Names are important. That's why we're subjected to ridiculous subtitles like Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty, Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Crysis 2: Cry Harder. These long-winded names are a player's first point of contact with the relentless games industry PR machine: so whenever you call your game Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet, you'd better make sure said game is insane and twisted. 'Shadow Planet' isn't quite as big a claim, since all you need for that is a sphere with a reasonably large rock on it orbiting a star.
A better name might be Immediately Engaging Shadow Planet. There's scarce plot exposition as your identified flying object is constructed on the mothership: rather than flashing button commands on the screen and bombarding the player with tuition, you actively probe the dynamic environment with an investigatory laser beam and pull it with a mechanical claw. After a brief warm-up session on the home world, you're sent off to the Admittedly Twisted Shadow Planet to uncover its secrets.
Your screen isn’t dirty - that speck is you
This planet is a dark chest of wonders. You're provided with a map of the world when you start, a tantalising sprawl of unfilled boxes gradually uncovered as you explore your surroundings. Comparisons with Super Metroid are inevitable and fitting: it echoes Metroid's sense of exploring a haunting organic landscape and its feeling of loneliness and isolation. There are no other spaceships besides your own; only the unwelcoming jaws, claws and maws of the local flora and fauna. Although you're provided with a throbbing red objective marker on the map, going off the beaten track in search of hidden alcoves always reaps rewards.
Enticingly Metroidvania-esque Shadow Planet conforms to the conventions of the genre: although your progress through the world is hampered by various obstacles, as you explore you'll obtain a wealth of gadgets and artillery. There are remote guided rockets that can weave in and out of the catacombs in search of targets, a tractor beam that can slingshot your little flying saucer past impassable currents, a buzz saw that tears through rock walls and that's just the implements I can mention without completely losing your interest. Favourite tools can be mapped to the buttons of your choice, but the radial selection menu makes it simple to switch between them on the fly.
While the gradual collection of gadgets to access new areas of the world is nothing new- (Downright Awesome) Shadow Complex followed a similar formula, albeit concentrating more on running and gunning than outright exploration- this feels fresh and interesting. There's enough imagination and variation in your equipment to make each contraption unique and essential, but where the developers really let their collective imagination run wild is in the different areas of the Beautifully Crafted Shadow Planet. As with the aforementioned Super Metroid and the Metroid Prime series, these feel like living, breathing worlds.
Just avoid anything red or pointed and we’ll be fine
The walls of the organic zone ripple with villi and vines that dynamically react to your craft. Huge, screen-engulfing spiders leap into the screen from the background and attempt to gobble you up. Moving into the underwater cave networks, the only thing that illuminates the murk is your laser cannon and the pulse of deadly glowing urchins. Practically everything can be interacted with: clumps of seaweed slow your ship to allow navigation around strong currents, while pools of water slow your movement and inhibit your weapons. The art design is subtle enough to highlight scenery elements that can be gripped with claw or pulverised by saw. Nothing feels out of place or unconsidered, giving you the confidence to explore without naively scraping along every wall in search of treasure.
For all of the visual sumptuousness, it's actually a Pleasingly Simplistic Shadow Planet. Your journey is a linear one, dictated by the set order of gizmo acquisition. The further you get, the more adventurous the level design becomes to the point where screenshots become spoilers and descriptions are deleterious to your enjoyment. The mechanical zone is where the artwork, stage design and puzzles are at their strongest in a disorientating maze. You'll need both logical reasoning skills and lightning reflexes as the world literally revolves you- perhaps this section would be better called 'Gears of Awe'. It's a dizzying, satisfying cocktail: but like a tasty mojito, the more you immerse yourself in it, the more likely you are to feel a little sick.
There's a gradual gradient of complexity; it's a Satisfyingly Challenging Shadow Planet. A liberal system of checkpoints encourages a little daring and experimentation when confronting new puzzles and enemies. Weapons are unlocked at a steady trickle and you're given ample time to learn their uses. Often, you'll be encouraged to backtrack to earlier areas to uncover a new power-up or two. Unlike Super Metroid, however, you'll never reach that demi-god state where previously impervious walls crumble against your missiles and lava pools are refreshing hot springs. It generally avoids the trap of becoming a Somewhat Repetitive Shadow Planet since these areas are optional digressions, not essential to your progression.
Hauntingly Minimalist Shadow Planet features little in the way of music. Little bursts of sound highlight puzzle success and points of interest, occasionally raising the ambient noise to a brooding battle anthem when confronting one of the anticlimactic 'bosses' that punctuate the zones. A notable exception is when you reassemble an artefact (the game's arbitrary collectable of choice) and there's a symphonic explosion from your speakers. These orchestral pieces are composed by Norwegian black metal band Dimmu Borgir, sounding as appropriate as the Quake 2 soundtrack remixed by the cast of Glee. The associated artefact movies are so fleeting that their inclusion is an unnecessary one: I would have preferred a teasing reveal throughout the game, building to a longer sequence when you've collected all the artefacts a la Assassin's Creed 2.
Gears of Awe- made that joke in the review text too, don’t care
Adverb Adjective Shadow Planet is dotted with little sparks of magic at every turn. It's enchanting, rich in character and atmosphere. The problem with magic is that, the more you watch the same tricks being repeated, the more the sleight of hand and illusory nature of the performance reveals itself. On first sight it is often a delightful and surprising game, but never incredible. Subjected to the deeper analysis of multiple plays, it's undoubtedly less compelling. Personally, I think this is a terrible reason to avoid purchasing a game, but if you only purchase one computer game a year it's worth bearing in mind. That wouldn't explain why you're on this site, though.
INSANELY TWISTED SHADOW PLANET VERDICT
Insanely Twisted? Maybe not, but it’s definitely entertaining enough to be worthy of the name Ultimately Excellent Shadow Planet: a fantastic adventure for anyone enticed by the thrill of exploration.
TOP GAME MOMENT
The intricately constructed mechanical zone is a real showcase for the talented designers behind the game. At the risk of disgusting readers with a terrible pun, it’s genuinely amaze-ing.