These days, if you're going to put out a Metroid or Castlevania style platformer, there has to be something unique about it. Games like those are often imitated, yet rarely surpassed. Fuelcell games, along with artist Michel Gagne (The Iron Giant, Ratatouille, Clone Wars) hope that Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet (ITSP) has that something special. Since it is part of Xbox Live's Summer of Arcade, it's gotten plenty of exposure, but will that win acclaim or just drive sales?
The story for ITSP is made up of short animated pieces without any narration whatsoever. Collecting artifacts throughout the game will unlock more animations, but they're only a few seconds long. Basically, you leave your own planet in a spaceship that looks like the archetypal UFO and head to the Shadow Planet. There are six different areas of the Shadow Planet:
Your spaceship does have it's array of tools at it's disposal, which are used for combat and puzzle solving. There are a total of nine apps, if you will, for the ship, and they are introduced in increments:
- laser gun (for shooting)
- claw (for grabbing/picking up)
- scanner (tells which tool you need)
- drill (for digging through certain areas)
- missiles (can be guided to hit targets/areas)
- light laser (to heat substances, conduct electricity, or even fry enemies)
- tractor beam
While combat plays a part, puzzle solving is the more prominent feature of ITSP. It is quite possible to traverse the whole area and reach the boss with only a minimum of shooting, which is a far cry from most in this genre. There is no point system in place, as exploration is rewarded instead. The spaceship effortlessly floats through the caverns and passageways at your control, and is able to use it's acquired equipment in a 360 degree arc. Shooting kind of reminds me of the classic arcade game Asteroids. When damage does occur, the spaceship shows it through a deteriorating appearance, instead of a health bar. When you see your ship literally falling apart in front of you, it's tame to take evasive action. Luckily, save points are amply provided with the added benefit of complete health regeneration.
In ITSP, the map is one of your closest friends as the areas to be navigated are quite large, and in places, intricate. Scanning certain areas that are not yet available because you don't have the correct tool, can be marked for a return trip later. Unfortunately, when something is marked, there is no way to remove that mark later on, after you've revisited. This leads to quite a bit of doubling back and trying to remember if you've already visited that area. This can be combatted if you immediately go to those areas after you receive the proper tool. Getting the player to achieve 100 percent of the map explored seems to be more of a goal of the developers than racing through, battling boss after boss, and finishing quickly.
What really struck me and endeared the game to me, was it's old school feel. I'm not talking about the Metroid similarities (the first one, not Super Metroid). Since there is no narrative (even how to use the controls is just shown in pictures), sometimes it becomes confusing on what needs to be done to progress. However, when the correct solution hits on which tool to use, and how, it's like a revelation followed by admiration for the game. Of course that was needed to be done, why didn't I think of that sooner? Many games today force-feed the player on where to go and what to do. The games of the NES era were vague and there was no Gamefaqs.com to immediately check for walkthroughs.
The boss battles are not all that difficult, as the Final Boss seems to be appropriately the most difficult. It's a real pain in today's games when the difficulty gets revved up several notches just because it's a boss battle. ITSP does not have that problem, which lends to it's charm. Boss battles in ITSP are an extension of the area you just traversed, not some super pumped baddie with hyper-effective weaponry.
There is a multiplayer mode, called Lantern Run, which is a more intense experience than the single player mission. In Lantern Run, you and up to three others, each have to drag your own lanterns through various obstacles, keeping in mind that a huge monster is chasing you. Given the fact that your primitive ship can only utilize one feature at a time, sometimes the lantern must be dropped in order to drill through, or shoot enemies. Luckily you've got teammates that can help you out should you need it, but it is a great test of one's mastery of many of the tools acquired.
Even if the art style hadn't been created by an acclaimed artist, it is still something to marvel at. Excellent use of colors in the specific zones really make you feel that you are in different places. The worlds were colorful and modern, yet not overly done. The Ice world is bright and white, while in the Ocean area, the deeper you go, the darker it gets. Although it is technically a 2-D shooter, there is so much movement and activity in different layers of the background that it feels 3-D. Enemies, although not a huge variety, are impressive. Some are slow and methodical, while others fly at you quickly or home in on you wherever you move.
I also liked that there were varying degrees of force. When your claw picked up a large rock, the ship moved slower and you could almost feel the extra force being applied from when smaller pieces were moved. Drilling through rock had just the right amount of tension to seem more realistic. Bullets shot in water went less far than those shot in the atmosphere. These little touches really helped set the stage.
The soundtrack varies from strong orchestral melodies, provided by Dimmu Borgir (a Norwegian Heavy Metaler), to more modern beeps and boops that are typically in space games. Never overpowering the setting, the simple tones help set the stage for being the lone being in a hostile, unknown planet.
There is quite a bit of grumbling about the game's length. I personally, did not find it too short, as I was all about 100 percent exploration. Unfortunately, once that is achieved, and the final boss beaten, the only thing really left to do is Lantern Run. This title begs for DLC, opening up newer areas, and I hope that to be the case in the future.
Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet is my favorite Summer of Arcade title. While there will be comparisons drawn between ITSP and Outland, the former is far superior. It's not always about length, but consequently the experience a gamer has. The pacing is wonderful, even if the last few levels seem a bit shorter, and I never felt like any area lasted too long. With an amazing art design as an added bonus, life is good on this planet.
Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet is part of Xbox Live's Summer of Arcade promotion, and is currently available for 1200 MSP ($15).