There are a lot of things that are hard to fight. Vampires, gods, white-haired pretty boys overcompensating with giant swords, and hundreds of other mechanical or mystical dangers have overwhelmed the screen with world-shaking power at their disposal. An entire sun warped by the horrible disease of an alien infection, though, is an enemy on an entirely new scale. How do you take back the sun?
Shadow Planet is a gorgeous combination of shooter and Metroid.
With guns and claws and missiles and radial saws, it turns out. Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet is a gorgeous combination of shooter and Metroid, where the reward for exploring an area is a new tool that opens up the next section of the world. Starting off with a simple scanner, (which sometimes gives maybe a bit too much information on how to deal with the obstacles in your path), the little flying saucer quickly finds other goodies like a grabber claw, upgradeable gun and armor, and eventually more powerful toys like a guided missile or electro-pulse. Almost all of the eight tools have multiple uses, performing handy functions as well as both offensive and defensive tasks. The buzz saw, for example, cuts through loose rock, but is large enough to make a good shield against incoming fire, and works nicely as a melee weapon. The puzzles are cleverly designed around using the tools in different ways, and this encourages experimenting with them in combat, too.
It's the classic Metroid formula, although with fewer secrets and more hand holding, and it works as nicely as it always does. The element that pushes Shadow Planet over the top though is the incredible artwork of Michel Ancel. The creatures, machines, and environments of the shadow planet are stark, spikey, and look wonderfully dangerous and menacing. The player's saucer is a very small element in a huge, dangerous world, and while the actual gameplay isn't particularly tough, the treacherous setting still manages to make the threat feel real. Shooting aside the tentacles blocking the path early in the game is pretty standard fare, but their design and movement give them a sense of wrongness that more realistically styled games only wish they could duplicate.
If there's one problem with Shadow Planet, it's that the gameplay doesn't quite manage to back up the design. It has the look of a nails-tough experience but health-regenerating checkpoints are common and enemies don't take a lot of pounding to go down. The menace of the world becomes less menacing when you realize it's just there for show. The epic animated intro promises a giant adventure ahead, but, while it's fun for every step of the way, Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet is over after about 5 hours or so. Maybe the terrible alien infection should have corrupted something a little less impressive than a giant ball of superheated gas and plasma over 865,000 miles in diameter.
Once expectations have been adjusted to match what's actually available, Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet is still a wonderful and creative Metroidvania shooter. There's a new set piece around every corner, whether it's using the claw to hold on to plants growing off the level walls to avoid being swept away, or guiding a missile through twisty little passageways to blow the ice off a crystal. Every section of every level feels like it's there for a reason; not to fill up space, but rather fill with life and detail. Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet is a fun, gorgeous, straightforward take on the free-roaming 2D side-scroller, and if it doesn't quite manage its reach for the stars it still manages to be a fantastic experience from beginning to end.