Like most of the games featured in the Summer of Arcade this year, we first got a taste of Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet on the PAX floor, and even on a crowded convention floor it made an artistic impact, with an introduction worthy of Fantasia and a fluid and unique style that really caught our eyes.
It might be fair to say that the visuals are the whole reason that Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet was made. They are certainly the thing that convinced me to check it out back in March. The artwork and style of this game is incredibly detailed, unique, and well described by the title. Everything that surrounds you is dark and twisted. From the enemies, which are shadow-black accumulations of tendrils and spikes splashed with red or purple in their centers, to the environment, which is filled with jutting angular shapes and waving tentacles, everything seems bizarre and wrong. The further you go, the more the environment changes, taking on drastically different tones, yet always maintaining the same “infected” attitude. The cave-like introductory portion gives way to frozen areas filled with crystals and snowflakes, mechanical sections with twisting drills and grinding gears, onward to organic sections and underwater sections. Each area has unique creatures that fit the setting while still seeming to be products of the same bizarre evolution. Standing in contrast is your ship, which looks like the stereotypical flying saucer. One of my favorite parts of the whole game was the way that your ship deploys its power-ups. They emerge from the bottom of the ship, often at the end of multi-jointed, articulated arms, and often comically oversized.
With the exception of some minor frame rate problems in some of the more detailed and crowded areas, I found this game to be astoundingly fluid. Lines have a smooth, vector-like quality to them for all things but the clearly 3D ship. Dangling wires and vines drape realistically across your ship as you move against them. You whip madly about in the current and dangle at the end of your gripper arm when you try to stop yourself from being swept away in a current. The map screen is detailed and accurate, looking more like the actual level in miniature than most games manage. The backgrounds continue the detail, showing off not just appropriate backdrops, but evidence of creatures and action going on elsewhere, and even occasionally warning of things that will soon appear.
One of the really great parts of the visuals is the sense of scale. The camera zooms in and out depending on the size of the environment and the events that may or may not take place. Nowhere is this more evident than during the boss fights. More often than not the boss dwarfs your tiny ship, making it seem like a fly flitting around some sort of creepy be-tentacled monstrosity.
Everything feels slick and flawless, and this goes double for the magnificent intro cinematic, which is truly worthy of Fantasia. I do have one or two complaints about the visuals, though. The largest comes from the short stretch of game that leans so heavily on darkness that I found myself constantly consulting the map screen to see if I was running into a wall. I realize I was dragging a glowing object, and I fully appreciate the apprehensive and intense atmosphere it created, but my patience ran out long before I reached the boss of the level. The only other problem was less something that was bad and more something that was good. The intro was so spectacular, I entered the game with my mouth watering for more of the full motion cinematics, and while you do get tantalizing morsels if you are able to track down certain collectables, for the most part you have to wait until the game’s ending to see more animated glory.
In its overall structure, this is a Metroidvania game. You progress through a massive, maze-like, and continuous map, accumulating upgrades and collecting abilities that will allow you to progress forward. Unlike most such games, however, rather than jumping and climbing your way around, you can fly right from the start. (That’s right, no need for a bat power-up. Take THAT, Alucard!) One control stick moves your ship while the other controls the aim/position of the active upgrade. Taking damage shows visually as a degraded and frayed appearance to your ship, and any point of light, either as dots produced by flowers or as floating safe zones, will heal you. Your goal is to take out bosses and solve puzzles to clear the path to the core of the titular planet. The way in which your path is blocked varies. Sometimes it is a door that needs a specific weapon to open it, in a direct nod to Metroid. Other times there is a strong current, or brittle stone, or ice, or any number of different things that rely upon you putting the many upgrades to good use. You’ll first earn a gun, which through the game can be upgraded to Contra-level spread-gun status if you are dedicated to tracking down its power-ups. Soon after comes a pincher claw which lets you grab rocks, enemies, and bits of the environment either to anchor yourself or to carry or drag them. For reasons I cannot describe, I really liked grabbing on to an enemy and using it as a shield as I charged through the mob of its brethren like a football player running for the end zone. You’ll get a massive buzz saw to chop up vegetation and enemies, then a missile upgrade to blow up enemies, an electo-field to shock enemies, a laser to burn enemies, and plenty more. Yes, while almost all weapons have a utility aspect, they almost without fail give you interesting new ways to wreak righteous vengeance upon your foes. Considering the fact that your foes will quickly start showing up with shields or Geometry Wars-style projectile avoidance tactics, this is good news.
