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Review: Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet
by Andrew Testerman

Xbox Live’s Summer of Arcade continues with Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet, a 2D Metroidvania game from developer Fuel Cell Games, and animator Michel Gagné. The Xbox Live Arcade has no shortage of quality platformers, but Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet sets itself apart with a heavily-stylised art direction and an impressive atmosphere. The game has a few technical issues holding it back from greatness, but its offbeat, edgy charm and mostly-solid mechanics make for a well-playing and a highly-unique experience.

Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet opens with an unknown darkness enveloping the star of a small solar system, spreading its corruptive influence to the nearby planets. Players take control of a nameless spaceship pilot, as he attempts to thwart the planet’s darkness and restore his home. The story is told sans dialogue, through a small series of short cutscenes, letting gamers focus on the gameplay with little interruption from the plot.

Gameplay consists of exploring the eponymous planet, defeating bosses and discovering new tools for further exploration. Players will chart their way through six different areas, and, in true Metroidvania fashion, revisit them several times with new abilities. Hidden throughout the map are upgrades to the ship’s weapons and armour, with additional cinematics or pieces of concept art lying even further off the beaten path.

Play mechanics in Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet are fairly sound. Controlling a spaceship allows for greater mobility than other platforming titles, letting gamers zip about to their heart’s content. As a result, much of the game is built around solving equipment-related puzzles to get to the next area, rather than tricky jumps or intense combat. The tools collected throughout the game are varied, from object-destroying missiles to block-moving tractor beams. Many of the items collected can also be used in battle, such as the laser’s crowd-control abilities, or the barrier’s ability to block oncoming enemy fire.

Part of Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet’s draw is its imaginative art direction, by Michel Gagné. Gagné, an effects animator who has worked on films such as An American Tail, The Land Before Time and The Iron Giant, gives every environment an off-kilter, malevolent edge, with stark and sharply-contrasting colours and harsh-looking landscapes. With its borderless designs and intensely-saturated aesthetic, the overall look of the game is reminiscent of the TV series Samurai Jack.

The art lends itself to the atmosphere as well. The backgrounds often have different activities visible in the distance, from flying birds to flowing liquid, whilst the sound design is filled with ambient noises of the planet functioning. The game uses progressively darker colours, as players delve further and further into the planet, making the excursion feel akin to Journey to the Centre of the Earth or, combined with the free range of movement, deep sea exploration.

Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet is not without its faults, though. Many puzzles rely on the grappling tool for their solution, but unlike other items in the game, there’s never a clear ‘tell’ of what can be grappled and what can’t, leaving players to blind grab at various objects in the environment, usually with negative results. The map system also doesn’t do as good a job as other, similar titles at hinting at potentially-hidden items in the environment; completists looking to collect every hidden trinket are going to face an uphill battle.

At its best, Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet flaunts several brilliant puzzle scenarios, making creative use of previously-gained equipment and making the player feel clever for solving them. At its worst, however, it creates many overly-vague and arbitrary situations, leaving the player to literally grope around the environment for a solution that will lead them to the next area. This wide split between the fun and the frustrating makes Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet a somewhat schizophrenic experience.

Ultimately, though, Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet is a fine game, with addictive exploration elements and a look that is a welcome antidote to modern next-gen visual stylings (read: bronze-and-dirt-coloured). It’s the least of the three Metroidvania titles on the Xbox Live Arcade (behind Shadow Complex and Outland), but Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet’s solid hook, fun play mechanics and inventive art direction still make it well-worth invading.

8/10 [?]

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- Andrew Testerman

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