Version tested: Xbox 360
Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet is an unfamiliar pairing of familiar components.
The style is silhouette indie chic - a more colourful Limbo, a less intricate Pixel Junk Eden, a more serious World of Goo - each frame rendered in pin-sharp black vector ink thatís only just beginning to fade from fashion.
Itís a whisper world of foreground shadows and background soft focus shapes, of proto-life forms with feelers and pincers but no words. Craggy ceilings and underground lakes are the sights here. You may play as a flying saucer from the future, but everything around you has the feel of the primordial, an embryo domain of clicks and ominous keyboard swells.
Meanwhile, the structure is pure Super Metroid, depositing your diminutive spaceship into a 2D labyrinth. Your task is simple: chart the world by visiting every nook and cranny. Your progress in this aim is hampered by a series of convoluted locks, which require the correct key to be in your possession before they will let you though.
As such, in contrast to the try-hard zany name, Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet is essentially a game about tools and choosing the right one for the right job. Thereís the circular saw, which you must use to cut your way through the brittle rock. And, once youíve mastered this by applying it in a variety of situations, thereís the grappling claw that must be used to clear boulders and so on.
The drip feed of new tools continues across the gameís five hours. Puzzles scale with a mathematical elegance as the problems set before you require ever more elaborate combinations of tools before theyíll yield.
These are, of course, the foundation principles of all good game design: press a single tool into the playerís hands, and provide an opportunity for them to master it before presenting another. These principles rendered in the Metroidvania style have a clarity that is timelessly compelling, and Shadow Planet benefits greatly from the tried and tested formula.
Control of the ship is tight and satisfying. The game controls like a twin stick shooter, the left analogue stick controlling your movements, the right angling whichever of the nine bolt-on tools you have active at any given point. These are selected via a radial menu, with shortcuts to your favourite four manually mapped to the d-pad. Your ship has an unseen health meter, sprouting red fungus on its hull to show you how close it is to death, a sign that is washed away every time you pass through one of the regular checkpoint spheres that punctuate the world.
While its name implies oodles of charisma, in reality Shadow Planet suffers from a unwavering lack of character. The alien ship is a cold, near-silent avatar, and the world it seeks to penetrate is unforgiving and without warmth or solace. The decision to eradicate all text from the game adds to the style, but the lack of narrative and premise makes this an icy, clinical game that relies entirely upon the strength of its mechanics to provide motivation to its player.
In this regard, while the game benefits from the Metroidvania template, it falls short of its inspirations in the details. Thereís a lack of excitement every time you unlock a new weapon, derived from the fact itís not always immediately clear what each one does.
Meanwhile, the puzzles, while often ingenious, are also fussy. For example, midway through the game you must painstakingly arrange a series of crystals to refract light towards a larger crystal in order to shatter it from your path. Itís a well-orchestrated conundrum that fails to give any jolt of relief or excitement when itís solved, as you worked out how to complete the puzzle long before your thumbs managed to set the stage for the solution.
Another of the more frustrating vignettes has you firing a guided missile down a series of tight winding corridors to strike a lock at the far end. Bounce the rocket off the wall too many times and itíll explode before it reaches its target, forcing a restart. Thereís even that scourge of Zelda games, a water temple area, in which you must raise and lower the level of the liquid to fill lakes and trigger switches.
Outside of the main campaign, Lantern Run provides a multiplayer diversion. Up to four players see how far they can carry a series of lanterns before everyone is killed by enemies or all of the teamís lights are extinguished by the encroaching darkness. Your teamís score is measured in metres, and while each run starts out the same way, the map is dynamic, changing from attempt to attempt. Itís a strong addition to the package; well thought out and executed, it provides more thrills and excitement and most importantly, companionship than the single player campaign.
Back in the campaign, thereís nothing here to distract from the fact that this is a series of key and lock puzzles, with little else to upset that repetitive rhythm. Itís a game for players that appreciate a pure, mechanical approach to game making, for whom not only story but also character and theme are over-complications of the purity of video-gameness.
Thatís fine. There is a unique sort of beauty to be found peeling back a metaphor to see the interlocking cogs of game design. But when you are being asked to invest in a world to the extent that you want to unlock its deepest secrets, you need that world to be mesmerising, issuing a siren call to your spirit to inspire all that effort. Moreover, those mechanics must click into place in a satisfying way, something that Shadow Planet never quite manages.
The joy of Shadow Complex, Super Metroid and Castlevania Symphony of the Night was just as much to do with the character of the place we were asked to reveal as the role we assumed to do it. We wanted to find out the secrets of these castles because they promised, in their conquering, we might uncover greater secrets and truths.
Neither Shadow Planets world nor your avatar within it inspire that level of interest. There is no metagame driving you forward here, other than the drive to explore for explorationís sake. So what's left is the nucleus of a Metroidvania game, mechanically functional and regularly interesting, but a shadow of its inspiration nonetheless.
6 / 10