Bounty hunters, vampire killers....and a UFO?
Quite frankly, this is the part where I'd be going "it's like they went into my head and made a game for me!" since everything about Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet (which will now be shortened to "ITSP" just for the fun of it) is exactly the kind of thing I love in games. The genre? The so-called "Metroidvania" style where you're given a gigantic map with interconnected rooms, secret passageways and hidden goodies and environmental puzzles that you'll need to return to once properly equipped. The art style? Beautiful yet uniquely abstract in that it just doesn't really look like a lot of games currently available, or if it does, it's certainly not immediately apparent. Yet unfortunately, inspiration in the forms of Super Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and its successors can only take you so far and that's where ISTP stumbles a tad: certain fundamentals aren't there and it's not as "classic" as the games it's emulating.
The game starts off in a pseudo-vague yet very cool manner as some...thing is attacking your planet and corrupting it and its inhabitants and even wiping out some of your buddies. As a lowly UFO, you're tasked in travelling and investigating various areas around the planet as you gain new abilities, find artifacts that show off parts of the game's backstory and defeat the bosses as you take back your planet. In that regard, ITSP is like a lot of similar Arcade titles of late where the setup and intrigue of the story is given yet the very smaller details are not given. So if you received Samus's backstory about her life with the Chozo, her past with Ridley and her adventures as a bounty hunter, this game gives a premise, some little videos and that's it and that's alright by me. Unlike certain other games of its kind, ITSP never feels pretentious in its storytelling, like it's being intentionally vague and calling it "deep storytelling". It's a beautiful yet bizarre world with just enough intrigue in its world to make you keep playing.
Like mentioned above, the core gameplay is very much in the style of Metroid and Castlevania games with some twin-stick shooting for its controls. You're given a large map and exploring it will allow you to gain new abilities, unlock new doors, access hidden areas and gain new powers so you can re-enter areas and explore those last pieces of the map not filled out. It's certainly a compelling gameplay mechanic and trying to 100% a map can be strangely addicting. However, ITSP does one slight misstep in that it's a bit too hand holding and also doesn't quite give you as much opportunities to explore. Many times in these kind of games, you'd scour the map trying to figure out how to proceed only to have that "a-ha, here it is!" moment. However in this game, every objective will be clearly shown to you on the map which makes it oddly linear for a genre known for encouraging exploring. It's relatively straightforward design is part of this as well since, with only the barest intent of exploring every nook and cranny, my map progress said 88%....err? It is a gorgeous world to be sure, there's just not enough of it.
Also, I found weapon switching to be kind of problematic as it either uses a radial wheel or hotkeys using the face buttons. In one sequence, switching between my mechanical arm to avoid being sucked into a giant spider's mouth and shooting it was problematic since going from one to the other took way too long and it can get annoying trying to switch items mid-battle, especially if something you need isn't hot-keyed.
Graphically, ITSP is definitely a gorgeous game. Its art style is incredibly unique, boss battles are imposing and the cinematics look pretty great as well. This is really welcoming especially after the personally disappointing "Shadow Complex" which was basically a bland military-guys-and-a-power-suit look that I've seen plenty of times over. This game though does share more similarities to Outland than let's say, Limbo, where the colors are not as eye-popping yet help maintain a cool sense of color throughout. The various "worlds" are well designed as well from an aquatic area, one involving rotating gears and machinery and a "cool" looking ice world. The only negative in the worlds, and this is sort of a big one, is one that's practically drenched in darkness and requires a lantern to light your way. You'll constantly be harassed by this giant squid trying to steal your lantern (which has piss poor light range, by the way), small little bug things that do damage and the whole area was just tedious.
When it comes down to sound though, the game works well in this aspect too. Sound effects are great but what I really loved was the music. I'll admit, I definitely felt the cringe when I found out Dimmu Borgir was supplying music. While I love metal, I can't stand the bands where the singer sounds like he has a live rat in his throat (or he's been smoking for 300 years) so imagine my surprise when the game's filled with minimal ambient soundscapes. Light yet foreboding keyboards and some 1950's inspired touches help give the game a unique personality and though it doesn't have catchy "themes" per se, it's still a soundtrack that compliments the game perfectly.
The game does contain a multiplayer mode but not the kind you'd expect. Dubbed "Lantern Run", up to 4 players carry a lantern through a series of randomly generated areas as you escape this big giant monster chasing after you. Reminiscent of the "F*cking Run" mode from F.E.A.R. 3, it can be a pretty intense experience (they should've called the mode F*cking Swim), is way more fun with more players (naturally) though I suspect most will just get the achievements then call it a day. It's not the biggest game in terms of replay value but there's at least stuff to do once you're at 100% in the main game which won't take long.
Despite a couple of unfortunate quirks, Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet (done with the acronyms now) is probably my favorite Summer of Arcade title so far. A small length, some gameplay quibbles but filled with enough secrets and hidden areas to at least gain some replay value, if you're a fan of the genre, then this game is a no-brainer.