Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet
Released on X-Box Live Arcade, Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet is a mostly linear side-scrolling adventure designed with artist Michel Gagne, that mixes puzzle-solving and a gathering quest in with the action. When your planet is attacked by a dark, creeping force, you and your UFO are the only things left to stop the onslaught. Traveling through a seven-level map marked by ice, water and mechanical bits, among other settings, you battle an assortment of creatures and obstacles while building your arsenal and collecting items that help you along your path.
As you fly around the map, batting off waves of enemies and obstacles, here's a smoothness to the play here, thanks largely to the fact that you're controlling a floating spaceship, so you're free to move on whatever direction. You'll find yourself under constant attack, but thankfully the game offers up plenty of health pellets to keep you going, plus anytime you hit one of the game's many checkpoints, your health is fully replenished. It also gives you plenty of ways to battle the baddies, with nine weapons add-ons you'll discover by beating level-end bosses and exploring. These weapons are pretty fun, including a tractor beam (that's reversible), a claw that lets you manipulate your surroundings and enemies, and remote control rockets. You'll hit points where you need a certain weapon to advance (a fact you can learn by using your on-ship scanner), so when you later earn that tool, you get to experience that giddy feeling of knowing you can finally go back and see what awaits the UFO that wields a forcefield. Fans of Metroid will find a lot to like here, as the experience is very similar, but not a direct copy.
While you're exploring, you'll get to tackle a few different kinds of challenges, including downing the annoying waves of tiny foes who follow your every move, but the puzzles are the most enjoyable part. There's not a lot of explanation as to what you need to do, but that's what makes it so satisfying once you figure it out. For instance, you'll find yourself in a cavern full of crystals and an obvious target you can't reach in another room. So... what to do.... With a little imagination and a little trial and error, it becomes clear and you can enjoy a sense of accomplishment. I'd be lying if I said there weren't parts that had me frustrated, to the point where I would just shut the game down to get some air, and come back to tackle it later on with a clear head. Oddly though, I found that certain areas that seemed to be total dead ends were suddenly clear upon my return. I'm not certain if this was a bug or if I would have reset the location with further exploration. I didn't run into many of these issues, but they always seemed to occur when I was utterly flummoxed. That may just have been a coincidence.
Moving around the game's seven levels can be a bit frustrating at times, especially when you're backtracking to take advantage of new tools. For some reason, the levels have two "ends" to them, but one one is an entrance, and usually that entrance is attached to another level you have to traverse first. I can understand keeping the exits one-way to get players to complete other levels first, but once you beat them (and their associated boss), which not turn that exit into a two-lane path, making it easier to move around. That would have been a good move, because your backtracking will frequently result in disappointment. Sure, you can collect the various weapons and pieces of concept art (which really do look great) but when you have the patience to make your way across the entire map and are greeted with part, yes, PART, of an artifact, it can be annoying. However, if you have any interest in actually completing the game (and why wouldn't you) you will want to make a complete sweep of the map and get all the upgrades, as the final boss would be extremely difficult to defeat without them.
That's part of why some of the biggest challenges, aside from some of the puzzles, depending on your personal ability to solve such troubles, are the boss battles, which are mainly exercises in how to utilize your arsenal and manage your efforts over the time it takes to earn a win. They aren't the hardest fights to compete, once you figure out how it's done, but they are mostly multi-part efforts, and you can find yourself able to beat the first parts, only to run out of health before the task is done. It's all about learning the steps, maximizing your attack and honing your skill when it comes to overcoming these cleverly designed foes. Unfortunately, when all is said and done, the payoff just isn't enough. Part of it is probably the lack of overall story in the game (the fate of your planet plays out in very short video clips you find scattered about) but part of it is the way the game just kind of comes to an end. I honestly wasn't sure what was happening until it was over. But I had fun while it lasted.
Aside from leaderboards, the online play takes the form of "Lantern Run," a race against time that can be played by up to four players, locally or online. It's a stressful competition, as you're evading the menacing tentacles of an oncoming monster, carrying a lantern with you, until the last light burns out. You're racing, but you're also working as a team, as you need to battle enemies along the way, and when your lantern is gone, you have to help your fellow racers keep moving. It's a nice adaptation of the main game, adding some additional gameplay to the title, while adding a new twist to the action. Everything moves nice and clean, with no problems with lag. There also seem to be quite a few players around to team up with.
The controls are well-designed here, with your ship controlled with the left stick and your weapons controlled by the right stick, triggered by your right trigger. You can earn nine different weapon add-ons and the game uses a neat mapping system to let you tag four of them to your face buttons, which keeps things easily manageable. The use of the stick to control the weapon gives you 360 degrees of smooth aiming, which is key when you're surrounded. Things move smoothly throughout, though there are some sticking points, mostly involving small pathways, where it seems like you should be able to travel without a problems, but have to waggle your way through. The only real issue, and one you can adapt to, is the control scheme for your remote control rockets. It doesn't work the way you'd expect it to, and when you're winding your way through tight, twisty tunnels, surprises are the last thing you want to deal with. After struggling with this tool, which is the only way to advance through several sections, it became somewhat easy to control.
An XBLA title, you're getting just a small handful of achievements to earn in this one, with 12 awards worth a total of 200 points. They are nearly all completion awards, including earning all add-ons, finishing the game and completing levels. The only non-completion award is for earning a million points in the multiplayer mode.
If you like a good-looking game, look no further than ITSP, which, thanks to its graphically astounding style, offers some of the best visuals seen in a long time. The levels are beautifully rendered, with tons of unique detail, while the enemies you face feature a wide variety of designs, including some of the creepiest bad guys this side of Silent Hill. Even the health-bar, which is represented by your ship's visual condition, is well-designed. Taking full advantage of zooming and perspective, the game makes boss battles epic while also adding intense depth to the proceedings, as you can see action behind everything, adding to the feeling of confinement the tunnels can provide.
As gorgeous as the game's visuals are, the sound is hugely impressive, thanks to a measured use of ambient sound and effects. The game builds a huge sense of dread throughout, with bass-heavy tones and creepy noises. Understated, but powerful because of it, the audio is a great element of the game.
And in the End...
ITSP is undoubtedly a work of art, even if you only based that evaluation on its unique and beautiful visuals. But the rest of the package more than carries its own weight, especially the design and variation amongst the bad guys and some of the level design. While a touch short and not overwhelmingly difficult to complete, it's perfectly satisfying for a Live Arcade game and will be an experience you fondly remember (while pining for a sequel.) It's starting to become a reality that downloadable games are more consistent a source for fun games than retail releases.