Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet: Says it all, really…

August 7, 2011 § Leave a comment

Due to family visiting last week, I was simultaneously evicted and disconnected. Forced (well, asked nicely) to sleep on a rather lumpy leather sofa and, instead of spending my evenings writing, actually socialize. Shudder. My only solace: my Xbox 360. Huddled in a corner of our living room, surviving on digestive biscuits and strawberry milk, I… saw… things…

I have returned to my comfortable pit, and re-established myself in front of this rickety old keyboard with tales of another world. A place of white and green and yellow. Where there are no pointing devices, or many-buttoned keyboards, only a small, white lump of strangely warm plastic and a couple of sticky-things that were my only way to interact with this stunted, browser-less landscape.

Let me show you what I found.

Spiky things = death, ususally.

Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet caught me off guard. Yes, it is actually called that. No, it isn’t available on PC.

Its not the gameplay; a kind of amalgam of Castlevania and Lander (minus the gravity), that feels like a sprawling 2-D explore-a-thon with vague shooty bits.

Its not the plot; clever, in a “solve it yourself” kind of way, with progressive cut-scenes showing what the hell is going on (I’ll elaborate in a moment).

Its the Look. THIS IS HOW GAMES SHOULD LOOK. It is utterly gorgeous. If Tim Burton had made The Nightmare Before Christmas as a shadow act, it would have looked something like this. Crisp, exquisitely animated and utterly terrifying.

Okay, the game’s plot is pretty basic. Black, meteor-like thing flies into our intrepid alien-hero’s sun, turning it black and weird looking. Hero-alien gets in his flying saucer, and high-tails it to investigate. Adventure ensues as you take control, tasked with checking out an asteroid crater nearby, and finding something rather evil looking which subsequently fires you into the nasty ball of tendrils that used to be your sun. Then, you are on your own.

The starting central area is hub like, your progress into new areas depends on your equipment (an extendable claw, for example, can be used to move boulders to clear a passage), and your little ship can be fitted with a fair few bits of tech, from lasers to a directional shield. These items are gained by exploring the areas open to you and defeating boss creatures. That’s about it. So far, so Castlevania – SotN. A clever touch, though, is you start with a scanner – equip it and point it at anything you can interact with, and it’ll tell you what device to use. Not only that, use it on obstacles, and it will mark them on your map, meaning if you find some new toy, its simple to see where you can use it.

The combat is dicey. There are actually very few enemies that shoot, most preferring to ram you or blow up near you, so it becomes something of a chore to kill everything you meet on the way. I found myself using my newly discovered shield to barge through most enemies after a while. The boss creatures, however, are something slightly more insane. Most of them spanning half a screen and sometimes requiring some deft pilot-work to actually kill.

One standout was the third boss, a kind of Venus fly-trap with tentacles. You cant hurt it with your weapon, instead, you have to guide missiles fired by other enemies into its mouth as it tries to suck you in, grabbing one of its tentacles with your extendo-arm and hoping for the best. Slightly frustrating for a keyboard jockey like me, for whom a control pad is strange and scary voodoo.

Fortunately, even these tricky encounters never feel unbeatable. The difficulty curve in this game is pretty gentle, for which I am eternally grateful. Don’t expect Bullet-Hell levels of difficulty here; just be prepared to die a few times while trying to figure things out.

Oddly, while dying in the game is not show-stopping (you simply respawn at the last checkpoint you flew through), dying during a boss fight means you have to start the encounter all over again. Not a big deal, but as they get slightly more frantic after each successful hit, it makes the last hit a bit irritating to land. 

This is a boss. Seriously.

None of this matters in the long run, as the game focuses on a sadly neglected idea these days: exploration. Being thrown into a hostile world and surviving. It feels not unlike the PC indie game Small Worlds, only with more bad guys and far sharper visuals. 

It combines some clever gaming styles and such a striking graphical style that makes this game a joy to explore, different themes for different areas (underwater, ice, etc.) contrasting beautifully, expanding the pallet of a game that thrives on the inky black. The creatures that roam the landscape are surreal, and truly organic looking at times. The various flash-back style cut scenes you are awarded by finding hidden artefacts during the game flesh out their story (sort of) and give cohesion to a muddy, but utterly irrelevant backstory.

The last time I felt like this about a game, it was probably Ecco the Dolphin on the old Mega Drive. I hated the game with some passion, it was difficult and sometimes brutal. But I enjoyed simply messing around; jumping as high as I could, exploring, and basically having as much fun as I could without actually playing the game.

Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet is nowhere near as bad as Ecco was, the game is great fun itself. But the best bits, for me, was simply exploring, seeing the sights, finding artefacts and absorbing what is arguably one of the best looking games I have ever played.

If you have an Xbox 360, I would highly recommend checking the demo out. 

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