I'm going to die here.
Violent, inky, living tendrils reach out towards me. If three of them, by some horrid chance, manage to latch onto my ship in the tight corner, each reeling me in like a fisherman struggling to pull in his catch, I will surely perish. But my ship barely navigates past their aching jowls and into the next chamber. I scan the tendrils before moving into the narrow, twisting corridor, and I fire at them, but their weakness to my laser doesn't mean they fall victim to it. They're simply stunned, momentarily, batting an eyelash at my transport.
Of course, replace "an eyelash" with "their gnashing fangs" and "transport" with "diminutive, vulnerable husk", and you'll have a more apt description of the situation. This is Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet, a game from Michel Gagne and Joe Olson that can only be described as the crossroads between a stylishly grim, yet colorful, nightmare and a twin-stick shooter with Metroidvania overtones.
I feel like I have to tell you something upfront, though. As pretty, entertaining, and visceral as ITSP's art, environments, and enemies are, the game itself isn't so revolutionary. You've probably played twin-stick shooters to death, and ITSP won't do much to renew your love if you're bored at this point. I've taken my ship to nearly every corner in the game. I've gathered artifacts to unlock concept art and cutscenes. I've upgraded my ship with countless new weapons and shield enhancements. What I like about ITSP is partly based on my enjoyment of Metroid, Castlevania, and adventure games.
If the exploratory elements of ITSP weren't as smartly paced and worthy of your time, its grade would get knocked down a notch. It's not as if adventuring has never joined with twin-stick shooters before. It has, but this title matches the satisfying balance of upgrade frequency and inventiveness Symphony of the Night has become famous for.
Let's cycle back, though. You end up on some mechanically altered planet. While the shadow spreads, you are responsible for removing it from your solar system's sun. ITSP doesn't utter a word to you throughout its setup, conflict, and conclusion. Everything is conveyed through visuals, whether your scanner tells you what weapon to use in an objective or what enemies are vulnerable to.
Weapons are powerful and drip-fed to keep you hooked through the next level. You'll see areas you can't reach without a specific weapon, but thanks to the scanner you'll know when to come back after the locked doors are marked on your map. Ultimately, revisiting areas is its own treat thanks to Michel Gagne's glorious art.
The true strength in Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet isn't necessarily the gameplay. Michel Gagne's art simply astounds. Levels are wildly varied, deep, and detailed. Enemies pop up in droves, drift out of the snow, and bubble up from the depths of each level. It's not like the enemies are challenging in interesting or difficult ways. In fact, you're more likely to interact with chaotic environment in between boss fights than you are to face off against anything you'd call an opponent.
Truly, ITSP's best gameplay comes in the varied boss fights, each requiring fine control of the game's weapons. Some are dauntingly large, others intricately small, and still others requiring skills beyond what you'll learn during the level. Fortunately, you'll never find yourself frustrated or defeated. Bosses typically have some hook that'll keep players coming back, although they won't keep you too long.
When you sit down with Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet, you're in for a visual feast, colorful, foreboding, intriguing, and worth every penny. And thankfully, the gameplay is solid. Gagne's art is fantastic and even if you don't have fun, you'll probably be compelled through the game just to see what the next area or boss fight is like.