One of the more surprising attendees at PAX East this year was Fuelcell Games' artistic Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet. This is a title I was hoping would have made an appearance at last year's E3, but for one reason or other it didn't materialize. Luckily, the game was playable at Microsoft's Xbox Live Arcade booth, along with The Gunstringer, Trenched, and a few others.
For the uninitiated, Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet is a 2D side-scroller in which players control a little UFO, navigating through various dangerous environments, both above and below ground. Right-stick, directional firing is the primary method of aggression here, but the UFO is also equipped with various telescopic tools that can be used to solve puzzles and invent unique tactics (more on this in a minute).
Firstly, Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet is a very pretty game to look at. If these screenshots aren't getting the job done conveying this, then check out the PAX East trailer, and then come back here. The game world is limited in texture, with many of the in-game obstacles and environments reduced to simple black silhouettes. That said, the screen isn't a monochromatic art-house piece, like Limbo. Very often, color overwhelms the solid black shapes of the environment, and the actual enemies and various other items come alive with texture, color, and charisma. The environments are packed full of detail and activity. Even the simplest corridor-like sections of the level I played were populated with lively tendrils, jabbing spikes, and the snapping mouths of alien plants.
The game's animation deserves a special mention. The UFO tilts toward the camera when moving down, and away from it when when moving up, and it's all handled so smoothly, you'd be forgiven for thinking you are actually watching a cartoon. As I said earlier, the world is alive with activity, and in every corner of the screen there are things happening either in the main playing plane or in the background.
The gameplay is very reminiscent of PixelJunk Shooter, insomuch as you traverse hazardous, labyrinthine caverns while avoiding traps and dealing with varying enemy types, but the gameplay is certainly more varied and the world is much bigger, providing for a greater emphasis on exploration than in Shooter. Reaching the end of the level is the primary goal, but I saw various in-mission checkpoints and waypoint switches, as well as mini objectives that had to be dealt with in order to open blocked sections and progress further.
Back to those telescopic tools. The demo sections I played featured only three tools: a 50's-era ray gun, a telescopic robot arm used for grabbing in-world objects and manipulating switches, and a scanner that can be used to discover information about how to interact with enemies and other items of interest.
Initially, the tools' uses seemed rather obvious -- shoot enemies with the ray gun, grab items such as rocks with the robot arm, and scan anything that looked suspicious. But upon entering a particularly hostile section of the level, I tried a little experiment, and it paid off.
The cave was infested with circular enemies that protected themselves with a helmet of spikes over one side. Seeing that they always pointed their shielded side toward me, and that my ray gun was useless against their armor, I figured I'd pull out the robot arm and try to grab one. When I did this, the robotic arm automatically grabbed the enemy and held it in front of me like a shield. Obviously I saw huge benefits here and decided to carry my new shield around for a while. It was exceptionally effective at rebounding enemy shots, and also doubled as a pretty nasty bludgeoning club -- rotating the robot arm built inertia in my swing and I found I could perform hilarious comedy uppercuts to the flying enemies. Hopefully we will see more inventive mechanics like this in the full title when it arrives.
Mark my words, Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet is going to hit huge. It combines a consistently-brilliant artistic style and silky smooth animation with devious puzzles and a solid physics engine, and delivers an exceedingly enjoyable and inventive experience. You need to keep your eye on this one.
Look for Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet when it lands on the Xbox Live Market Place this Summer.