Your world has been infected, forcibly overtaken by an insipid force that knows neither peace nor remorse. Their vile motivations are beyond knowledge, but their lethal behavior speaks clear and loud in a language known to the universe before time itself had a name. Take whatever spark still burns within your planet, within yourself, and punch through the sky like a flare to the core of your nameless aggressors’ dark globe and ignite a fire to purge them all from within its ebony heart.
Now that my overwrought elaboration of the relatively simple plot of ITSP (are you a bad enough dude to save your planet?) is out of the way, let’s take a look at this very pretty baby.
The game must be experienced in motion. (I still love the old trailer, though)
Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet will call to mind several games during your time with it, and I’ve seen it compared to other films and animation, (some particularly appropriate, given Michael Gagné’s impressive résumé) but it stands as its own frightening, lonesome beast, worthy of respect. If there are any parallels to draw here though, none are more appropriate than SNES classic, Super Metroid.
True, the gameplay similarities are some of the most obvious: gated power-ups and level progression, a large map to explore as you gradually gain new abilities, and a decent amount of backtracking to explore what’s accessible with each new find. Thankfully the latter is kept to a minimum, and most of the exploring can be accomplished with a single trip to each area, depending on how thorough you are, as most of the game is relatively linear.
What makes the comparison so appropriate is more about tone, style and emotion than it is about mechanics. Both titles foster an intense sense of isolation as they leave you stranded, exploring a planet that feels believable in its truly alien, and unrelentingly hostile ecology. There’s no narrator, no explanation of events, nothing but the world itself: dangerous and beautifully bizarre, to compel you onward.
In some ways, Shadow Planet does this even better than Metroid. I realize how blasphemous that reads, but the style of the game really makes an incredible case for it. Both minimal and extreme, with myriad intricate details rendered primarily in black, every element is crafted to catch or guide your eye or your ship just so, it’s a visual design student’s dream…or nightmare, depending on just how they view it. Color choices are bold by contrast, but never obnoxious or jarring. All those details are animated and combined into these incredibly elaborate creatures, contraptions or some grotesque combination of the two, which only further cements the creeping unreality of the world around you.
The brief description of the plot I fired off earlier is more verbose than the entirety of the game, which fills that particular need through visual cues and brief cinematics, but absolutely no dialog or explanation. That’s not a bad thing: the simple motivation, along with a lovely orchestral backing, feels like a cross between an art-house animation and an old cartoon. It’s actually very charming. The only text the game presents is in the menus (or a popup informing you that you’ve found a collectible/part of a power-up), it shows you very little when it comes to how something is done, and tells you even less. Experimentation is just about the only way to discover anything: even acquiring a new weapon mostly involves simply playing around with it to find out what it can do for you. I didn’t realize you could remotely detonate the missiles for instance, or control their flight during battles until I had done either by accident.
That isn’t to say that Shadow Planet leaves you completely in the dark (cue rimshot); the map will always tell you roughly where you need to be next and you can scan just about every interactive object in the game to find out how you can interact with it or whether it’s harmful (protip: it usually is). Scanning will reveal a momentary icon that shows the player a pictoral hint that is usually easy enough to make sense of, but nothing more than that.
Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet is all about letting you figure things out for yourself, something not often seen nowadays. I can understand why, from a design perspective it’s a lot harder to direct a person toward a solution than it is to simply tell them how and hope they remember or pull it off. It could be really frustrating if the levels and puzzles the game sets in your way were not so intelligently constructed. There were a handful of areas that didn’t have an obvious way to proceed, but were always solvable just as I was about to hit that point where I would put the controller down. A couple of the bosses will throw you for a loop in the same way, but never to such extremes that I didn’t thrill to the challenge of taking them apart.
This guy is a jerk.
I must reiterate: this is a large part of why Shadow Planet’s sense of alienation works so well. No one is holding your hand for this trip, and it really makes each minor bit of progression truly satisfying. This is masterful work, and Fuel Cell deserves to be commended for taking the road less traveled. I expected the game to be stylish and well-animated; I did not know exactly what to expect from the gameplay and set-pieces beyond early impressions, which are hard to truly judge a game like this on.
In particular I have to note that nothing in the game accurately prepares you for the final area. It left me feeling jumpy and nervous, glancing furtively into the dark for ancient, forgotten creatures, evil beyond understanding, grasping with hideous tentacles from the hidden lands where only those beings of nightmares dwell.
The quality of the single-player experience would be enough to make ITSP worth considering, but I’d have reservations about recommending it given the relatively brevity of the campaign. On my initial run-through, with relatively little exploration beyond curiosity, I ended at 96% completion after maybe five or six hours.
The Lantern Run mode, which can be played co-op up to four players, is the surprise that really solidifies it. Essentially, you just run as far as you can from an unstoppable behemoth, taking out obstacles in your way while safeguarding a lantern. Leaderboard support grades not just distance traveled, but the number of players who kept their lanterns alive and for how long, so you need those glowing bulbs both to keep moving and hit the really high scores. Each player added gets a lantern, and so as long as one light remains, the other ships will respawn at intervals along the way to help keep the remaining lanterns burning. Power-ups are distributed in limited quantities as well, which leads to some great moments if everyone is working together. A couple players may clear rocks or block incoming shots while the others watch the lanterns or use their boosted firepower to clear enemy groups.
In addition, there are periodically large rooms full of foes that can be eliminated for extra power, but the risk in doing so gets pretty significant quickly. A single lost player is one less arm to carry lanterns, dispatch aggressors or guard friends, so a group has to really weigh the worth of initiative over caution.
What makes it particularly cool is that the experience changes. The first tunnel and room always seems to be the same, but beyond that we saw several variant layouts, as well as a few enemies and traps that I never encountered in the game. I can’t speak to how much it really shakes things up, but in several sessions played, we ended up with a remixed setup every time.
The variety keeps it from getting stale and the focus on what it should be: a frantic, intense flight from an unspeakable horror; on my own and with my co-op partners, there were constant last-second escapes and slippery near-misses. Those moments really make a multiplayer experience, and I’m looking forward to playing more of it.
Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet is atmospheric and thick with style, an adventure worth taking that ultimately is only hurt by its brevity. Fortunately, the multiplayer rounds things out perfectly and turns it into an experience worth every penny.