Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet
Now in its fourth year, Microsoft's Summer of Arcade has been instrumental in raising the opinion of downloadable content. Previous Summer of Arcade titles like Braid, Shadow Complex, and Limbo have fought with retail titles for end-of-year awards, and now the program has become a valued and even a prestigious platform for developers to showcase online wares. With that value and prestige comes expectation, and with three superb years behind it the expectations of the Summer of Arcade have never been higher. It will be tough for this year's offerings to climb such lofty pedestals.
Unless, that is, each one is as good as Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet. A visually abstract take on MetroidVania, Shadow Planet combines puzzles which have a satisfying twist of lateral thinking with a sharp and vibrant 2D world which is a joy to explore. It is easily another Summer of Arcade success.
Yet on first impressions Shadow Planet comes across like a plain Summer of Arcade wannabe. While there's certainly an atmospheric allure to the silhouetted art style, it's almost become an indie game clich, so to see my little black UFO fly past the grandly bolded environment of the planet initially makes me sceptical. The aesthetic, however, is just a platform for Michel Gagn's superb artwork.
The renowned creative artist, who worked on the feature films The Iron Giant and Ratatouille among others, has an imaginative and deft touch which stands out most in Shadow Planet when the camera zooms right out and the little black UFO becomes dot-like against the vibrant colour of the planet. There are certain moments that are strikingly memorable because of the visuals. At one point in the underwater area a giant squid-like creature attacks, its long red tendrils slashing at the tiny UFO dot, all to the backdrop of a spectrum of blue. In the ice area, these strangely configured snowflake enemies give chase while I navigate an icy maze, all while I take in the etchings of molecular structures on the white rocks surrounding me. Each one of the major areas in Shadow Planet has its own visually abstract personality, and that lends itself to a sense of wonder and mystery as you explore them, floating past their weird structures and in their effervescent colours.
What exacerbates the game's mystery is the diversity of the weaponry, and in particular applying those various weapons as tools in puzzles. The game may follow the MetroidVania formula in gradually unlocking weapons throughout which in turn unlock new areas and are differently effective against different enemies, but it's through the puzzles that the weaponry really shines.
Some of the puzzles are fairly basic, like using the circular saw to grind a path through some rocks or navigating a missile in slow-motion through a tight maze so that it reaches its target, but there are several of these puzzles that require a more atypical, more thoughtful approach. The puzzles don't require fully-fledged lateral thinking, but at the same time it's unusual in a MetroidVania game to do things like use a grabber arm to hold a shiny piece of green fauna for luring a huge sea monster with, or to use a magnetic ray gun to manipulate the gears of a convoluted conveyer belt machine.
Support for solving these puzzles comes via the scanner weapon. Aiming the scanner at anything outside of basic structures reveals a little bit of visual information about it, including what weapons are best used with it if it's a puzzle element or against if it's an enemy. It's a neat touch.
The boss fights showcase the game's weapons-based puzzle solving well, and no more so than the final boss. I won't spoil it, but I will underline my satisfaction at seeing a game end on a challenging boss fight that's about working out strategy based on available arsenal rather than just an abruptly high difficulty level. Almost every available weapon, from the laser to the saw, and from the missile launcher to the lightning ray, has a role to play in that fight and in the game at large for that matter. Great bosses are often the hallmark of a great game, and Shadow Planet is no exception.
It is a shame, then, that there are some disappointing facets to Shadow Planet that detract from everything it does right. The clamp, for example, is unnecessarily clumsy for picking up objects with, something that's frustrating when speed is essential. Those tight little mazes for navigating missiles through would be enjoyable if not for the strange way the missiles change directions as they go through a certain amount of their turning circles; more annoying than challenging. Also, for a MetroidVania game there could've been much more hidden content. There are upgrades and extra content to be found, but there are so few of them that they feel like a half-hearted inclusion. A game shouldn't have to conform to expectations of its genre, but Shadow Planet so openly plays to being a MetroidVania-style game that it's hard to not feel like it's lacking in this particular department.
Finally, the co-op mode Lantern Run, and surprisingly good it is too. The idea: up to four players navigate through waves of levels as they try to hold on to their lanterns, and once all four lanterns are lost it is game over. On paper it sounds like something tacked-on, but in practice the random order of the levels and the strategy of spreading out upgrades and weaponry across the team make for a fun, unusual extra. It mostly works thanks to little touches of sensible design, like re-spawning dead team members at drop points and allowing for members to pick up each other's lanterns.
In retrospect it's not that surprising that Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet made a workable co-op mode out of an experience that screams single-player. After all, the game has taken one of gaming's most mined genres and delivered a fresh artistic spin on it. Even with that weight of expectation, the game stands tall as yet another Summer of Arcade hit. Bring on the rest of them, I say.