I wasn’t a fan of Limbo. At best, it was a decent puzzle-platformer with some admittedly gory imagery, which is really the only aspect I enjoyed. The plot, endlessly debated by critics everywhere, was nothing to write home about in my opinion, and it bored me rather quickly. So upon the announcement of Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet, I braced myself for more of the same. Thankfully, aside from the mostly pitch-black environments (pops of color are much easier on the eyes) and wordless narrative, ISTP is much more of a peppier, action-oriented puzzler on the Xbox Live Arcade that I genuinely enjoyed my time with. And, at least to me, it’s much more unfriendly than Limbo.
You need to rely on your own imagination in order to figure out what’s going on, however, as there are only visual clues to annotate the plot unfolding around you. You control a diminutive flying saucer/spaceship, sharing aesthetics with that of the “classic” spaceship motif. You’re tasked with exploring the Shadow Planet — an insanely twisted one, apparently, riddled with red-eyed monsters, worms with vacuum-like suction who mean to swallow you whole, and even large, spider-like creatures who share the same traits. Fun! So off you go to chart the austere, unwelcoming atmosphere armed with rudimentary tools that you can subsequently upgrade throughout your journey.
With zero dialogue and minimal text, it’s up to you to pave the road to the next objective, which is always clearly marked on your map, accessed by pressing the back button. A radial menu accessible via right bumper allows for the quick-changing of tools, such as a ray gun of sorts, a scanner that quickly analyzes pieces of terrain and provides visual clues on which tool to use to proceed, a crane-like claw that you can use to pull rocks out of your way (and/or feed them to the vacuum-worms to clear the way), bombs, and more. You’ll constantly be forced to switch between the different augments at your disposal, as ISTP demands quick thinking and problem-solving.
Unfortunately, there’s a lot of Metroidvania-styled backtracking as well, where you’ll reach a certain point where you can clearly progress no further, hindered by the lack of an upgrade you had yet to find. You’ll need to float all the way back through the areas previously conquered to explore deeper until you can find said upgrade, then return to the spot again. Luckily, checkpoints are scattered profusely throughout the world, so even when you manage to destroy your spaceship (which isn’t hard to do when in the clutches of malevolent, sticky-tongued creatures) you’re never too far from where you ventured to previously. If you find yourself running low on strength after taking too many hits, the spaceship will flash a warning-red, so you’ll need to find glowing gold orbs and collect them in order to get back into tiptop shape.
Spooky, atmospheric music accompanies an equally eerie set with deep, crimson tones and warm neons that instantly instill an uneasy feeling; it’s obvious you’re not wanted here, and the inhabitants of this strange land will do anything to keep you from going deeper. Gargantuan bosses and even smaller minions are satisfying to take down in a Geometry Wars-styled shooting gallery, and satisfying puzzles keep you in your seat even after the “one more level” mentality kicks in. I typically don’t go for these sort of indie-inspired games, simply because indie does not always equal entertaining — thus, I’m always wary. However, Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet has just the right mix of challenge, intrigue, and mystery. It doesn’t hold your hand in a condescending manner with overarching tutorials and silly background studies; it simply is, and it’s up to you if you want to delve any deeper. Easily one of the better Xbox Live Arcade titles I’ve experienced, and well worth its asking price — you’ll even rack up some avatar awards, and if the payoff of playing a superb, atmospheric game isn’t enough, surely that might tip the scales for you.