Between Bastion and From Dust, Microsoft kicked off this year's Summer of Arcade promotion with a bang. Both were excellent titles and easy to recommend. Unfortunately, the momentum seems to be slowing down a bit with this week's release, Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet.
Originally announced in 2007, Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet comes from the mind of animator Michel Gagné, who is best known for his work on "Star Wars: The Clone Wars" and "The Iron Giant." Gagné's pedigree as an animator is immediately obvious as soon as you boot up the game, as the Xbox 360 floods your mind with visuals that look very Tim Burton-esque.
According to the story (which is relayed visually, with no text or vocalization), an evil shadow planet has moved into your star system and is taking over. In order to defend your planet, you must hop into your spaceship and defeat this menace.
The dark nature of the shadow planet is immediately obvious, with threatening creatures showing up right from the start. Much of the shadow planet's denizens are drawn primarily in black with colored highlights, reinforcing the theme that these things are up to no good. There are, of course, exceptions, but even those are likely to be dangerous. Word to the wise: When you see the white jellyfish, give them a wide berth.
Some of the creatures you encounter are purely biological, while others are bio-mechanical in nature. As you delve deeper into the game, the creatures and the world they inhabit slowly grows more sinister. Lines are harsher and sharper, with some creatures eventually looking like a rough sketch of skin and tendon, rather than a solid beast. It is beautiful and sublimely disgusting all at the same time.
If Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet were merely a visual work of art, it would be well praised, but because it is a game, it also has to play well, and that is where the shine begins to dull.
In early demos, Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet was often referred to as being similar to Super Metroid in style. It's true that Gagné's game uses item gating, character upgrading and an overall world map that slowly opens up as you progress, but the similarities to Nintendo's 16-bit classic end there. When you boil it down to the basics, Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet is little more than a side-view, twin-stick shooter with some wicked art design.
Successfully moving through the levels does require a bit of puzzle solving, yet the game never seems to throw anything too difficult at the player. Instead, the puzzle elements are almost universally straightforward, to the point that you'll almost always know exactly what you need to do. As a result, any semblance of challenge lies solely in the execution.
It is here that Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet moves from amusing to frustrating, as the controls don't always seem to offer the precision that you might demand. Moving your UFO through the world is intentionally a somewhat floaty affair, with loose directional movement. It's not bad when you're in an open area, but when things tighten up a bit, the loose controls feel more like an artificial way to bump up the difficulty.
Nowhere is this more apparent than with the rocket weapon. At certain points in the game, the rocket can be fired into narrow passageways and then controlled directly as you make your way to a target. The only problem is that the rocket controls are even looser than the UFO controls, so navigating these narrow passages feels more like luck than skill. It's a jarring reminder that you're playing a game, preventing you from getting completely immersed in the world.
Swapping between your various tools also feels clunky, as there is no easy way to cycle through them. You can assign them to the four face buttons, but there are more than four possible tools. You can also bring up a radial menu; however, that is a slow way to go when you're surrounded by enemies because time doesn't stop while you make your selection.
Clocking in at five to six hours of play time (less if you simply power through and don't go exploring for collectibles), the single-player adventure is a bit on the short side, so players looking for more will want to try Lantern Run.
Playable solo or in multiplayer, Lantern Run is an objective-based minigame where the only goal is to score points. You do this by keeping the lantern away from a constantly oncoming shadow force and shooting down smaller enemies along the way. Once the shadow force overtakes you, it's game over. Although the players are faster than the shadows force, you periodically encounter temporary dead ends that force you to defend against a swarm of enemies before the next section opens up. Lantern Run is an interesting idea, but ultimately ends up feeling shallow.
In the end, Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet feels like it would be more at home as an indie project in the Humble Indie Bundle than headlining Microsoft's summer promotion. The emphasis on twitch action means that gamers looking for a surreal puzzle experience are going to be put off, while the short length and straightforward mental challenges make the 1,200 Microsoft points ($15) price tag seem a little steep for the hardcore. If you're a sucker for the visual flair, go ahead and jump on this one; otherwise, it's probably best to wait for a sale before purchasing.
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