Special mention should be made for some items. The rocket, for instance, is guided, letting you send it on a twisting course toward its target. To highlight this, there are puzzles within certain parts of the level that require you to guide the rocket through a twisting, turning, go-kart track of a path before hitting its target. Hitting the wall too many times detonates the rocket and forces you to start over. In other games this would have been a mini-game, but in ITSP it is seamlessly integrated into gameplay. The pincher claw, aside from grabbing objects, also lets you hold on for dear life when the current is too strong for your intrepid little ship’s thrusters. It’s big brother, the tractor beam, will move valid objects around regardless of what side of the wall that they are on, but if that object is stationary, moving the stick will instead push the ship along, allowing you to fight wind and current even if it is unrelenting. The laser power-up is great fun in the ice level, as it not only eliminates foes lickety-split, it also ricochets off of smooth walls, helping you to solve puzzles that previously required stationary lasers and crystals, and also letting you do crazy cyclops-style bank shots. By far the most useful item in your arsenal, though, isn’t a weapon at all, it is your scanner.
Scanning things in this game is essential. In the intro, scanning things activates them, but for the rest of the game scanning virtually any interactive object gives you vital clues in how they should be used. The scanner will tell you if you should pick it up, if it can hurt you, what weapons are effective against it, and event what weapon is MOST effective against it. Scanning something that is blocking your way will even throw down a marker on the map so that you’ll know what areas you should visit to make use of any new goodies.
As is the rule with Metroidvania games, dedicated explorers are rewarded. In this case, not only do you get weapon upgrades and shield upgrades that make your ship look decidedly badass, but you get artifacts and concept art. Artifacts give you one of those oh so precious glimpses of the excellent animation, and concept art gives you extras that show off the gorgeous design images for the game. You’ll always know what parts of the map need to be explored next, because once you’ve reached a section of the map, it uncovers a tile. Any part of the map with tiles is a part that still needs to be scoured.
In addition to the campaign, which is more than enough to make this title worth playing, there is a 4 player simultaneous multiplayer mode. In this, an eldritch abomination is slowly creeping toward you, chasing you and your buddies down a long, obstacle-strewn hallway. You are tasked with towing along a lantern which must not be destroyed, and rationing powerups between you. Periodically you will reach an arena and have to take out some enemies before proceeding. Once all lanterns are destroyed, you are ranked on individual performance and distance traveled. The mode is neat little addition that uses the controls and mechanics well.
While the gameplay is undeniably fun, there are one or two parts that could have used a little help. For one, one of the features of many modern Metroidvania games, the warp, is sorely missed here. While there are occasional ways to open shortcuts, for the most part backtracking is done the old fashioned way, which was sometimes enough for me to move forward in the game rather than hunting down the chunks of the map that could benefit from a recent upgrade.
The sound for this game tends to be extremely well suited to the current tone of the visuals, whatever it might be. During full motion video, there is cinematic, fully orchestrated music that further extends the Fantasia comparison. While you explore, you are often accompanied by slow, haunting chords, and boss fights bring you thick, intense percussion. The sound effects fit just as well, with spidery, insect-like noises accompanying the twisted creatures and almost R2D2 like beeps and tweets coming from our hero’s space ship. Every bit the match for the visual feast, if perhaps a bit more subdued at times.
Though there is no dialog, either spoken or written, used to tell the story, but the tale is nonetheless quite clear. A dark and twisted anomaly in the depths of space launches an evil seed at your sun. When it gets there, it infects and consumes it, blocking out the rays and sending more seeds out to infect your home planet. You must travel to the sun and find some way to destroy this dark menace. Simple, classic, and stirring.
Too often, games that are artistic aren’t fun, with all of the effort being spent on making a cinematic and theatrical masterpiece, with the actual playing of the game seeming to be almost vestigial. Other times a game is all about the gameplay, with the presentation suffering. This game is beautiful to watch and fun to play. Exceptional from beginning to end.
9.3 / 10: Gorgeous visuals and excellent audio make this MetroidVania-style game a feast for the senses.