Comic-Con 2011: Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet Hands-On Preview

I didn’t expect to find an Xbox 360 with Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet sitting unoccupied at Microsoft’s Xbox Lounge at the Hard Rock Hotel in San Diego during Comic-Con 2011. It was just resting there, alone; beckoning. So I sat down with the little side-scrolling piece of intrigue, not really knowing what to expect having not really followed the game. But I was controlling a flying saucer — which was all right by me.

Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet is a 2-D game of maze exploration in the sort of Metroidvania realm, which is also all right by me. I found myself dropped onto a black and purple world of silhouettes and shadows not unlike the stylized look of LIMBO. ITSP is a member of this year’s haul of Xbox 360 Summer of Arcade downloadable titles; last year, LIMBO took center stage on the promotion. While I doubt ITSP will overshadow the much-hyped Trenched as this year’s Summer of Arcade indie darling, it’s still a fun and polished experience that seems worth a download.

Mostly, the game concerns cruising around the shadow planet, exploring its tunnels and figuring out where to go next. I found I had several tools at my disposal on my saucer, with room for more — a laser turret for taking down hostiles and a claw for grabbing things, for starters. Both descend from the bottom of the saucer on a thin robotic arm and both are aimed in a ring around the ship using the Right Analog Stick. Flying around is done with the Left Stick.

There are puzzles to solve along the way — mostly of the “where the hell am I supposed to be going” variety, in which you’ll hit dead ends and find yourself looking for new paths. The game is visually striking, obviously, and Michel Gagne’s art style leaps off the screen in many respects. It’s an ominous place that’s fully alive, and

The Left Stick is for driving the ship, but ITSP is fraught with danger even during my demo. Just about everything occupying the tunnels through which I flew wanted to murder me. It was actually kind of shocking, because while I knew the planet would be out to get me, as the title pretty clearly suggests, I didn’t think it’d be quite so good at it. Things just aren’t dangerous if you meander too close the cilia-cover walls or happen across the wrong stationary monster — the walls are actively trying to kill you from across the screen, heaving explosive spores your way or shooting out sticky tongue-like protrusions to snag you out of the air and draw you into destruction. Often your only means of defense is to hammer away with your laser gun, and it’s a damn good thing you have it, too.

I wandered through the tunnels of ITSP in no particular direction, just trying to find my bearings. Before long, I stumbled on something useful: an upgrade for my spacecraft, which made it look a little more flying saucer and a little less wind-swept umbrella. The armor made it a little more resistant to damage, but I still took a pummeling whenever I wasn’t careful as spore-throwers fired away at me.

Health in ITSP is recovered with light. As you take damage, your saucer becomes more and more infected with red and black goo, indicating how screwed you are. Certain plants will throw off little balls of light energy, and occasionally you can even find something like a light bulb, which throws off a whole light area where you can just park and chill a moment in your safety. Enemies can’t enter the light without burning up, and your health is restored while you sit in the safe zone.

The armor upgrade was nice, but it also meant I had come to a dead-end. Time to search for another path. I flew up and to the left, braving some more dangers, but it was another dead end. This time, I found my path blocked by what appeared to be a large worm. It seemed that if I could hurt it somehow, I’d be able to advance, but I wasn’t sure how.

New path. This time I went up and started to descend into darker vistas. Along the way I found an offshoot path where I collected an “artifact,” which appeared to be nothing more than a regular collectible that goes toward an Achievement. There was nothing more to do but press on, and before long I found myself blocked by another of those red worms. This time, however, I was able to see a solution. Switching to my grabbing claw, I plucked up some rocks and deposited them into what looked like a breathing hole that was sucking in air for the worm, more or less as the game prompted me to do. A second later, the worm withdrew into the planet’s crust and allowed me through.

I descended along a tunnel that kept taking me deeper and deeper, fighting past spores and other dangers and unlocking another barrier until I entered a large chamber. Here I found a new floating object — a saw blade that was attached to my robotic arm. A new weapon! And what happens when you get a new weapon in a game like ITSP?

You fight a boss. A huge one.

Just through the next opening, I hit the boss — a massive orb with stalks, spore throwers, and a few eyes. At first, one of the eyes just blinked at me, and like any good video gamer, I sliced into that eye with my saw blade, completely unprovoked. Suddenly the air was filling with spores, so I started blasting away with my laser, first at the spores floating in the air or flying at my ship, next at the stalks spitting them out. As I cleared them, more eyes came popping out, and those eyes got sawed.

I had to repeat the process, which wasn’t easy because as many spores as I blew up blew me up. Luckily, the boss was fairly regularly producing light energy, if I could just reach it. I flew back, healed up a bit, and then flew back toward the orb, careful not to brush the chamber’s deadly, pointed walls. It took some work, but before long I was able to shoot through the last of the spores and slice into the final eyeball, killing the boss orb — and bringing the demo to an abrupt end.

Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet looks great and plays just as well, and I’m interested to see what other kinds of implements of destruction will be toted around on that flying saucer when the game drops on Aug. 3 on Xbox Live. It’ll likely be going for the usual price point of about 1,200 MS Points, the equivalent of $15; here’s hoping it moseys on over to Steam eventually, too, just as LIMBO is now doing.

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