An ideal time to first experience an atmospheric, artistic indie game is generally not in the midst of a loud, crowded party. I knew nothing about "Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet" when I stepped up to the demo station and slapped the headphones on during Microsoft's E3 showcase last week. It was far too loud for a PR representative to summarize the concept for me, so I had a rare moment in this industry where I was experiencing a game entirely without preface. It was one of the best experiences I had during E3 2011.
"Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet" is an exploration-heavy, upgrade-laden 2D romp through an alien planet. I didn't know any of this when I first started playing, though. I was presented with the protagonist, a small, extraterrestrial creature inhabiting a 1950s-style UFO. All I could do at the beginning of the demo was extend a small claw out of the bottom of my craft, grabbing two nearby switches and shifting them left and right. Why did I do that? Because switches have to be pulled.
That opening sequence was the game's equivalent to a tutorial, introducing the player to the concept of using tools. These tools would eventually facilitate my exploration of the vast shadow planet, but for the time being I was just pulling switches. As you do.
The sheer scope of the game slowly unraveled itself after that. Suddenly I was exploring cave-like sub-structures, using my trusty grabby arm to solve physics puzzles and defeating shadow worms by tossing rocks into their gaping maws. I had also discovered two more tools, a tractor beam and a ray gun (alien must-haves), and was able to quick-assign them to the face buttons on the 360 controller. There are far more than four tools, though, and a handy radial menu can quickly select whatever's right for the job.
I realized that I had a "Metroid-vania" on my hands when I discovered an armor pick-up, which boosted my maximum health and made my UFO look considerably more bad ass. And then there was the map: a 2D expanse filled with promise.
Despite the familiar gameplay structure of gear-gating (Find the tool, use the tool to access new areas of the map, to find other tools to access more areas of the map, etc), "Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet" has a visual style all its own. The graphics feel like the twisted middle-ground between "Limbo" and a Tim Burton film, where straight lines and dull scenery are basically verboten. It also does some incredible things with scale, as you'll be battling bosses that are easily 50 times as large as your UFO.
Perhaps most incredible, I found myself lost in this world. Surrounded by crowds, alcohol and DJ music, I was transported into a truly strange, alien planet. I was suddenly alone, scouring odd wastes for that next upgrade, leaving the noise of the party behind. And then the demo ended and I returned to a world decidedly less insanely twisted. It was one of those rare moments in this industry, to experience a game without preface, and I was glad to have taken the ride.
"Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet" is scheduled for release as part of Microsoft's XBLA Summer of Arcade initiative. There's no specific release date, but it should launch sometime in late July or early August.