See, now this is what PC gaming is supposed to be all about. Buying something because the screenshots look cool on the back of the packet (in this case, the Steam client virtual packet) but having no real expectation of what the game will turn out to be.
In this kind of scenario, you’ve got a much better chance of experiencing that rare feeling: the discovery of a unique gem that nobody else knows about. Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet is like the games you played 20 years ago, but with slick modern animation and a keen understanding that players don’t need instructions shouted at them in 18-point type.
This is a twin-stick cave-exploration game of the old, old school. These new generation upstarts online call it a member of the “Metroidvania” genre, but we veterans of the C64 and Amiga know better, don’t we? We played Exile. We played Thrust. This doesn’t have the punishing physics and you can bump into the walls without instantly exploding, but otherwise it’s the same: you’re in a little flying saucer, exploring caves, collecting power-ups. Things fly at you, things shoot at you from the walls, giant things have attack patterns that must be learned and exploited.
Okay, so there’s backtracking and environmental puzzles the likes of which an Amiga programmer could only ever have dreamt of implementing, so perhaps the console crowd can be forgiven for calling this a Metroid-like.
The ultra-lean art style mixes sinuous silhouettes with areas of block colour, but makes use of retro-chic parallax to give the impression of extreme depth. Keen eyes will see plenty of action in the deep background, even as evil bats flail away at your fragile flying saucer.
The controls are pretty slick too. Mouse aims, left-button fires, right-button opens the inventory to choose weapons and tools, and tab pops up a map. The saucer can survive multiple hits, but looks increasingly shatterwracked the more punishment it receives.
Actually, this game reminds me mostly of one of the (distressingly few) true gems on PSP – LocoRoco. There’s something about the smooth, anti-aliased block-colour environments, the simple puzzles, and of course the ambient soundtrack. Okay, ITSP is all about brooding dark ambient beats and sci-fi sizzles and bloops, while LocoRoco has a selection of cheerful tunes that worm their way into your brain and make it dribble out your ears, but there’s a commonality there, somewhere.
ITSP might not be art, but it’s artfully done. It’s like a set of well-crafted wooden blocks that interconnect in intriguing ways, while so many other indie games feel like plastic mass-produced crap from China.
What your $15 (a little less actually, thanks strong dollar!) gets you is a 4-5 hour trip down memory lane, amplified rather than obfuscated by top-notch execution, whimsical style, and absolutely pitch-perfect audio. Some might call this a “short” game, inasmuch as that really means anything, but this isn’t about pigging out at a procedurally-generated buffet. This is bespoke gourmet, served chilled.
Originally published in PCPP#204, June 2012.