Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet wants you to feel small. Isolated. Sometimes the camera pulls back to shrink the size of your ship onscreen, just to underscore how alone you are.
Looking at videos or stills, you may think the environments are hostile. Pointy things are shorthand for dangerous environments. But here that’s not the case — tree branches and stalactites don’t kill you, they just get in the way. Curled silhouettes like that bridge in The Nightmare Before Christmas will unfurl when your ship’s weapon hooks them.
It happens a lot, because the ship has inertia. It takes a bit to start moving, and a bit to stop or turn. Use the momentum to throw the rocks you pick up using your claw arm upgrade, or to fling enemies into one another.
Because, like those pointy things that aren’t actually dangerous, this isn’t actually a twin-stick shooter. It’s a Metroid game where the suit you upgrade isn’t shaped like you, but is an upside-down bowl with a dangling central appendage. Missiles and lasers and guns.
The physics puzzles that involve grabbing things with the claw and throwing them, or positioning them in specific ways to bounce lasers, can get a little bit frustrating. Occasionally you’ll have to guide a missile through narrow, twisting passages to hit a target and open a door. You can control its direction, but not its throttle. A few too many collisions with the sides of the passage and it explodes and you have to launch another.
But that frustration is balanced by the feeling of newness that these activities have. It’s here that the game’s riffs on the Super Metroid template help it feel fresher than other games in the style.
The titular planet’s origin is revealed in cinematics that are unlocked by collecting artifacts hidden around the environments. It is actually some kind of invading alien lifeform that surrounds your sun and is phenomenally animated. The silhouette aesthetic can cause some of the areas to blend together a little too much, rather than underscoring their differences. Each has its own them (Organic, Mechanical, Electrical, among others), because, again, it’s Super Metroid.
The design gives it a continuity with the work of illustrator and artist Michel Gagne (Artistic Vision, Cinematics, Concept Art, Animation). The silhouettes and tentacles and teeth, the stretchiness of everything.
Like the Metroid games, it uses the absence of non-hostiles and sparse, atmospheric music to isolating effect. According to the credits, the music was composed by Norwegian metal band Dimmu Borgir and performed by the Prague Philharmonic. It never quite feels triumphant. Or positive.
Backtracking is not required. Rather than guiding you through areas more quickly as you progress, the upgrades are primarily used to open up small areas containing upgrades in previous areas. The best Metroidvania games constantly shuttle you back and forth as a way for you to learn the environment and to show you how you’ve progressed as those traversals become easier for you.
It also doesn’t require you to really learn the map. If you scan a wall or other passage-blocker (which come in a variety of types and require slightly different uses of the weapons to remove), your map is updated with an icon indicating which upgrade you need to pass.
Exploration isn’t without some carrots: there are a few non-essential upgrades to your armor and default gun to collect. And those artifacts that unlock backstory videos are accompanied by collectibles that unlock concept art. The lack of things to find helps reduce grinding, though: you don’t need to find twenty missile upgrades in order to be able to take on the screen-size bosses.
The game is at its most bullet-hellish during these boss battles. Most of them are weak-point puzzles where you focus on the obvious spot with your various weapons or the surrounding environment. An early standout involves turning a boss’s attack apparatus against it; a late disappointment the final boss that is a three-phase dodge-and-shoot (without checkpoints between the phases). It’s kind of a pain, that boss. It’s not that it’s challenging; it’s that it feels so incongruous with everything that’s come before. For the five or so minutes it takes to defeat the boss, the inertial controls of the ship feel inadequate, like a loosely controlled shooter.
A lot of different things have gone into this little smoothie of a downloadable title. Its blending of artistic and systemic influences make it pleasant enough, if a little short.
Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet was developed by Shadow Planet Productions and published by Microsoft Studios. It is available digitally via the Xbox Live Arcade.
Brian Taylor is a freelance writer, photographer, and librarian. He also has a day job. He lives in Pittsburgh, PA and tweets too much as @brianmtaylor.