I’ll come out and say it, I LOVE concept art. There’s just something so pleasant about seeing a creator’s pure unadulterated vision, one that isn’t clouded by the harsh realities of modern game development such as hardware limitations, finite budgets and the incessant cries of “add more space marines” from the marketing department. But for something so beautiful, it gets treated pretty badly; mainly being relegated to obscure ‘bonus’ sections as a cheap and easy way to fill ‘em out. I think the most apt moniker I’ve heard it be given in recent memory was “the mechanically separated chicken meat of video games”. Lovely.
But that makes it all the more interesting that Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet was headed up by hollywood artist Michel Gagné (of Iron Giant fame), an immensely talented concept artist who, by his own admission, knows absolutely naff-all about games. His mission? Create a video game that truly captures the essence of that high quality 2D artwork without any compromise.
So, did it work? Well, first let’s get something straight: there’s absolutely *nothing* unique about how Shadow Planet looks; basically It’s just a montage of black silhouettes with a bit of clever parallax mapping thrown in. For those of you who don’t understand what I’m getting at here, I just described a graphical style so goddamn common in the indie scene that it makes me want to cry tears of liquidised hate. Yet, even with my heart turn to stone from experiencing one too many Limbo wannabes, I can’t help but gaze in awe at Shadow Planet’s gorgeous visage. See for yourself, take a gander at one of the hundreds of delicious screenshots floating about the net and give praise to the mighty Gagné + assorted other dudes/ladies. They totally did it bro, they made playable concept art!
Or better yet, you should watch the video embedded above this very paragraph (don’t worry, i’ll wait) because honestly, it’s only when things start moving that the magic really happens. You see, Shadow Planet’s world is a quite literal hostile environment; it writhes an pulsates with your very presence, letting you know at any opportunity that every inch of it wants you dead (and that it’s more than capable of making that happen!). You feel like less of a hero fighting off an alien menace, and more like a foreign parasite aimlessly drifting around the innards of this gigantic cyborg beast, desperately trying to fend off it’s freakish immune system. It gives the game a surprisingly dense eerie tone, one that only gets more ominous when the dynamic soundtrack throws in couple of Inception-esque “brrrrrrrmmm!”s every time your ship goes decidedly FUBAR. Which happens an awful lot by the way, as your craft has the structural integrity of cheap cardboard box on a particularly rainy day. For the casual gamer this title is not!
Oh wait. Yeah, I should probably talk more about that whole ‘game’ part too huh? Well first, the narrative! Which is minimal to say the least: An (Insanely Twisted Shadow) planet oozing with violent….’stuff’ has started causing trouble in the neighborhood, so your species got scared and sent you and your adorably twee UFO to sort that shizzle out. The game’s actual structure is as equally inspiring; In a nutshell it’s a bog standard by the numbers ‘metroidvania’, with an emphasis on the Metroid more than the Vania (sorry, no loot or leveling to be had here!). It ticks all the right boxes: Open world map layout? Check. Plethora of gadgets and upgrades? Check. Almost *too* many hidden collectables? Double check (and yes, that includes *sigh* concept art).
But much like it was with the visuals, the quality of the gameplay’s execution shines so brightly that any criticisms over originality or innovation simply melt away. I realize that just praising the overall ‘game design’ is probably the most vague and unhelpful piece of critique ever given in a game review, but I really can’t think of a more fundamental way to phrase it. Everything is just so…… sensible. Well paced puzzles, no section too long or two short, checkpoints in all the right places, combat that requires a bit of thinking, intense boss fights, plus a whole bunch of other nuances that’re too small for me to even attempt to define in words.
Even long standing issues with the Metroidvania template have been addressed, mainly the need to constantly ask the age old question of “do I have the right doohickey to open/kill/solve this thing, or do I have to come back later?”. No longer must you awkwardly cycle through every item in your inventory like you’re in a LucasArts adventure title; now you simply scan the object in question and the the game’ll straight up tell you what tool you need to get the job done all nice like. Even better, it’ll actually add a location marker for that object on your map, as apposed to the genre norm of expecting you to perfectly memorized the location of every nook and cranny!
Most of these are very minor features on their own, but they all add up to create a delightful sense of polish and finesse that’s sadly all too rare in indie games scene. I think the only real oversight is the absence of fast travel system, although the game world’s modular structure and the moderate length of the campaign (about 6 hours) makes it an issue barely worth even mentioning.
But for all that snaz, Shadow Planet still left me with a lingering sense of disappointment. Partly due to its rather lackluster final act, but more so the games failure to fully utilise some of the things that make it so compelling in the first place. Case in point: It constantly throws more and more new gadgets at you such as laser beams, saw blades and tractor beams, yet provides little practical use for them outside of their introductory puzzles. Combat suffers from this too, with many of the tactical possibilities of your sizable repertoire only being presented once or twice, and mainly during boss fights at that. But let’s be honest here, when my core point of criticism is that a game just isn’t repetitive enough, what does that tell you about its overall quality?
It’s kinda funny actually; I can easily imagine a world where, like so many of its high concept brethren, Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet ended up being a perfect example of style over substance. And I pity the people of that theoretical world, because we live in one where it turned out pretty damn great in every aspect that matters. Sure, it doesn’t come even close to breaking new ground in any conceivable way, but who cares? This game is full of perfectly sound game design, a thick palatable atmosphere and, quite frankly, it’s bloody gorgeous to look at. A reasonable gamer could ask for little more at only £9.99.
Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet is available on the PC for £9.99 via Steam or GFWL (hah!) and on Xbox Live for 1200 MS points (£10.20). The PC version includes the ‘Shadow Hunters’ multiplayer DLC pack for free, sold separately for 400 MS points (£3.40) on Xbox Live.
‘Concept art’ level graphics,
Smart game design from start to finish.
Small number of puzzles/combat scenarios per gadget,