Ask yourself – stand in front of the mirror and ask yourself – what do you expect from an XBLA game? Broadly speaking, do you really expect something that peels both of your eyelids off your face in pure delight like some releases from cashed-up, major production houses do? Probably not. You know downloadable games are in many cases just a spot of fun. You are level headed. They're getting better all the time, but they remain very hit and miss. You are smart enough to know that. We believe in you.
All that said, Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet is rather more hit than miss, and ain't that just the bee's knees? With an art style seemingly based on tattoos that were popular in the late 90s, a sweeping, familiar sci-fi score and gameplay that's puzzling and rewarding in equal measure, the simple upfront message is that it's worth it. That's all you really wanted to know, isn't it? You leech.
The premise is nice and simple: an alien threat is being all threatening and alien and stuff, and your task is to jump in your flying saucer and go cause it some damage. A stack of back story isn't needed for a game that seems to revel in its simplicity, and relies on the rich well of context you might expect anyone with a couple of years gaming under their belt to have (the basic arcade-style romp recalls a great many past adventures. Not a bad thing, just a thing).
The landscape itself is enemy enough and as you progress you'll need to trick out your saucer with a number of weapons and upgrades: a claw-arm will help you move rocks (so you can unblock passageways, for example) and a laser helps you blow the crud out of a host of bizarre enemies. Etc. As time goes on your arsenal will increase and so will its applications. Man, that sounds almost dull, right? It's not.
The strangeness of the place perhaps lends the game the first part of its title, but the tremendous sense of the other – set off by some truly great music – is ever present and almost entirely responsible for the game's atmosphere. Your introduction, via the aptly named Homeworld, is to a place that is intergalactic in its jaggedness and utterly puzzling in its geometry. The world is as strange as that last sentence, you see, because these are not shapes that exist anywhere else.
The idea of the alien is forced into every inch of the game, bar one, and it doesn't let up. It's only strange that your own alien craft would be perfectly recognisable to your average abducted, probed, wild-eyed redneck. The inhospitable nature of everything else is laid on thick. The whole thing reminds me of that Gary Larson cartoon with the rattler, puffer fish, growling cat and trenchcoated maniac with a bazooka and a boot on his head: how nature says "do not touch”.
True explorers might find the game's linear blinkers a little hard to handle: there's one way to go, and it's that-a-way. But it doesn't detract too much from the overall experience, because those pathways are often blocked by puzzles and obstacles that you'll need to figure out before you can move on. If you’ve been following, you'll realise that's sort of half the fun. On the whole, I think that being guided forward is preferable to being constantly frustrated by dead ends in the subterranean mazes, which this game’s designers could have easily done and which would have been a total menace.
Switching to the map can be a bit of a pain, only because you need to do it so much; indeed, you're made to feel like your TV isn't quite big enough. On the other hand, the looming walls and obtuse notion of what's an enemy and what's just an unusual looking plant give you a great sense of insignificance.
Controlling your ship, again, harks back to a simpler time. But, to spice things up, the saucer is easily damaged by enemies and subject to a number of in-world elements. Inexplicable draughts of wind can pick you up and biff you about the ears like an older brother catching you with his Playboys, so aiming yourself at the entrance of an unexplored cavern becomes tricky at times. That need for a bit of finesse in your play style is, I think, not a mistake.
Regular checkpoints are handy when you're still teething, but the game doesn't sustain any real challenge end to end so they soon become a bit superfluous. At first it's easy to feel a bit put upon and harried by the unfriendly landscape, so they're a good crutch, especially because they repair your ship for you.
There's murmurs out there that Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet is about as long as a Wookie's American Idol audition, which has some questioning the game's value, but ultimately it all goes back to expectations, and you can decide how short is too short. This game's got spiffy visuals, music that makes you feel like part of something, a basic and pleasing control system, a stack of collectibles and a (yeah, limited) multiplayer mode. And you don't have to leave your house to buy the sucker.
What more do you want?
Lasting appeal: 6
Available on Xbox 360.