Insane? No… it's Genius
HIGH The variety (and quality) in puzzle design.
LOW Having 100% map completion while still missing three Artifacts.
WTF the Shield power-up feels woefully underused.
Let me cut right to the chase—I almost gave Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet a perfect score. Considering that it's common for me to play through a year's worth of releases and never award double digits, admitting that I was so tempted is probably the (second) highest praise I can give—and it deserves every bit of it.
Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet is a download on Xbox Live Arcade that fits neatly into the "Metroidvania" genre. The formula of starting with next-to-nothing and then accumulating power-ups to facilitate exploration of a partitioned map should be well-known to most players, and it's a great foundation. However, the key to knocking a title like this out of the park is to ensure that the abilities gained are both interesting and functional, in addition to having a variety of situations in which to use them. Without nailing those elements, exploration is reduced to hours of opening locked doors with a boring set of keys.
As for Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet? The developers have nailed it.
Placing the player inside a nimble flying saucer, the adventure spans a number of environments filled with outstanding puzzles, and the top notch puzzles are supported by an abundance of quality power-ups, each with functions significantly different from the rest. With both aspects being exceedingly clever (and with a little help from the virtuoso art) it's not overstating the case to say that Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet is the perfect storm of its genre.
Darting through a hostile tunnel while volleying missiles is exciting, but then discovering that same missile becomes a remote-controlled device to open a gate up ahead is even better. I was delighted to manipulate small blocks with the game's version of a gravity beam, only to find that the beam serves double duty as a tether for pulling the saucer upstream through high-velocity currents. The ship's laser is a potent means of offense, but can also be used to ricochet behind enemy shields, or to bounce off of reflective surfaces for targets that are otherwise unreachable. These are just a few examples, but Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet is full of "aha!" moments and thoughtful applications of its mechanics, and because of this, time spent is a nonstop rush of discovery and experimentation.
The stellar gameplay is perfectly married to the stunning visuals. Every room and passageway is simply rendered in clean, silhouette-like style, yet never lacking in detail. Thanks to the imaginative design, the differences between each area are clearly discernible—the organic caves are crawling with tentacles and strange creatures, while the mechanical area seems almost entirely comprised of gears and moving parts. The amount of surprises and unique occurrences elevate the game, and it's safe to say that a player will find something new around every corner. With so much variety (and no repeated filler) Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet stays engaging from start to finish.
Topping it all is the game's rock-solid understanding of the phrase "show it, don't tell it." With no dialogue in the adventure whatsoever, the developers set up the story through visuals alone, and never rely on a narrator, audio logs, radio comms from an outside handler or any other sort of narrative shortcut. It's utterly refreshing to play a game from people who are crystal-clear about capitalizing on the innate, unique strengths of the medium and trust in it completely.
Even the multiplayer mode is of exceptional quality. Although the game could easily have been considered complete without it, Fuelcell has included a cooperative "Lantern Run" mode that supports up to four players, local or online. Featuring the same nimble craft from the main game, this mode strips out exploration and replaces it with a tension-filled rush to carry a beacon to the far end of a passageway filled with enemies and obstacles. The pace is set by an enormous alien squid constantly closing in, and progress can only be made with a high degree of teamwork. I'm not generally one for multiplayer, but the Lantern Run was something I kept coming back to.
Every aspect of Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet has been tuned, polished and groomed to the point that it's impossible not to recognize the craftsmanship and artistry that's gone into its creation. The pacing is perfect, the visuals are pure elegance, the puzzles are interesting and diverse, and there's not an ounce of fat on its bones. Fuelcell Games displays a savant-like grasp of the material they've created, and the result is easily one of 2011's best games.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the Xbox 360. Approximately 7 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. 4 hours of play were spent in multiplayer mode.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains mild fantasy violence. While certain areas of the game are a little creepy, I wouldn't say that there was any questionable content to warn young ones away. The violence consists of nothing more than a spaceship shooting missiles or lasers at alien creatures, and there's never any blood or gore. There is no sexual content and no questionable language. It may be a little on the darker side, but I'd say it's still quite safe to play for children old enough to grasp it.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: You will have no problems at all. There is no dialogue in the game of any kind, and there are no auditory cues necessary for gameplay. Everything is intensely visual and on display. It's totally accessible.