Animator Michel Gagné has a cosmic bent, as anyone who’s seen his “Prelude To Eden” short can attest, but he’s also a genius at crafting things that slither, skulk, and slink. Those two specialties combine in Fuelcell Games’ debut, Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet, a beautifully rendered exploratory shooter that splices Tim Burton creepiness into the little-loved genre of NES’ Solar Jetman.
Like last year’s Summer Of Arcade champ Limbo, ITSP is a moody, wordless jaunt that capitalizes on its dark, silhouette-heavy stylings with occasional bursts of sound and visual flair. After your neighboring sun is converted into the titular shadow planet, you set off in your flying saucer, armed only with a trusty scanning device that explains the threat posed or the opportunities offered by everything you meet on your journey. New attachments (lasers, shields, a grasping claw) are awarded after big eye-popping boss battles. Without fail, they’re the key to besting those clever puzzles and progressing to the next segment of the color-coded map, or backtracking to some previous impasse for upgrades and bonus art.
As with Limbo, those puzzles are less often the switch-triggering kind, and more likely to be satisfyingly organic and of a piece with the section of planet you’re currently spelunking. Moth-like insects blocking your path? Bake a chunk of ore atop a volcanic vent and watch them swarm to the new heat source. The gears in a massive piece of machinery are stuck? See if you can pull out the offending matter with your claw. As smart as these puzzles are (though one in particular is a bit poorly telegraphed), and as uniformly excellent as the art direction is, there’s something welterweight about the game as a whole: Checkpoints are liberally sprinkled along every other passageway, and enemies are often as easy to avoid as they are to destroy. Taken together, these elements rob the game of that emotional oomph that comes with just barely breaking through a phalanx of ships or navigating a particularly tricky stretch of terrain.
In one of Shadow Planet’s best moments, those silhouettes are put to hair-raising good use, as the lights go out and your only hope of keeping flitting Cthulhu-like monstrosities at bay is by dragging a lantern along behind you. It’s difficult enough keeping the thing lit, but add to that trying to open gates, fire missiles, and kick-start generators, and the sensation of being alone and outgunned on an inhospitable planet becomes palpable. The single-player game’s lack of replay value is ameliorated a bit by a multiplayer mode that demands cool heads and good resource management. Players ferry a lantern through randomly generated dungeons as a giant maw pursues from behind. While the campaign could use more of that urgency, ITSP is a perfectly polished, bite-size shooter that returns us, however briefly, to a long-neglected sector of the gaming universe.