Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet is the third release in Microsoft’s Summer of Arcade promotion for the Xbox 360. It comes to us from Shadow Planet Productions, which consists of two teams, with the art being handled by Gagne International and the gameplay being developed by Fuelcell.
With that said, this game should already pique your interest if you know the designer's backgrounds. More specifically, Michel Gagne (from Gagne International) is a talented animator that worked at Warner Bros., Pixar, and Disney, working on films such as The Iron Giant and Osmosis Jones. With a pedigree like this, it’s no wonder that the game looks so good, and not to mention natural.
In fact, it’s one of the most poignant aspects of the game and the first thing you’ll while notice playing the game; not because it’s bad, but because the animations are so smooth, and the art direction of the game is lively, as if Limbo was given earthy, pastel backgrounds. The designers fuse detail into almost everything, from the small bubble trail your spaceship leaves in its wake to the shadows that try to kill you or just the spiked machinery that idles through its range of motions.
The developers even give artistic thought to the puzzles you must complete.
Not only that, but the consistency of Shadow Planet's design throughout its different areas is well done too. The whole game has a very childlike playfulness to its construction, and it really works in the game’s favor. The separate areas all radiate a specific tone accentuated by the diverse colors, enemy variety, and environment layouts.
For example, in the water level, you feel confined moving through these narrow, dark, twisty tunnels, which are reinforced by the stained, dark blue pigments. But moving into the next area, the mechanical area, the spaces are bigger and blocky with smooth edges as opposed to jagged ones, as the cogs and orange color palette recreates the imagery of a factory. I know most people are going to realize these details subconsciously, but they make Shadow Planet better for it because they immerse you, or at least give the player a sense of believable context to their surroundings.
But of course, no game can ride solely on the design alone. A game must also control well, and luckily Shadow Planet delivers on that front too… mostly. The movement in the game feels solid, and the ship has a good weight to it, if not a little on the floaty side.
For those who aren’t aware, Shadow Planet is a dual-stick shooter, reminiscent of the PixelJunk Shooter series. Here, the game has its problems. The shooting lacks the pinpoint precision inherent to the genre, and weapon switching feels clunky and odd. The right stick doesn't seem to respond as well as the left one. As I mentioned earlier, the ship handles fine on the left analog stick, but using the right stick to fire (combined with the right trigger) or to select weapons (combined with right bumper) feels like you can never quite aim in the direction desired. This is a major issue in a twin stick shooter where both sticks are equally important. Also, even though you can map four weapons to the face buttons on the fly, you still have to use that radial menu to place map them where you want.
Along with moving and shooting, you’ll be doing plenty of other tasks that the genre lends itself to, such as collecting a certain power-up to progress to the next area, killing bosses every time you reach the end of a zone, and then backtracking your way through the entire map to gather that one piece of hidden concept art.
Now it’s not that Shadow Planet does any of these things poorly – it does them well actually – but it doesn't reinvent the genre in any way worth mentioning. It’s probably the biggest fault of the game that it does almost everything by the book. For a game with a strong opening and Limbo-like visual style, the developers play it safe, falling back on well-known conventions to line its gameplay.
Also, the complete lack of story was disappointing, but I honestly didn’t notice enough to care. I finished the game with a near 100% completion in about four or five hours, and it only becomes difficult in the later areas, or more specifically, the final area. The 42 collectibles and 18 ship upgrades litter the environments in plain sight, but the power-ups rarely stand out, except for the arm but only because it was so damn awful to control with the right stick.
Despite being a simple-looking game with a consistent and well-designed aesthetic, Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet feels slightly too generic to stand out from the crowd. Even though the majority of the gameplay is solid, the developers' lack of willingness to innovate was disappointing.
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Developer: Fuelcell Games/Gagne International
Release Date: August 3, 2011
Number of Players: 1 (Campaign), 1-4 (Cooperative)
Platforms: Xbox Live Arcade (Reviewed)