Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet Review

By Jason Wishnov - Posted Aug 03, 2011

Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet is the amalgam of a remarkable style and the pinnacle of the "Metroidvania" style of exploration-based gaming. Everything it attempts works, but ideally, it would have gone one step further.

The Pros
  • Michel Gagné's incredibly styled animation creates a remarkably memorable visual experience.
  • Creative use of upgrades and better design in later stages creates a nice acceleration towards the finish line.
The Cons
  • Multiplayer (Lantern Run) is a nice addition, but ultimately a shallow mode of play.
  • Never truly breaks outside the box from a gameplay perspective.

Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet Review:

Truth be told, it’s hard to find fault with Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet. It’s beautiful, well-designed, clever, and of decent length -- six hours or so, if you were wondering. And make no mistake: for a game one quarter the cost of a fresh retail release, that’s certainly more than enough. If you want a yay or nay, stop here. Yay.

While ITSP makes no real mistakes, it does so by taking relatively few risks; it’s the tried-and-true Metroidvania blueprint on display. But not all games need risks, and not all games drip with such a level of polish as this one. Michel Gagne’s first foray into the world of gaming is one you’ll want to play.

Provided you don’t hate the color black.
 

 

The Hills Have Eyes (All of them, really)

Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet is a Metroidvania style “shooter”, or whatever genre into which you’d like to pigeonhole the game. It bears a strong resemblance to the 2008 indie darling Aquaria (and, to a lesser degree, the original Ecco the Dolphin games), though the tone and mood are diametrically opposed to those lighthearted, underwater romps. You control a small UFO spacecraft, navigating a world of unsettling, silhouetted nightmares; tentacles writhe, eyeballs twist to follow your every motion, and biomechanical contraptions twirl in spirals of chaos.

Despite the imagery, though, progress is fairly straightforward. Over the course of the game, you’ll obtain numerous items that allow you access to previously closed off areas of the map. In addition, you can find unlockable concept art, artifacts, and upgrades to both your firepower and defense. It all feels a bit bland at first, but the game really hits its stride about halfway through; the later items have well-crafted enemies and puzzles that use well their unique properties. Bosses are suitably massive, and ramp up in difficulty nicely.

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However, the real star of the show is that dripping, oozing style, so unlike anything save perhaps the recent Limbo…but Limbo did not display its silhouetted figures in juxtaposition with sharp, glowing pastels, with luminous backdrops and stunning animation. Michel Gagné, an animator whose past credits include Star Wars: Clone Wars and the beloved Iron Giant, brought every ounce of his unique talents to bear. It isn’t so much what the world and creatures look like but how they move, with eerie, sinuous affect. It’s creepy, but a creepy that mercilessly affixes one’s eyes to the screen.

It’s good, then, that the artistic style contributes so well to the mood and experience, because there is next to zero plot or context given to Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing: the gameplay can easily stand on its own, but the beginnings of the game seem to hint at something more. There are a few lavishly illustrated cutscenes at the onset, but going forward, the only hints given toward an explanation are clips given when collecting certain numbers of the aforementioned artifacts…but these clips are literally no longer than two seconds in length, and offer precious little. Here, we must simply assume there are shadow *things*, and they are bad, and so we fight them.

A quick nod to sound: most of the game plays either ambient sound or nothing at all in the background, as a stylistic choice. Still, the sound design is top-notch, and deserves an affirmation.

Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet

Black Lantern

There is a multiplayer mode available in ITSP, entitled “Lantern Run”, playable by up to four players. In it, players must escape an ever-encroaching wall of darkness whilst carrying a lantern; only one player is required to grab the lantern, leaving the others free to shoot enemies from the air, or remove obstacles in their path. It gets difficult fairly quickly; I had the pleasure of playing with Mr. Gagné himself at Comic-Con, and still we were unable to advance beyond the fourth or fifth “arena” with only two players. It’s entertaining but a one-off, a mode that has very little in the way of replay value. Once players gain the single achievement from the Lantern Run, they’ll not likely look back.

Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet

What Could Have Been

Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet is a wonderful game, no doubt, but I couldn’t help but feel some mild disappointment while playing. I certainly had no reason to complain, but still, I felt a lack of…well, thrill. After I completed the game, I went back and watched the 2009 trailer that had so excited the gaming community.

Far be it from me to comment on the inner workings of development, but it’s clear that an incredible amount of content was cut and removed from ITSP. No more than fifteen percent of that trailer made it into the final cut, and not coincidentally, the bit that did make it in ended up being the best of the game. There were ideas there that, for whatever reason, were removed, and in their places we got ideas that felt ordinary, if only by comparison. Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet is a great game, but there’s just the vaguest sense of brilliance, of what the development team could have elevated to achieve.

Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet

But let’s be clear: this is a game you should play. ITSP may only be “great”, but it’s a great polished to a crystal finish, loaded with style and every modern amenity we expect from the genre. If you’re even a passing fan of the Metroidvania thing, or of slick animation, keep an eye on this game.

After all, it’s keeping its eyes on you.