When Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet (ITSP) was first shown, its art design was the first thing that grabbed me - the bold colors and distinct environment and enemy designs stood out and the game remained stuck in my head even though I’m not usually a huge fan of shooters. Thankfully, ITSP is more than just a shooter; it’s also a Metroid-style exploration game where you get as far as you can with one tool, find a new one, and then unlock new paths in areas you’ve been before, but couldn’t access due to the lack of the proper tool. It’s a tried and true formula that has worked well for decades, and does the same here.
However, this is a more puzzle-heavy game than any 2D Metroid, and its usage of physics and logic puzzles reminds me a lot of Limbo, as does the fairly minimal sound design. Both games have unsettling sound design, but for different reasons. With Limbo, it was the squeaking and noises of the stuff you didn’t see on-screen, but you knew was there, and here, it’s more due to the enemies chirping and making noise that is very atmospheric and really captures the feel of being in an alien world. The minimal use of music was the most surprising thing to me because so few games now don’t just bombard you with noise that having music limited to boss battles made not only the boss battles stand out more, but also made the very idea of having music in a game seem like something special. I really liked that it’s one element of the game design that struck a cord with me.
However, other aspects of it are very hit and miss. The exploration-heavy gameplay won’t be for everyone anyway, and the execution here is a bit clunkier than it should’ve been. Even with the game giving you a general direction of where to go with destination markers on the map, there are times when you’ll be wandering around aimlessly with no idea of what to do next. The pacing is also all over the place as well, with things going from intense to rather placid at a moment’s notice. It’s pretty jarring and makes the game feel uneven.
Just using icons for the weapons and tools and not actually describing what they are or what they do hurts things as well. Even though there’s some internal logic at work with not having everything explained to you in an alien world, it doesn’t work well from a game perspective because it leads to more trial and error and frustration than is really needed. However, when you’re finally able to solve a tricky puzzle that stumped you, or find the tool you spend half an hour searching for to progress in the game, all of that frustration melts away and is replaced by a huge feeling of accomplishment. That feeling is also replicated when you defeat massive screen-filling bosses, and while they aren’t all over the place, they do absolutely scare you to death when you first encounter them because they’re so large and yet also come out of nowhere.
Despite those screen-filling enemies also bringing with them smaller underlings, there’s no slowdown. The whole adventure is a smooth one outfitted with some really sharp visual design. The blend of background and foreground colors is tremendous. You’ll go from black in the foreground and blue in the background to blue in the background, then a striking blue background with white in the foreground and then an orange and black color combination. The colors used not only reflect the environments well (like white and blue for the oceanic one), but are very impressive to behold. Even the game’s most mundane sections are at least a treat to look at thanks to the boldly-colored visual style.
While it has some flaws and a more cumbersome game design than is needed, ITSP winds up being a strange, yet engrossing journey that is worth taking. Even with the lantern run mode giving you some kind of diversion in both single and multi-player, it’s not a very deep or addictive mode, so this isn’t the most replayable XBLA game out there. At a bare minimum, check out the demo, which gives you a great idea of what to expect from the main game as far as its blend of action and exploration, and the mix of a more subtle audio mix and sharply-colored environments. If you love it, then definitely give it a shot ASAP, but if it doesn’t, then you’re probably better off waiting for it to be a deal of the week. I would recommend that anyone who likes the Metroid style of exploratory gameplay try it out though - you’ll probably enjoy it a lot.