Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet has been a long time coming for a downloadable title. While I can trace my own first excited post about the game back two years, the game's development actually goes back further than that. What began as a simple game to capitalize on the art Michel Gagne created for his Insanely Twisted Shadow Puppets shorts has turned into a much larger adventure, and easily one of the best games on Xbox Live Arcade yet. Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet was certainly worth the wait.
Right from the start, Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet sets itself apart from contemporaries in the Metroidvania genre. While similar games in recent years put an emphasis on combat, Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet begins as a purely explorative affair. You begin with only a scanner and a claw. The scanner allows you to see which items are useable on enemies and sections of the environment, while the claw is used for picking up objects or grabbing enemies and rendering them harmless while held at arm's length. While the arsenal does quickly expand to include a ray gun, missiles, and a buzzsaw, it's these initial items that set the tone for the rest of the game. Your goal isn't just to attack and destroy the shadow planet and its denizens, but to explore, prod, and discover the planet's mysteries.
Even the more combat-oriented items have secondary explorative functions. The buzzsaw, for example, is extremely effective against enemies at close range, but is also an invaluable tool in clearing rubble. A powerful laser found late in the game was initially introduced as a puzzle tool, and I only discovered its weapon use by accident when an enemy flew into the beam. Items can be selected from a radial menu, with up to four that can also be mapped to the Xbox 360's A, B, X, and Y buttons. There is no separation between combat areas and puzzle areas, encouraging players to experiment with items in wholly new ways. It creates a seamless exploration experience while holding onto the unnerved feeling of a dangerous and unpredictable alien world.
The feeling of an alien world is driven home by Michel Gagne's stellar art, all hand drawn, breathing life into the shadow planet. Every inch of the game feels alive, foliage sways as your UFO brushes past it, tentacles undulate from and through the walls, gears churn ancient machinery, and some enemies will simply go about their own habits until fired upon. Every creature encountered is so alien in appearance, that it drives home the fact that you are the real alien invader. The shadow planet, though vastly different in its six interconnected sections, has a cohesive unity that acts as a striking contrast to your own UFO. It brought about a combined sense of wonderment and foreboding that often striven for but seldom accomplished with such expert execution.
Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet has another strength in its impeccable pacing. There was always something new just on the edge of the screen pushing me forward, whether it was a checkpoint, puzzle, new enemy type, collectable artifact, or just another piece of gorgeous and curious scenery. Dozens of times I said to myself, "I'll just make it past this one next section, then I'll stop," only to be entranced by something new and following it down yet another tunnel. At one point, what was intended to be a 1-hour play session before bed quickly turned, without my knowledge, into a 5-hour gaming marathon.
The game also solves many issues with the Metroidvania gameplay formula in elegant ways. For example, by scanning the environment you can see what item is required to pass certain points. These item icons then show up whenever you look at the map, eliminating tedious guesswork backtracking when a new item is discovered. Checkpoints are also provided in generous supply, which both heal your ship and autosave the game. Though despite their plentiful appearances, the game never feels too easy. In fact, if anything I would say it is quite the opposite, with enemies who will relentlessly defend their shadowy homeworld from the invading UFO.
In addition to the deep single-player campaign, there is a multiplayer mode called Lantern Run. In this mode, up to four UFOs must navigate through tight tunnels while chased by a tentacled terror that would humble H.P. Lovecraft. The catch is that each player is also responsible for carrying a lantern through the tunnels with their claw. If all players die or all lanterns go out, the game ends. There are also frequent choke points, where a wall blocks your progress until all enemies in the room are defeated. Playing with three friends online as we all coordinated our efforts to defend from enemies, carry our remaining lanterns, and clear boulders from the path ahead was probably the most enjoyable experience I've had on Xbox Live so far this year.
If there is one complaint to be held against Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet, it would be that I want more of it. To complete the game at 98% took a total of six hours, with another hour to reach 100% completion. This is a respectable length for the genre, putting it on par with Super Metroid. But even so I devoured the game so quickly, admittedly because I was enjoying it so much, that I can't help but want more. Supposedly there is at least one DLC pack on the way, and I assure you that I will snatch that up without hesitation regardless of price just to spend more time in tendril-filled caverns of Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet.
My only other real complaint? There is a gorgeous concept artwork gallery that can be unlocked but provides no commentary on the images. Oh, and the leaderboards could afford to show more information than just your completion percentage for ranking. Yeah, I'm nitpicking at this point, but those are the biggest problems I had with the game.
Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet is one the best Xbox Live Arcade games. Period. Unlike other entries in the metroidvania genre, it manages to provide exploration-based gameplay and puzzles without resorting to copying and pasting what was done in Super Metroid and Symphony of the Night. It evokes a sense of isolation and wonderment that is alien and wholly its own. Often games will fall into development limbo for years, only to re-emerge and fail to live up to expectations. Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet is not one of those games. It surpassed my admittedly high expectations in almost every way, and was most certainly worth the long wait.
A review copy of Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet was provided by developer FuelCell Games for the purposes of this review. It is available on Xbox Live Arcade (as of Wednesday, August 3) for 1200 MS points. The game was played to 100% completion, which took approximately 6.5-7 hours. The multiplayer Lantern Run mode was played for around 4 hours, both alone and with three other players.