Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet, a new title from FuelCell Games, was the Xbox LIVE Arcade’s “Winter of Arcade” entry that I was most looking forward to. The stark red-and-black aesthetic presented in all the trailers seemed crisp and stunning, and looked like a great frame to a great game. And for the most part, that’s true.
Shadow Planet is a 2D shoot-em-up game that draws as much from Metroid as it does from any shmup. You’ll see the Metroidvania influence as areas of the map fill in piece-by-piece as you explore – and yes, you’ll be using that map for some backtracking. As your little alien ship explores the Shadow Planet, you’ll find and absorb upgrades to your ship in the form of new weapons and tools, as well as incremental upgrades to your basic weapon and shielding. One handy inclusion is the scanner tool, which on top of revealing the best weapon for defeating the enemies you encounter also indicates when you need a specific tool to bypass a lock or hazard. This also adds an indicator to your world map showing what tool you need to use to get past, which is very handy for locating sealed-off areas that you previously did not have the capacity to enter.
The weapon and shield upgrades are not required to progress through the game, but in the tail end of the campaign you’ll sorely feel the need for them. On top of all the new weapons and upgrades, scattered through the world map are pieces of collectible concept art and in-game movies in the form of ‘artifacts’, which slowly reveal how the shadow creature/meteor/disease spreads its way across the world. It’s actually an interesting little addition, and you’ll come across enough of them just making your way through the game to reveal at least a part of this content. It’s interesting to see, and the concept art displays a lot of concepts and enemies that didn’t make the final cut; given the inclusion of a “Downloadable Content” section in the menu, it’s possible that these concepts may turn up as DLC down the track.
The game looks great. That’s really all I need to say. Everything is portrayed in simple blacks and colour hues which shift as you move through the world. Almost everything on the Shadow Planet moves around as you pass it, leaving you unsure whether you’re passing an interesting piece of scenery or a new enemy lying in wait. I found myself avoiding touching the walls as much as possible on the off chance that my ship might be damaged, and it’s this kind of oppressive atmosphere that really sells the fact that this is not a friendly environment.
Within the game you’ll move through multiple zones, ranging from the initial ‘organic’ zone through underwater and technological areas, with most areas designed to show off a particular mechanic or use of a particular tool you’ve collected. For the most part the game is a good difficulty – get the hang of how to defeat a particular enemy and you’ve got no problems. You can also simply fly by with the occasional hit of damage, which is instantly healed every time you cross a golden checkpoint shield bubble. Working out how to bypass obstacles is engaging even with your scanner, as all the information it provides is given in symbols and images, meaning you still have to investigate for yourself a bit. The major challenge is of course the boss battles, and this is where things get more problematic.
Playing through Shadow Planet, I found most of the bosses more painful than challenging. Whilst the strategy is usually clear, especially with your scanner offering helpful hints, the execution is the big problem. One early boss features four nodes for you to shoot, requiring you to hit it as a pulse passes through it from the boss. The pulses move through silhouette-black tendrils that snake over each other, meaning you need to work out which node it’s headed for to shoot it. This in itself is not that difficult, but the low rate of fire and somewhat slow aim tracking of your weaponry makes it more difficult than it needs to be. The final boss is similarly unbalanced – it goes through multiple attack patterns with a bullet-hell feel before you defeat it entirely. The final stage however is ridiculous. Mr. Boss spews ammo at you like he’s having a fire sale, and your weaponry, again, can’t keep up. The only option I found was to repeat the first few stages over, and over, and over, and over again until I could survive them without any damage and then cross my fingers and hope to luck through the final stage. Constant repetition until you manage to scrape through is not a play style that a modern game should be promoting – that kind of methodology belongs in old arcade cabinets and Xbox LIVE Arcade remakes of old arcade cabinet games.
Overall, Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet’s campaign was an enjoyable play with a few bumps. Hopefully these balancing issues will be compensated for in a future patch, but they are not so major as to ruin the game. As it stands, I’m giving it 3.5 Arbitrary Objects out of five.