detail. But in the space of two weeks I’ve gotten to see two games with singular art-styles; and each is a polar opposite of the other. The first game of which I speak is, of course, Bastion. Its vibrant, beautiful world is at complete odds with this weeks Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet, a game which uses black foregrounds and pastel colored backdrops to set its mood. And so, for the second time in this years event, I find myself starting with the graphics.
Artist Michel Gagné’s is responsible for crafting the bold and distinct style that ITSP presents to its players. Levels are dark, shadowy and writhing with alien life, or alive with giant machinery pumping in the background as your spaceship lazily floats by. Your ship and much of the foreground is a deep black with the occasional splash of color used to highlight an enemy or important object. The background uses gentle pastel colors of varying hues to give each and every area that you explore a very unique feeling. ITSP’s art-style is undeniably unique and striking, but by using this choice of color it’s also very much a love it or hate it look. But it certainly succeeds in portraying a vastly different, very alien culture.
The cause of this dark visual style is a horrid space virus which has come in contact with your home planet. As it infects your world dark tentacles rip out from the surface and the world darkens and slowly begins to transformer into a shadow planet. All of this is shown in the game’s opening cutscene, and from then on the story is a little light on the ground. As the sole survivor of this terrible tragedy, you feel it’s up to you and your trusty spaceship to fly into the heart of your world and kick that viruses lumpy ass back to where it came from. It’s a shame as that single cutscene is a striking display of the games visual style and some brilliant musical work. After this brief and mostly baffling cutscene you’re thrown into the world with no real concept of whats going on or what you need to do. The game simply assumes you’re smart enough to work it out and sends you on your merry way to perish at the very first problem you encounter. But don’t worry, scientists believe humans are intelligent, so you should be able to figure it all out.
If you’ve ever played Metroid or Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, you’ll be familiar with the style of progression that Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet (ITSP) offers; a massive 2D game world is presented to you, but with each of the six distinct areas require different tools to be used to open their varied forms of gates. As you wander through the world, exploring caves and defeating big bad boss enemies, you’ll gain access to an ever-expanding arsenal of tools. Each of these has their uses; remote-controlled rockets, giant saws for getting through rock and a gravity ray are just some of the tools and toys that you’ll be getting to use and abuse. By the end of your journey your tiny spaceship will have access to a total of nine different tools and weapons. How the hell it can fit some of those items in remains a mystery, but I’m willing to bet there’s a shrink ray hidden in that ship somewhere.
But while your ship is evidently big enough to support all these fancy gizmos, your controller isn’t. While you may have a selection of nine tools at your disposal, you can only hot-key four of them onto your face buttons, with the rest having to be accessed by a radial menu. This can be a little irritating in the heat of the moment when you’re desperate trying to change from pincers to laser. Simply allowing players to hot-key items to the D-Pad and two bumper buttons (which aren’t used during the game) would have easily solved this problem and made tool navigation much quicker and slicker.
But the games other controls all work perfectly. Your ship has just the right balance between weight and responsiveness, making navigating a tight tunnel or field of enemies a fun experience. However, there were a few moments where the controls became rather picky and awkward, but these moments were not too often and could be overcome with a little patience.
Key among your tools is the scanner, your sole source of information in this dialogue free, text free and tutorial free world. Simply point it an object and a small graphic will pop up displaying what tool is best used on the object. This may sound like a free puzzle-solver, but rest assured that telling you the tool required doesn’t spoil the puzzles, and can sometimes even be a tad misleading.
And so it is that you’ll spend much of your time solving puzzles, which is easily ITSPS strongest feature, yet its most disappointing as well. As you fly around the different map sections and uncover new areas you’ll come across a large variety of puzzles to be solved; directing lasers, moving giant jellyfish and rotating your world are just some of the things you’ll encounter. But while there are a few brilliantly challenging moments in the game, the vast majority of the puzzles failed to tax my mind, with only a few ever being able to halt my progress for more than a few minutes. While this does allow the game to keep a speedy pace, it’s disappointing that they should be so easy as puzzles take up the vast majority of the game.
The vast majority of the rest of your time will be taken up by the continuous backtracking to get an object, or because you’ve found another tool and now have to cross the entire world to use it and progress to the next area. As you venture back and forth you’ll encounter a fair few things that want to visit violence upon your little flying saucer, but these prove to be minor distractions at best as each one can be bested quickly and with no real challenge. Combat with the worlds inhabitants simply lacks the spark or intensity required to keep them interesting and fun, instead I found myself greeting most enemies with an exasperated sigh and a “lets just get this done” expression on my face. Not a pretty look, let me tell you.
The combat comes together a little more during the games few boss battles. Again, these moments aren’t ever very challenging; a simple case of working out the weakness and then just repeating the process until the enemy falls over. However, they’re well thought out and pretty damn fun to play, mostly thanks to the bosses looking suitably alien and evil. Like the puzzles, most will require you to make use of several tools to defeat them, and your reward is yet another tool to help you get into another area so you can find another tool. And so on.
Should you happen to get destroyed at any point during the game you need not worry as ITSP is quite gracious when it comes to such things. Checkpoints are generous and theirs no penalty for dying, meaning defeat at the hands of a boss isn’t a heart-rending moment as you’ll simply be sent a few seconds away and left to attempt it all again.
I also found that the game often failed to give you any idea of what it wanted from you, leaving you to idly wonder around the map looking for some random little thing that the game demands you do. This wouldn’t have bothered me at all if it wasn’t for the fact that exploration is never really encouraged earlier in the game, making these moments feel a little out-of-place.
Finish up the singleplayer side of things and there is a co-op aspect that you can take on. It’s called Lantern mode and tasks you and three of your friends with charging down a corridor with a Lantern each, all the while staying ahead of the creature chasing you and dodging the obstacles that try to trip you up. It’s not a very deep mode and while it’s nice to see a mode that actually does require some co-operation, it’s not likely to hold your attention for very long.
I’m always game for anything that lets me play as the alien for a change, but ultimately, for an Arcade game that has been in developement for four years, Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet just didn’t amaze me, instead it simply entertained me for its five or six hours of game time and showed me a distinct visual style. Did I have fun with ITSP? Yes. Do I think it’s good? Yes. Do I think it’s great? No.
+ Distinctive visual style.
+ Progression through the world is satisfying.
+ Being an alien!
– Combat is dull.
– Puzzles aren’t very challenging.
– The ending is anti-climatic.
You’re going to live them or hate them, but either way they will invoke a strong reaction.
The sound effects do their job, but never manage to go above and beyond the call of duty.
An alien virus takes over a planet and you’re going to stop it by slowly progressing through a 2D game world.
Fun puzzles and satisfying progression through the world, but combat falls flat and puzzles simply have no real challenge to them
Around six to seven hours, and maybe another hour or two in Lantern mode.
Summary: Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet is the second Summer of Arcade game to present a truly distinctive art-style to the table, but unlike Bastion it doesn’t deliver quite as well on the gameplay.