Xbox Live Arcade is best known for bringing hit indie games like Braid, Limbo, and Bastion into the world. All of these games have simple gameplay-mechanics, coupled with fantastically tight design, and excellent presentation, and while it was not released to the fanfare of these titles, Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet really stands among them.
Like many of its XBLA brethren, Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet is a 2D side scroller, though instead of a head stomping, jumpy little guy determined to get from left to right, you zoom around in a little flying saucer, able to equip one tool or weapon at a time. Everything is out to kill you or block your way, and the game is largely about exploration and gathering new abilities to unlock new areas in the manner of Super Metroid or Zelda: A Link to the Past.
Controls are tight and intuitive, making it easy to use all the weapons and tools you eventually acquire. All equipment is controlled with the right analogue stick, which can be problematic when you must be precise, but overall it’s not a huge problem. The camera is completely controlled automatically, and in this case, works beautifully. There’s a diverse set of enemies, which will keep you on your toes, and while some portions of the game are unforgivingly difficult, there is a generous set of save spots, which double as healing sanctuaries to keep you from getting too frustrated. Levels are punctuated with challenging and truly memorable boss fights, something modern games have largely forgotten. These bosses fit each level’s theme and give you a well-deserved sense of accomplishment on completion before allowing you to move on to the next section.
An exploration-based game is no fun if the world you must explore is boring, and fortunately the game does not disappoint. Unlike many other 2D indie side-scrollers (Lone Survivor, Super Meat Boy), Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet ditches the intentionally retro aesthetic in favor of an almost graphic novel style. The game has six distinct sections, each with its own distinct visual-style. Settings vary from damp, swampy caves, to an otherworldly underwater section, to a messy clockwork area, and plenty more. Otherworldly is the best word to describe the colorful artwork, which is truly imaginative and drop-dead gorgeous.
Make no mistake, visually, this is one of the best games I’ve ever played. In terms of its aesthetic, the only disappointment is perhaps the soundtrack, which features an excellent theme song and is otherwise mostly uninteresting. While it’s never bad, it fails to be the positive contributor that the soundtracks of Braid and Bastion were.
Perhaps the game’s biggest shortcoming is its level design, which leaves many areas locked until you get better equipment. This wouldn’t be a big issue if there was a better network of shortcuts, but I found myself backtracking quite a bit to get to locked areas. Additionally, there’s essentially no plot, which isn’t a bad thing (Limbo showed a minimalist plot can be tremendously successful), but also doesn’t win the game any additional points.
Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet puts you into a world that manages to be both dark, but colorful, eerie, and beautiful, and ultimately a delight to explore. I’ve been asked how it compares to Limbo, and I think it has Limbo beat in many ways. While Limbo really set a mood, Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet does so as well, but with more fun core gameplay, more variation in the aesthetics, and fewer frustrating roadblocks. Regardless of which game you prefer, Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet is a great game to pick up on XBLA for 800 Microsoft Points (~$10 USD), despite its minor issues and relatively short length.
Presentation: 93% – Points deducted for uninteresting soundtrack and lack of plot
Gameplay: 95% – Points deducted for minor frustrating portions, excessive backtracking, and difficultly using robotic arm
Extra Credit: +1% – This game includes concept art, a multiplayer mode, and manages to be both unique and throwback.