Tuesday, August 9, 2011

REVIEW - Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet.

It's not often enough that a game un-apologetically acquires the progression system and exploratory structure of Metroid - a proven formula for allowing the player to consistently feel more powerful and capable than they did at the onset of the game, driving them forward with the promise of new toys and new areas to discover.

Likewise, it is perhaps too-rare that a celebrated artist takes the helm on a video game, and - given that half of this medium's moniker is about the visuals - it's no small consideration. Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet's look is largely indescribable unless you want to merely label it 'silhouettes with colors' - which naturally doesn't do it justice. The work of Michel Gagné - who earned his stripes working on Don Bluth cartoons before setting off on his own with independent work in animation and the celebrated Flight collections of short graphic novel narratives - provides ITSP with intensely unique two-D styling.

Its freakish look combined with its comfortable, time-tested structure allow it to be both a surprising and strangely run-of-the-mill experience.

Once upon a time, a tiny alien is chillin' in his tiny alien condo when an alarm goes off. Outside, a telescope extends from his home while a viewscreen reveals itself within. The creature tracks a bristling, spiny, black-and-red spore shooting across the galaxy, and observes its impact into a nearby star.

An explosion of darkness overtakes the star within seconds and sick, twisted forms of life begin populating the orb. It's like Star Trek III's Genesis Device crossed with The Fifth Element's Great Evil ink-planet.

Not one to just sit around while the universe is threatened, our hero hops into an iconic, humming little flying saucer and sets out to save the day.

The stage is set with a wonderful, wordless, short animation that offers less exposition than questions about the universe we find ourselves exploring. Fuelcell simply says "here's the stage, here's your objective - don't bug us with the small crap like how or why - just go find yourself the next weapon-slash-tool so you can move forward and see more zany scenery!"

On the one hand, that's a bit of a kick in the teeth. On the other? Shrug and nod - because that's frankly more than we got with Metroid twenty-five years ago. That being said, games have come a long way in the quarter-century since Samus's debut, and we've come to expect a bit more.

Where ITSP absolutely impresses are its visuals. Thanks to Gagné's influence, the title is consistently spectacular to look at - but even this is something of a double-edged sword. It doesn't take long for the player to become so comfortable in this mad world of sharp lines and uneasy curves that it ceases to thrill with its bold, detailed simplicity.

The title regularly sidesteps this pitfall as the mind of the player wanders. Play the game for a half-hour - go get a glass of water - and upon your return you find yourself momentarily shocked by how intensely beautiful Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet is.

Every few minutes while playing - as the little double-jointed robotic arm that extends from your space ship plucks up a piece of debris and flings it over your saucer's nonexistent shoulder - it'll hit you : you're playing a gorgeous, narrator-less Saturday morning cartoon.

This is an artsy, "silent" study in animation that happens to be player-controlled - and for that alone it is an unmitigated success.

The game's mechanics are often just as creative, with zones that play with wind flow or your ship's orientation providing a fresh twist on the title's simple physics. Most satisfying is that some of your tools and weapons have multiple uses, if you choose to explore them.

There is a force field tool that does just that - though it's only used to access a single area - but if you play around a bit you'll discover the robotic arm or buzzsaw arms are just as capable when it comes to defense. Simply grab a rock and bash your enemies out of the way with it.

Discovering the occasional dual-use for one of its weapons or tools allows one to feel suitably clever, but for a few of the tools no secondary use seems to exist (or I wasn't able to find it).

Dear Ice Cave Beam-Reflecting Crystals;
I hate you.

Perhaps more disappointing are the isolated occasions where an inelegant mechanic seems to be in direct conflict with the player's objective. Trying to carefully reflect a laser beam off a crystal shard to hit a small target is pretty frustrating, given that your ship - and so, the beam - are constantly hovering up and down ever-so-slightly, and trying to place a crystal into its required dock with the robotic arm is regularly infuriating.

More often than not, however, the game's dalliances in puzzle-solving are very successful. At the very least it has the most intuitively-solved Water Temple-style area I've ever come across - effectively redefining the term to actually apply to water puzzles - but as a general rule the game's quandaries are interesting and fun to solve.

Boss fights are the stars of the show, here - visually arresting and mechanically clever. All but the final boss are yummy, satisfying puzzles that require one or two of your discovered toolset - I'm particularly fond of the junk monster and the giant... sucking... tentacle thing:

Stunning visuals aside, Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet fails to eke out an identity beyond its art direction. That's not to say the game is by any means a failure - but neither does it feel like an addition to its genre that manages to carve its own path (despite the buzzsaw tool literally allowing you to carve paths).

I would have appreciated a modicum of depth to the act of flying your ship or a greater variety of uses for your toolset - but ITSP still establishes itself as a fun, good-natured title. It doesn't feel particularly compelling or special, but manages to be a capable and occasionally interesting title.

It is saved entire by the occasional grand view or fleeting moment of perfect animation. The way a laser cannon will zip up into the bottom of your ship just before a jointed arm extends with a very specific tool on its end.

The act of playing the game is well and truly defined by its merely-decent design, but the overall experience is salvaged from obscurity by the phenomenal presentation - and Fuelcell knows it. There's a reason this game doesn't have a HUD.

  • amazing visuals and animation
  • the way tools shoot in and out of your ship immediately brings to mind wonderful old-timey cartoons
  • very strong music
  • often excellent atmosphere
  • a good sense of progression and exploration
  • it's fun finding alternate uses for your tools
  • boss fights are (almost) always a fun puzzle to solve
  • the limited amount of exploration of the narrative and universe give it a sense of mystery that's rather compelling

  • the interesting universe is explored too little
  • the titular planet is rather small
  • it's not entirely irregular for a mechanic to not-quite-work or seriously outstay its welcome (burn in hell, Ice Cave Beam-Reflecting Crystals)
  • the final boss is a disappointment
  • the last level is totally uninteresting, compared to what came before
  • with no HUD, you'll find yourself constantly pausing to bring up the map
  • about half of your tools are completely under-used, or suffer from only having a single purpose
  • ends up not feeling very necessary

Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet is an incredibly good-looking game that mildly scratches one's appetite for Metroid's structure, but occasionally unfortunate design denies it true success.

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