In contrast to its wordy title, Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet is one of those games that's easy to describe as an amalgam of elements from other notable releases of the last few years. In this case, they're all downloadable games like this one. Start with the ability-driven, backtracking gameplay and graph-paper map of Shadow Complex, blend in the floaty flight controls of PixelJunk Shooter, and coat with a beautiful silhouetted art style reminiscent of Limbo. The sum of these parts is an airy third entry in this year's Xbox Live Summer of Arcade that won't tax your skills much, but makes for a fun and easygoing ride while it lasts.
Shadow Planet hinges on the same 2D gameplay formula that underpins Shadow Complex, Metroid, and most of the latter-day Castlevanias, where you continually pick up new abilities as you explore that let you double back and get into previous areas you couldn't access the first time. Here, those abilities include a buzzsaw, tractor beam, reflective laser, and an all-purpose jointed grasping arm that lets you pick up and move objects around, or grab onto certain surfaces and anchor your ship when you're caught in a strong current.
All of these items operate with sensible dual-joystick controls that especially give the up-close abilities like the saw and grabbing arm a tactile, one-to-one feel. Some of the ranged weapons are a little less reliable, though; it's tough with a couple of them to see where you're going to shoot until you already shoot. Some sort of onscreen aiming cue or reticle would have helped, since the little animated weapons attached to your ship aren't always sufficient on their own, especially when the camera pulls way out in some areas. There are a few other weird inconsistencies in the way the grab arm works and such that make the gameplay occasionally feel a little rough, but there are very few instances where that directly impacts your ability to get through a given area. At least the movement control feels spot-on. You've got great maneuverability, and your ship has the perfect amount of weight to it.
Actually, your very first ability in the game is an omnidirectional scanning beam that shows you exactly which ability to use on each enemy and environmental obstacle you encounter. Of course you're free not to use the scanner if you want to rely on the ol' trial and error, but its presence belies a broader theme in this game's design: it's almost painfully straightforward. From the outset, the map shows you most of the "points of interest" where upgrades, collectibles, and ability-specific obstacles are located, and it automatically annotates each of these points with the ability you need to use on it once you've scanned it, so it's especially easy to head back to all the icons for a given ability once you've picked it up.
There's never any guesswork involved in where you need to go, and very little in where you can go, since all of the nooks and crannies on the shadow planet are quite obvious either on the map or in the course of your exploration. I only found one of what I would truly consider a hidden area in the whole game, yet I finished the campaign lacking only two collectibles out of dozens, and I didn't even go out of my way looking for those. Don't get me wrong, this game is plenty entertaining and offers a lot of unique things to do and look at, but you may feel like you breezed through it and saw most of its sights more leisurely than you'd expect from a game of this type.
It sure is a great-looking game, full of greasy-looking tentacles and weird insectoid enemies that all animate like they're straight out of an animated feature film. That goes for the different environments as well, which have you zooming around underwater, through ice caverns full of laser-reflecting crystals, and in a mechanized area where flying inside rotating gears gives the illusion that the entire world itself is rotating around your stationary ship. There's a unique character to the game's visual presentation that alone nearly makes this game worth the price of admission. It's a joy just to look at. Look at it yourself and you'll see what I'm talking about.
When you finish the relatively brief campaign, you've still got the "lantern run" multiplayer mode, and that might be one of the best things in this package. It's a strictly scrolling-to-the-right affair where you and up to three others use your ship's grabby arm to each drag your own lantern through an increasingly tough obstacle course, all while a screen-spanning tentacle monster relentlessly pursues you. Since the arm counts as a weapon, you have to drop the lantern in cases where you need to fight enemies to advance, or use the arm or buzzsaw to clear other obstacles, so you get into a lot of fast-paced fight-or-flight strategizing from moment to moment here.
The best part about lantern run is that the order of the enemies and challenges seems to be somewhat randomized each time you play it. The worst part is that the difficulty doesn't seem to differ much (or at all) whether you're playing alone or with other people, making it pretty overwhelming when you're going solo. But lantern run is a blast with a full group of players taking turns carrying lanterns, fighting enemies, and clearing out obstacles so everyone can get through. Lantern run makes high-level demands on your skills that the single-player campaign never does.
Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet may not offer the depth or distraction of the standouts in this specific subgenre, but it still effectively scratches the same itch as those games, and it does it with style. While it's hard to resist wishing that there were more of this game to experience, it's just as easy to enthusiastically appreciate what's already here.