What do we know about space? It’s big, black, mostly empty and anything decent in it is really, really far away. As it’s a pretty bleak and boring perspective, it’s no wonder video games tend to “jazz” up the facts a bit when it comes to space. Just look at any game set in an alien environment to our own, they’re literally teeming with beasties that would sooner rip your arm off than say “live long and prosper”. Not content with merely perpetuating this stereotype, indy developers Shadow Planet Games decided to crank it up to eleven, cut out the middle man and simply release a game where the whole planet is trying to kill you. I give you Insanely Twisted: Shadow Planet.
The story of this game begins on a far and distant world where the player takes control of a single unidentified and unnamed alien. This suspiciously adorable and small creature watches from an observatory as a mysterious dark matter collides with a nearby star, converting it into a giant writhing shadowy sphere that begins to rain down even more nefarious chunks on the surrounding planets, including the alien home world. Compelled to investigate, our extraterrestrial hero jumps into its ship and joins its people who are already attempting to stem the chaos being caused by this substance. Soon after, the player character finds itself transported to the ominous mass that has taken up residence in its solar system where the game truly begins.
IT:SP is the latest of a long line of cool, edgy arcade titles we’ve seen this year. It’s a 2D shooter with some amazing art, quirky mechanics and clever puzzles, not to mention substantiated homage’s to a few classics and a pretty unique atmosphere. The basic gameplay breakdown of IT:SP boils down to follow the objective marker, kill a boss, acquire new equipment, rinse and repeat. Now that’s not to say there isn’t a lot to see and do along the way. The whole game plays out upon a huge open map with interlinked tunnels and paths that can be back tracked. Dotted about are various collectables and upgrades many of which cannot be obtained until the player has acquired a certain piece of equipment. There’s a nice retro feel to the process and a bit of a nod to games like Zelda and Metroid. Combat is very flexible, the monstrous legions of the shadow planet have various weaknesses and immunities, some weapons are more effective while others are just practical. The result is satisfying but not too challenging which is a theme that runs right through the game.
There is no health bar or any other HUD indicator for damage, players need only look at the state of their ship and judge its condition, if it needs repair certain plants will dispel a small amount of aid or you can find a checkpoint, restore your health to full and automatically save your game. IT:SP’s save system is a fine example of how it should be done; other devs need to take notes.
One of the main pillars of IT:SP’s gameplay is its puzzles. Woven into many aspects of the game itself they can be rudimentary as is the case in combat or simply clearing debris, other times they are subtle and easily missed, some are blatant and require lots of tinkering and then there are the ones that are just boss battles. Essentially all the boss fights are just puzzles with an impending case of death if you can’t think on your feet. Generally they are welcome and I only took issue with two puzzles throughout the game namely the one where I had to reflect laser beams with crystals. This stumped for me some time as I did not realise inverting the crystals produced different results. This is not intuitive for two reasons, inverting the crystals is an arduous task and a gamble at the best of times, to make matters worse, both ends of the crystal basically look the same. The other problem in the second puzzle was caused by a difficulty locking onto desired targets with a tractor beam. Let me tell you right now, there is nothing more frustrating than trying to pick up a specific purple box in amongst a stack of purple boxes.
These however are minor gripes that do not detract from the experience as a whole, an experience woven together by the games atmosphere.
It’s a very atmospheric experience and Shadow Planet Games clearly tries something experimental here and I have to say it worked like a charm. This game has zero exposition, absolutely none, zip, zilch, nada. Not a spoken word of English and very, very rarely does it have any text on screen outside of the menu and why should it? You’re playing an alien in an environment alien to its own. The alien clearly doesn’t speak English and it knows nothing about the World it is in now. It is up to the player to discover what their equipment does and how best to put it to use, this ironically comes back to even your ships probe. This device is used to examine significant objects in your surroundings and how to interact with them but until you understand the symbols it’s showing you, by experimenting of course, it is next to useless.
Compound all the confusion you’re already having with your own gear and coming to grips with exploring a vast dangerous world where anything and everything could be deadly and you get a recipe for surprise.
If there is one thing I can say about this game is that it was able to surprise me, quite a lot in fact and I think a great deal of that is owed to the art style of IT:SP, a constant myriad of dark shifting silhouettes, things that look deadly turning out to be harmless, things that look harmless turning out to be deadly. All the different rooms and environments had something, enemies refracting lasers off the walls in the ice caverns, sea serpents that break apart into multiple enemies in the ocean level, gaping eyeballs emerging in the dark edges of the screen revealing themselves to be vicious bat like creatures the moment you turn your back and even though you know there is likely a boss waiting for you at your objective marker somehow it always catches you off guard. It’s fun and maybe even a bit frightening. The only thing missing is a little music now and then, throughout the whole game you only hear music at the being of the game and the end. I personally feel the atmosphere would have benefited greatly with the inclusion of a dark and tense score.
Now I know I’ve generally had nothing but kind words and praise for this game so far, you would think that I’ve been building up to a nice big score out of ten. Unfortunately IT:SP has one glaring flaw. It is short, I mean seriously short. On your first play through, if you decided to opt out on searching for concept art and such, if you just followed your objectives from goal to goal you could easily complete this game in a little under three hours. I myself completed it in just over four and a half hours, casually looking for collectibles, not really intending to search or anything and I got a 97% completion rating.
There is a multiplayer mode called lantern run where players can work together locally or online in a sort of survival game. Players each have a lantern they must protect whilst constantly being chased by a giant amorphous indestructible enemy. The goal of the game is to keep at least one lantern safe for as long as possible, along the way various enemies and obstacles will be placed in players paths that must be dealt with before their lumbering pursuer catches up. It’s fun, surprisingly tactical and it does a little to extend the lifespan of game but not enough.
At the end of the day it’s the campaign mode that wins your heart and ultimately leaves you wanting more, had it been maybe twice as long I could have easily given this game at least 9/10 but sadly it was not.
TGL SCORE 7/10
Format: Xbox Live Arcade
Developer: Shadow Planet Productions
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Release Date: Out Now