It seems that PixelJunk Shooter may have popularized a genre - the "puzzle-shmup" - and we can't complain, because Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet takes the "light on shooting, heavy on the puzzling and exploration" to Metroid levels of expansiveness, and also manages to paint an aesthetic that trumps that of PixelJunk Shooter by a wide margin. The look of Shadow Planet is stark, striking, and endlessly alive. Everything in its world seethes and moves, developing a sense of danger everywhere. And dangerous this world is.
The story is simple: you're a weird-looking alien whose home planet gets invaded by some type of even more alien spore, which turns everything twisty and shadowy, so you hop in your little flying saucer to cleanse your world of the infection. We love the 50s sci-fi look and functionality of your UFO - you can swap out various robot arms, each with a different weapon or tool, all of which you'll use throughout the entire game to solve puzzles and fight specialized enemies.
Shadow Planet takes the non-verbal approach to teaching gameplay, and we have to say that with the abundance of handholding in most modern games, it's nice to see a game that leaves it up to you to figure out, although it by no means leaves you in the dark. Occasionally its use of symbols to convey meaning left us confused, but for the most part when it showed us a missile icon crashing into something we understood. The cool part is how the game gives you a scanner for your little UFO. This default tool shoots a harmless beam that analyzes enemies and interactive objects and shows you an icon for what other tool you'll need to deal with it. It's just fun flying around and scanning things because it makes you feel like an alien visitor with the familiar beam of light.
Above: There are shootery things to do, but enemies might just swarm you instead of shooting back
The actual shooter elements are mostly easy and light - almost no enemies fire out patterns of projectiles and your own weapons never spray out crazy spreads of bullets either, so you don't need super shooter skills to survive, but you do need to think on your feet. You can assign up to four of your tools to the face buttons as hotkeys, but we really wish there had been a way to hotkey more, because you need to swap various tools in and out frequently and we occasionally had to bring up the selection wheel, which doesn't pause the game, in the middle of a boss fight. Still, most of the time four hotkeyed weapons feels like enough because even if you do need to bring up the selection wheel for more weapons, the game doesn't have you under constant duress.
Making use of the different tools is the main fun of Shadow Planet - they all have cute cartoony looks and playing around with them to see what they do to enemies and objects continues to hold surprises until the end of the game. You have your standard gun, a directional shield, a magnet beam, steerable missiles, a giant buzz-saw, a claw arm, an electrical discharger, etc. One really clever element utilizes the missile - once you launch a missile you can steer it with remarkable precision with the right stick. Sometimes you'll find little hoops in walls and if you fire a missile through one the camera zooms in on your missile and time slows down and you have to steer your wildly careening rocket through a winding, narrow corridor to hit some object at the other end. It's a fantastic little mechanic that's never as difficult as it looks but is always a nail-biter as you barely avoid hitting the walls.
Above: These gears rotate the entire world around you, which changes what pathways you can access simply due to the difference in orientation
While Shadow planet can be completed in only a few hours, for those who want to really Metroid it up, the actual meandering map is massive, with all kinds of side passages and nooks and crannies that reward you with powerups. The map looks intimidating, but we never got lost since it clearly shows where you need to go and what areas you haven't explored yet. If you're looking to really get your money's worth, there's also a co-op mode where up to four players (local or online) race down a randomly generated corridor trying to outrun a giant tentacled beast while carrying glowing lanterns as far as possible. We didn't find this mode particularly engaging, but it's another simple value-add to an already great single-player package.
We should note that this game is no pushover. It's not terribly difficult, but some of the puzzles could leave you, well, puzzled for a while, and the bosses can take multiple attempts to bring down. There was also one point where we got stuck not able to figure out where to go, and after restarting from the checkpoint we realized that there was an object we needed to solve the puzzle with that had actually despawned while off screen, but this only happened that one time, and otherwise it's a supremely polished experience.
Above: The quiet, subtle beauty makes the game feel unique
Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet, from the look of it, might make you think it's trying to skate by on charm. Even if that were the case, its minimalist beauty that piles upon itself endlessly would allow it to skate pretty far. Yet the game is solid in its mechanics to the point where it would be worth playing even if it were butt-ugly. If Bastion isn't quite what you've been looking for in the latest download bunch, Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet may turn out to be the blackest, shiniest gem in the Summer of Arcade for you.
Aug 1, 2010