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Some gameplay mechanics stick around generation after
generation. They work so well that
the only trick is adapting them to new technology and finding new design
aesthetics to go with them. The
“Metroidvania” style of game design is one of these, and the Xbox Live Arcade
game Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet has
found a clever new way to use this kind of gaming.
Both Metroid and Castlevania put players in a vast location, with most of the paths blocked off at first. As the player explores they acquire new weapons and abilities that allow them to circumvent obstacles, blast through barriers and defeat previously-invulnerable enemies. Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet puts a unique spin on this by having players control a tiny spaceship, rather than a human avatar.
Players will guide their alien craft through a series of hostile environments filled with enemies and deadly traps. The ship can hover, and flying through the levels adds a distinct feel to the game as opposed to Metroid, or Shadow Complex who have characters that jump and climb through the levels. The flying controls are smooth, and levels are often built around the idea of making players use height and gravity to solve puzzles and such. The saucer has a robot arm which can be used to manipulate objects, along with a variety of weapons and tools.
There are a couple of standard alien lasers, a scanner, and a shield, along with some more visually interesting weapons, like a giant spinning saw blade. A neat addition to this kind of gaming is the guided missile. This works a lot like the guided missiles in the older Metal Gear Solid games, and players can use these projectiles to navigate narrow areas of the levels that are too small for the ship to fly through. They can also be used for straight forward combat.
There’s an effective physics engine, and a few sequences
require the player to use these weapons in clever ways. Sometimes this is just shoving boxes
around with a telekinesis beam, but other times it takes some brain power, such
as deflecting laser beams at the right angle. One innovative sequence allows players to rotate the entire
world, granting access to narrow spaces that the flying saucers couldn’t fit
The alien craft is trying to gather lost bits of equipment to fight off a swarm of evil, dark creatures that are attacking an alien planet. There’s no dialog to explain the story in detail, but players can certainly figure out that the scary monsters are bad, and the levels are designed in such a way that you know what to do even if you don’t know the specific ideas behind why. Again, Scary Monsters = Bad.
The visual design is very distinct, and is the highlight of
the game. Most of the planet has a
retro-futuristic look, depicting alien worlds in the same manner that 50’s
science fiction films did. The
monsters that inhabit this world look like shadow puppets, though. They’re black, without texture, and
have tentacles, fanged maws, and spindly legs. They’re delightfully creepy, and fun to fight. Aside from zapping them with your blaster, you can also use weapons like a telekinesis beam to shove them into
environmental hazards, or use your robot arm to grab objects and wield them
Even though it has excellent gameplay and art, Shadow Planet is short and easy. Experienced players should be able to blast through it in around six hours. There are some hidden items, and upgrades, but the difficulty doesn’t require hunting them down, and they won’t extend play time by much.
It has a basic multiplayer mode as well. This “Lantern Run” tasks a group of players with shepherding lanterns through a cavern while an unstoppable giant monster chases them. Power-ups arrive with each new section of the cavern, but it’s basically a race against the inevitable end. It can be played solo, although you’ll get much further with a team. While this minigame adds a little bit of fun to the process, it doesn’t compensate for the overall short length of Shadow Planet, and the limited replay value.
Still, that’s the only complaint I have about this project. Being left wanting more isn’t a bad thing, and Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet will definitely leave you with a desire to further explore this world. One can only hope that DLC is on its way.