Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet: Their main export is shadows
Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet is an artistically designed exploratory shooter for Xbox Live Arcade, developed by Shadow Planet Productions. Released on August 3, 2011 as part of Microsoft’s annual “Summer of Arcade” promotion, the game met with generally excellent reviews. Touted by many as a spiritual successor to games such as Super Metroid (SNES) and previous Summer of Arcade hit Shadow Complex, it certainly came across as a must-play title. But is it all it’s cracked up to be? I’ve finally gotten around to playing it, and I feel I’d be remiss in my duties if I didn’t make the Internet aware of my opinion.
You can’t review a game like this without touching on the unique art direction, so we may as well start there. More and more developers are taking advantage of the relatively small budget, small team, short turnaround world of downloadable games, experimenting with themes and art styles seldom seen in the play-it-safe world of AAA retail titles. Much like Playdead’s 2010 platformer Limbo, Shadow Planet makes use of silhouetted graphics against monochrome backgrounds, sparse music, and muted sound effects to establish a sense of isolation for the player.
This may come across as overly simple to kids raised on the gritty, brown, waist-high cover fields of Gears of War, but this is the kind of thing I always wanted to see while I was growing up with the Atari 2600 and the NES. Crisp, smooth, and beautifully animated. Simultaneously simple and complex, effectively conveying the idea of a harsh industrial zone or lonely underwater caves while still leaving so much to the imagination. Music is used extremely sparingly. What is there is supplied by Norwegian black metal band Dimmu Borgir, and it fits the tone of the game perfectly.
Once I got past being stunned by the overall presentation though, I began to feel like there might not be much else here. I freely admit that it’s unfair to judge a game based on third party comparisons to beloved classics, but on the other hand it seems apparent that those very comparisons are what the developers were trying to establish. Shadow Planet relies heavily on mechanics popularized by the Metroid and Castlevania series in the SNES era and beyond:
- Explore until you hit a door or a wall.
- Find the weapon or item that allows you to pass.
- Proceed, and repeat.
It feels like something is missing here though, that mechanic is pretty much all there is to the game. There isn’t much of a story outside exposition-free two second cinematics (obtained by picking up hidden collectibles), and the weapon upgrades never feel rewarding or powerful like in similar games. They exist solely to unlock the next door, and to defeat that area’s array of appropriately gimmicked enemies. Revealing squares of the world map has to serve as its own reward. So if that was your favorite part about Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, this game may be for you.
Every once in a while you will stumble across a room filled with a gigantic end boss. To me, they felt designed to emulate the epic giant boss fights of 16-bit shooters (and some of the better platformers). In the end though, they too fall flat. There’s no health to be chipped away at, no real battling to be done. Most are vulnerable to one and only one of your vast array of accessories, so after the ten seconds it takes you to determine which one, the enormous wall-mounted Kraken may as well just take his trucks and go home. It’s all over.
And so it goes. Open doors, eradicate some black pointy spores with your wildly flailing buzzsaw arm, pull the legs off another helpless boss with your crane machine arm. Do this about five times, and you’ve completed the story, such as it is. If you want you can go back and clean up those last few blocked-out spots on the map, but there won’t be much under there worth getting. At that point you will have hit 100% and seen everything this planet has to offer.
I’m not saying Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet isn’t worth playing, but I might be saying that it isn’t quite worth the asking price of 1200 Microsoft Spacebucks ($15 USD). It’s certainly pretty to look at, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with the gameplay if that’s what you’re into. Controls are fluid and responsive and the game works the way it is supposed to work. The game’s major downfall might be the lack of a coherent story, or the fact that a tiny black spaceship is a hard player character to develop an attachment to. Limbo is a similarly story-free and desolate game, but something about controlling a kid made me want to make sure he got to the end credits in one piece. It was hard to put down. Shadow Planet did keep me coming back, but the lack of urgency or reward meant I never stayed there very long.