If there's one thing Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet proves, it's that even the brightest stars can be corrupted. This 2D adventure casts you as an intrepid alien sent to weed out a sickness that has infected an ailing heavenly body and, subsequently, save all life in the galaxy. Otherworldly environments engender strong feelings of loneliness, and a modicum of instructions reinforces the idea that you're all alone. There are few clear directions as you attempt to navigate this hostile world, and that lack of hand-holding is one of Shadow Planet's biggest strengths. Figuring out how to use your various tools to overcome obstacles provides the most satisfying hook to pull you along, and it is well worth putting up with the requisite trial-and-error activities to get past the most daunting puzzles. Unfortunately, that rush is often stymied by poor visual feedback and touchy controls. Because of these problems, Shadow Planet offers an uneven adventure that alternates between amazement and frustration, though there are more than enough exciting moments to make it a trip worth taking.
Storytelling is kept to a bare minimum in Shadow Planet. An introductory movie uses a flurry of intergalactic images to convey this simple tale, and there are few interludes during the rest of the adventure to guide you along. There is neither dialogue to build character nor motivations to push you forward; it's just one alien's plight to save his humble home. This less-is-more approach does a great job of setting up the basic premise without being intrusive, and the other elements build on this Spartan philosophy. A pulsing soundtrack uses dissonant effects to create an unsettling atmosphere. Howls and sirens flow in unstructured waves, and a dull drone conjures images of hidden evil. Shadow Planet also makes strong use of its exotic visual design to wrap you in its alien arms. Each biome carries with it a unique look, ranging from a hypnotic electrical zone to a creepy organic area, and every place you visit cements the idea that you're in a twisted land.
Your alien protagonist rides in a sleek flying saucer, which gives you freedom to cruise in any direction within the confines of your 2D view. Shadow Planet places exploration and problem solving at the forefront. The interconnected zones create a tangled web in which you must guide your vessel, and you can fly where you please, as long as you have the proper tools. You start your adventure with little more than a weak blaster and helpful radar, and you slowly gain new instruments by defeating bosses or accessing out-of-the-way areas. A dexterous claw, a controllable missile, and a spinning buzz saw are just some of the items you acquire, though the radar is what you need to rely on more than anything else. It serves as your guide for the adventure. By scanning obstacles and enemies, you learn their weaknesses, which is of paramount importance if you want to make it through the game in a timely manner.
Don't expect every mystery to be revealed just because the game lets you know which tool is best for a given situation. Recognizing what needs to be accomplished still takes a fair bit of experimentation, and there are a few difficult puzzles sprinkled throughout the game to keep you on your toes. Those "ah ha" moments crop up at key intervals to break up the the sedate pace, and they go a long way toward engrossing you in this adventure. When you finally cause a stubborn jellyfish to rise out of the way or successfully navigate a windy tunnel, you're awash in a feeling of satisfaction that gives weight to the entire endeavor. Some of the best involve guiding your missiles through narrow passageways. These aren't puzzles in the traditional sense because the solution is obvious from the get-go, but sliding through tight curves with a trusty missile demands your full concentration, something that is lacking during the majority of this unchallenging journey.
There are still problems with the puzzles, however, because the game often nudges you in the wrong direction. For instance, you may come across a glowing tube blocking your path. By scanning it, you find that by injecting it with electricity, you can shatter it into a million pieces. But the game doesn't mention that you need to find a conduit first, so you might spend minutes filling it with electrical blasts before you realize another method is needed. During one particularly baffling section, the lights have been turned off, and trying to fight enemies or solve puzzles in the dark is downright tedious. At other times, you may know exactly what needs to be done, but pulling off the feat is another matter. You earn a few items that let you move objects, but these are tricky to control. Trying to jam an icicle into a tiny hole takes a fair bit of prodding, which turns a simple puzzle into a giant aggravation. These problems are thankfully rare, though when they do show up, they quickly derail your space-faring fun.
