Because regular shadow planets just aren't cool enough anymore.
One of the best-looking Summer of Arcade games at E3 this year had to be Shadow Planet Production’s Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet. Picture twin-stick shooter gameplay molded around Metroid-style adventure, all coated with a (dark) chocolaty half-Limbo presentation and you’re close. While the design doesn’t live up to the quality of the best Metroid titles, it’s nice to see one of the closest attempts at recreating the franchise’s alien exploration feel accompanied by such a creative approach. There’s something to be said for the (mostly) successful fusion of these gameplay ingredients into a cohesive hors d'oeuvre.
An appetizer it is, though, because yes, the game is rather short. However, brevity alone hardly hampers its appeal: rather, it feels wisely chosen, leaving less room for filler and repetitive play concepts. Still, that isn’t to say that the game satisfies in terms of depth or pacing—but we’ll get to that later.
Shadow Planet’s presentation is second to none. Artistically, it’s a beautiful derivation of the silhouetted Limbo style at its foundation, but with plenty of bold color contrasting with the black, and lots of creative definition in the backgrounds. All told, it’s one of the most attractive downloadable Live Arcade titles to date—with such striking beauty that you’ll forgive the occasional frame rate hiccup. The cut scenes, with the exception of the opening cinema, are remarkably (and intentionally) short, usually lasting no longer than a few brief seconds. They’re enhanced by a powerful live orchestra soundtrack, however, which was actually borrowed from Norwegian black metal band Dimmu Borgir’s library of music.
Turning back to the gameplay, however, the design is commendable. The screen is clear of any sort of obstructing HUD, with your little UFO character’s condition instead communicated via animated changes to his appearance. In Shadow Planet, there are no missile counts to keep track of or power bombs to conserve; everything is infinite, and simplicity in design is emphasized. Checkpoints are frequent and generously restore health, and the time between death and rebirth is thankfully and appropriately short. The game is by no means too simple, however, and so such forgiving design choices are cherished.
In comparison with the aforementioned cut scenes (which are filled with slickly-animated action), the rest of the game is backlit by a much calmer and more ambient synthesized musical fare, a choice which fits well with the atmospheres you’ll be exploring. There are several different areas (each of relatively modest size), including organic, ice, underwater, mechanical, and electrical. All of these areas are beautifully realized, littered with plants and odd machinery which bend and snap to and fro as you zip by, and supplemented by gorgeous backdrops that are nearly as dynamic as the foregrounds they’re augmenting.
That little thing is you
Metroid fans will feel immediately comforted by the logical mapping system (complete with helpful icons to show which tools are needed where to advance—after having scanned the relevant obstacle, that is), as well as—equally importantly—the game’s choice to forgo any sort of wordy hand-holding introduction to its mechanics. In harmony with its simplified presentation, all guidance is deliberately brief, and the intuitive nature of the gameplay makes adjusting to its design quite effortless.
Although you’ll be acquiring several different weapons/tools throughout your adventure, switching between them is meant to be easy thanks to a hotkeys system that allows you to assign any four tools to the A/B/X/Y buttons. Unfortunately, this covers less than half of the available nine power-ups, so you’re forced to resort to the rather inconvenient menu if your needs are beyond those currently chosen four. Such is a matter of life and death in the midst of battle or any number or perilous environments, something which makes the inability to pause the action while choosing a different weapon needlessly frustrating. While the inclusion of a quick-select menu is appreciated, the option to do so from a pause menu, or even to assign four additional tools to the directions of the D-pad, would have been monumentally helpful.
Nevertheless, once you get the hang of the controls, there isn’t much to get in between you and the lush, diverse game world of Shadow Planet. Progression is predictably similar to the Metroid games which inspired Shadow Planet. You’ll roam the environments until bumping into a critical power-up, after which you’ll be granted passage to any number of previously-unreachable nooks and crannies, in addition to the way forward. Such nooks and crannies often house various collectibles, including artifact pieces (which advance the story through the brief cut scenes you read about earlier), concept art, and pieces of gun or armor power-ups (collect so many to reach the next level of each).
Dynamically different environments are always welcomed
The gameplay and puzzles aren’t always 100% unique, but for the most part, concepts are juggled quickly and tactfully and are rarely played until exhaustion. As with most exploration games of this breed, the various tools provide a welcomed assortment of new ideas. Some of these include a traditional gun, a laser which can reflect off smooth surfaces, a claw which can be used to carry objects and pull levers, a buzzsaw which can plow through debris, and a tractor beam which can carry heavier objects from afar.
These tools lead to a smorgasbord of (normally) lightweight puzzles which start off as simple “bring A to B”—via treacherous pathways—sequences, some of which can get pretty annoying. Before long, however, you’ll be riding ocean currents, adjusting water levels, playing with light beams, and rotating the world around you in an effort to progress. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before in most cases, but it’s rarely a nuisance and occasionally pretty neat.
The only situations in which the game really wears out its welcome is during a couple of the boss battles and in one particular later sequence involving a portable electrical circuit and a squid (figure that one out). There are some poor design choices here, such as being unable to see the enemies who eventually kill you and dealing with respawning, projectile-hurling pests while trying your best to accurately switch weapons in the midst of battle. There was also one particular dilemma where my game actually glitched and destroyed a critical element I needed to make progress, forcing me to quit and resume play from the last checkpoint (a strategy which fortunately worked). All told, however, it’s a relatively small percentage of the game which is adversely affected by such irritants.
Its other biggest shortcoming is, in fact, a lack of the very element which makes most games of its type so enticing: exploration and discovery. While a modest number of hidden extras are present, almost none of them are tucked away in such genius ways as are familiar to fans of the Metroid franchise. In fact, not many hidden passages or secret corridors exist in the game at all, leaving completionists feeling undoubtedly accomplished, but likewise unfulfilled.
If you’re familiar with sequence-breaking, there’s also none to be had here. While it features an openly-explorable world with some out-of-reach-until-later elements, the game is unmistakably linear, even showing you the precise location of your next destination immediately after reaching your last. Certainly none of these peculiarities of the Metroid games are required to produce a worthwhile adventure, but without them, there seems to be a necessary “hook” absent. Metroid has its nonlinearity and secrets, Castlevania has its level-gaining and RPG-style equipment… Shadow Planet has some clever gameplay and its beauty, but it isn’t quite enough to rank amongst the masters of the genre. Though the brevity of the adventure is not an issue, the lack of accompanying explorative depth certainly is in my mind.
Finally, there is a multiplayer mode called Lantern Run that’s pretty interesting, where players run from an oncoming beast in cooperation through randomly-generated environments. I’m a fan of well-done randomly-generated content in games (e.g. Diablo II, F-Zero X) but it really isn’t much more than a cool extra to be honest.