INSANELY TWISTED SHADOW PLANET — A REVIEW

Developer: Shadow Planet Productions

Platform: PC (tested on) / 360

Australian rating: PG

One of the ugliest words in the game reviewer vocabulary is ‘Metroidvania’. Maybe ‘addicting’ is uglier, but it’s a close one. It’s what we call 2D games like Metroid or Castlevania where you explore a dangerous world full of respawning enemies, collecting upgrades to your weapons and toolkit, slowly gaining access to areas that were previously locked off. They’re built on the odd assumption that what we really enjoy is backtracking and lots of it, preferably while fighting the same bad guys each time we revisit an area. Maybe we could call them something else, like ‘backtrackathons’ or ‘flattened Zeldas’.

These are just ideas.

Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet is a backtrackattack in which you pilot a dinky flying saucer with a raygun around a planet full of nasty creatures who are launching an invasion on your homeworld. Calling it Insanely Twisted might be over-egging things a little, but it’s certainly unusual looking. The dark foregrounds and bright but limited colours are eye-catching, and creepy waving tentacles obstruct your path like strings of beads between rooms in a hippie’s flat.

The aliens themselves have a sort of underwater fungus theme, some looking like squids crossed with mushrooms while others are amorphous spiky blobs. Each time they damage you an ominous bass note rumbles away like an iceberg clanging into the Titanic and your ship begins to look overgrown with fungi, until you make it to the next glowing save bubble. There’s a kind of lonely charm to seeing your ship putter along through enormous caverns, horribly outnumbered by enemies but giving absolutely zero fucks.

As well as the raygun you pick up a variety of attachments that are for some reason scattered across Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet along with collectables like concept art. Each tool is roughly in the area you’re going to need it of course, making the world seem less Insanely Twisted and more Rather Helpful, but there you go. There’s a claw that can pick things up, a circular saw for cutting through rocks, a laser that can be bounced off reflective objects, a tractor beam and so on. They’re a fun variety, although as soon as you get the tractor beam that can pick up blocks you know that you’re going to face a variety of block-moving puzzles and those are always tedious.

The further you explore the Insanely Twisted But Honestly Not That Bad Shadow Planet, the more you encounter areas that will make you sigh. After an opening  that’s refreshingly different, you’re soon doing the typical underwater level and the ice level and the factory level, with a boss at the end of each. The puzzles become increasingly frustrating as well, because of an odd decision to communicate everything with pictographic glyphs rather than words, which makes the clues outstandingly vague. It’s not a long game, but it feels like the good ideas got used up at the start of the story.

As well as that story there are a couple of multiplayer modes that, and this is a nice touch, can also be played by yourself if you’re Johnny Got No Friends. One involves dragging a lantern through dangerous rooms while being pursued by an all-devouring, screen-filling tentacle beast, while the other has you dragging a bomb through dangerous rooms into the centre of an asteroid to blow it up. They’re similar, but the lantern chase mode definitely has the advantage, with that inevitable squid monster urging you onwards as you work together to combat the darkness. After the alienating loneliness of the single-player mode – especially noticeable when the viewpoint pulls back to show off a boss and you’re reminded how tiny and overwhelmed you are – it’s nice to be joined by friends, even if you’re all doomed to be eaten.

Or it would be nice, if I wasn’t Johnny Got No Friends over here.

***

Second opinions: Simon Parkin, Richard Clark, Edge