Darkness gets used in interesting ways in various video games. For stealth series like Splinter Cell, it’s empowering, letting you strike unaware antagonists in total silence. Coalesced shadow was the metaphorical and literal enemy itself in last year’s Alan Wake, where a dark presence possessed ordinary townspeople and made them demonic killers.
Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet differs from either of those games by using darkness as more of an aesthetic pillar than a design mechanic. You’re not manipulating the absence of light here; you’re battling sentient tendrils of it in a game that pulls you into the cover of night from the very beginning.
Developed by Shadow Planet Productions—an indie partnership between Joe Olson’s Fuelcell Games and comics artist/animator Michel Gagné—the visuals of Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet make it dangerously seductive.
As the story goes, a faraway planet launches an inky probe which blacks out the sun. The ooze-covered star then sends out additional probes that submerge the other planets in the system into darkness, too. You play as an alien looking to investigate and reverse the shadow attacks at the source.
At least, that seems like what’s happening, since ITSP unfolds wordlessly, which adds to its creepy vibe. But the palpable dread ITSP harbors gets mixed with old-school elements that infuse it with a sense of intrepid adventure. Your thumbs will recall arcade classics like Asteroids and Robotron 2084 in the game’s UFO avatar and dual-stick controls.
The conceptual building blocks of ITSP readily show off other bits of shared video game DNA in the game’s look and architecture. You’ve got a gorgeous silhouette art style that feels kindred to Limbo—the masterful minimalist alpha game from last year’s Summer of Arcade. But the shadows get shot through with color here, which invites players to venture even deeper. The game’s various sections sport different design cues, too, so the gooey organic feel of earlier parts gives way to sharp angles and fantastic machinery later on.
ITSP sports a nice blend of puzzle-solving and shooting that doesn’t lock you into using either method to progress through the world. For example, you can shoot a hostile plant to temporarily stop it from spitting projectiles at you or you can yank off the snout and permanently end the fusillade. But certain areas won’t be accessible until you get the right weapons or tools to unlock access to them.
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That’s where the elements from the design style dubbed “Metroidvania” show up—so named for the Metroid and Castlevania games—where you revisit locations in the game world after finding new weapons or tools to explore previously locked places. In ITSP, once you get the claw attachment for your UFO saucer, for instance, you’ll be able to move rocks that previously blocked your progress. Later on, you’ll get force fields that reflect lasers, missiles that you can steer into spots too small for your ship, and other add-ons that will let you fly through every nook and cranny of the Shadow Planet.
While the Metroidvania mechanics might feel familiar, the whole milieu feels utterly alien. Playing through this game world is like stumbling into a subterranean universe where life evolved differently and creatures don’t need light. At first, figuring out just how to get going is frustratingly opaque (pun intended). Getting to that vital first weapon might stymie you, but once you get it, you’re able to go deeper—both literally and figuratively—into the planet’s intricate maze structure.
You’ll get to explore with friends, too, in Lantern Mode, ITSP‘s co-op offering and you’ll be able to play with three friends who are either in the same room or joining you online. Your squad’s tasked with going ever deeper into an inky trench blocked with various obstacles and each player will need to deploy their ship’s specific gadgets in tandem with others.
The goal is to clear the way for the person bearing the titular lantern to go as far down as possible, and the trench’s hazards get randomized each time so you’ll get a new experience with every play-through. While ITSP‘s main campaign doesn’t have much replay value, Lantern Mode will bring your buddies and you back for more.
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Exploration is the main draw for Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet. You’re plunged into this abjectly hostile ecosystem, faltering along its abortive trails and flummoxed by its cul-de-sacs. But with every addition to your arsenal, you get to feel a little more powerful and a little more free to roam.
ITSP isn’t bursting at the seams with possible metaphorical readings the way that Bastion and From Dust are, but that’s okay. The latest title in the 2011 Summer of Arcade class boasts great aesthetics and clever, interlocking design that favors bravery and ingenuity. For a planet made of shadows, you’ll be charmed by its brightness.
Techland Score: 8.7 out of 10