A handy map always shows you where exactly your next objective lies. This is both a strength and failing for Shadow Planet. On the one hand, it's a relief to be pointed in the right direction at all times, saving you from getting lost in this wily world. But in a game so reliant on exploration, it takes away the sense of discovery when you're constantly told where to go. You may have to stop at various areas along the way to acquire new tools, but everything you need is located in such a confined space that you rarely have to stare at the map to figure out where to go next. Thankfully, exploration is still an important aspect. If you just follow the designated path, you miss the hidden collectibles along the way. These are not only fun to suss out (they frequently have puzzles you need to solve), but they also imbue your ship with new powers. Your blaster and shield gain strength by nabbing these treasures, which makes it well worth venturing off the beaten path to see what secrets this planet has in store for you.
This twisted planet is teeming with hostile beasts, and you have to dole out attacks if you're going to make it out alive. Combat is but one small element in this desolate adventure--the majority of the creatures nibbling at your exterior are little more than forgettable irritants. If you subscribe to the eye-for-an-eye manner of punishment, you can take them down with your many powerful weapons. Or you can frequently just zip right past them. Challenge comes from figuring out how to progress to the next area in Shadow Planet, not from fighting, so don't expect to work up much of a sweat for your efforts. Still, it can be entertaining to fend off these flying beasts if you think creatively. Your claw arm can grab onto certain enemies with vicelike strength. Slamming these creepy crawlies into boulders or flinging them into the ocean depths is goofy fun, and you can even clear a path through a wall of beasts by using one of their friends as a living club.
Combat is a lot more interesting during boss fights. The colossal foes are closer to elaborate puzzles than hand-wringing action sequences, so once you figure out their weaknesses, it's not too difficult to strike them down. But puzzling out exactly what you need to do takes a fair bit of experimentation. You may have to switch among your many tools during key points or dive through an elaborate laser grid to strike at their weak points, and there's an undeniable rush when you break through their defenses. Their alien designs tie in wonderfully with the abstract visuals. Mammoth monstrosities fill the screen, and just watching them move and react to your attacks carries with it a feeling of awe. The only downside to these battles is the same as what you encounter during normal combat: easiness. Even the final boss can be vanquished in a few attempts, and the rest are such pushovers you may not even die at all.
There's a strong sense of progression in Shadow Planet. You slowly gain access to nine different tools, and they're handed out in a deliberate manner to keep you intrigued. And once you have all of these weapons at your disposal, you feel like the heroic alien you've been masquerading as the whole time. Most of the items you collect can be used as both a problem-solving tool and a weapon, and figuring out the most effective way to use them makes experimentation fun. You may have success early on using your blaster only to find that the blade is the best way to keep persistent attackers at bay. The only problem with this impressive repertoire has to do with accessing each weapon in a timely manner. You have four different hot keys to assign things to, but that's not nearly enough when you get further along in the game. Calling up a radial menu lets you switch to anything in a pinch, but it's far too easy to select the wrong weapon when a horrific monster is closing in on you. This is another small problem, but all of these little issues add up.
If you take your time scouring the map for every hidden secret, Shadow Planet should last about eight hours. But there is a cooperative mode that makes this lonely world a bit more inviting. Lantern Run lets up to four players (online or offline) work together to accomplish the same goal. A multi-eyed, many-limbed beast gives chase, and you (and your friends) have to carry lanterns to safety. If these precious light sources are extinguished or if every ship dies, your run ends, so you need to work together to succeed. Teaming up with buddies offers a sharp contrast to the isolated experience from the main adventure, but that merry appeal is short lived. There just isn't much depth in Lantern Run to provide long-term entertainment. The odd smattering of rock obstacles and tittering enemies does little to excite your problem-solving abilities, and the simple combat can't keep you engaged for long. It's still interesting to try out this mode a couple of times, but it doesn't add much to the overall package.
Ultimately, Shadow Planet isn't made less appealing because of its disappointing cooperative mode. The single-player adventure is still the most important element, and it is difficult to pull away from this engrossing journey. The minimalistic presentation, exotic visual design, and ambient soundtrack do a wonderful job of placing you in this world, and thoughtful puzzles further invest you in the duties of your diminutive alien. However, small missteps haunt you through much of the game. Mechanical problems distract from the atmospheric wonder, and poor visual feedback constructs an unnecessary roadblock. Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet comes with a few warning flags, but a great sense of place makes it enticing to embark on this adventure.