By Ben Barrett on June 20th, 2014 at 5:00 pm.
There are days when I envy the faceless, nameless protagonist of latest walk-around-a-bit-’em-up Lifeless Planet. He’s well and truly alone, fifteen light-years from Earth, stranded on a barren planet. His life is simple: seek oxygen and answers before hunger, asphyxiation or dust storms render him little more than a far flung corpse. Confusingly, there’s a Russian research base and a mysterious woman here too. Good for him, then, that he’s had the luck to be dropped into a game with style – beautiful, well written and with just the right level of creepy atmosphere – one Kickstarter should be proud of. Here’s Wot I Think.
Lifeless Planet’s first triumph, and I’d say there are many, is in its movement system. There’s a real sense of momentum to bounding around the desolate wasteland you’ve found yourself in. It’s different from the speed or maneuverability of a twitch shooter, something a lot slower. The astronaut is a lumbering chap, unable to swivel on a dime or tread lightly anywhere. There’s just enough humanity in it to be believable and raise the tension in tight situations without becoming fiddly, while the times it’s relevant are few and far enough between that it rarely frustrates.
A jet pack is the only platforming assistance provided, with just enough thrust for a double jump. It combines with the physics engine to make puzzles actually entertaining. There’s obviously been a lot of work put into the exact spacing between platforms and how long sections should be. They’re difficult without being a kick in the teeth, but having to do them twice due to a messed up jump is rarely frustrating. Beyond that, there’s just enough variation in landscapes, threat level and goal for each area that there’s no sense of repetition. As back handed as it sounds, it’s the least bored I’ve been by the challenge elements of an exploratory or narrative game in some time. It’s only improved by the additional fuel pickup which allows something approaching an octo-jump. It’s sadly not permanent, but given I managed to get out of bounds with it in about seven minutes, I understand the design challenges presented.
Your first spawn upon crashing on this alien world is the most desolate middle-of-nowhere I’ve ever seen. It’s quite a brave move on the part of one man band David Board to drop unsuspecting players into this desert immediately. The horizon is mostly empty, save a few scattered rocks. You’re free to explore as you like once you’ve grabbed the nearby oxygen tanks. There is a defined route from area to area and the plot won’t take any diversions, but there are secrets, both visual and literal, hidden around. The entire structure of the game is built around seeing what’s just over that next rise, so it’s vital that you can both go there and there is something to find.
Traversing areas takes a properly large amount of time, too, making it feel like you’re actually travelling the miles and miles you’re being told you are. The Unity engine does incredible work here, later in the game rendering mountains and structures far in the distance that will be eventually reached. I’m dodging feverishly around spoiler territory, but the scale of some set pieces in the latter quarter or so of the game is extraordinary.
In leading you the right way is where Lifeless Planet’s skill lies. The audio-visual cues for pushing and pulling you along are masterful. A sunset over a hill or a well placed jutt of scenary draw the eye that way. There’s a Valve-tier level of care gone into the placement and variety of ways in which it is done, making it only more impressive that it’s the work of one man. It falls back on some basics at times, mostly footprints, but isn’t afraid to remove them totally at any moment. The signposting is then more subtle: never causing me to be lost, but requiring a certain level of attention rather than blind track following.
In what’s becoming the least surprising line in any indie game review, the music is gorgeous and picked incredibly well both for moments of high danger or serene pauses. There’s an early moment where, in a pitch black bunker, almost out of nowhere, a Russian anthem begins to play. It’s sudden, angry and a mite humourous in its utter ludicrous contrast to the situation. In building an atmosphere there are few better, and the effects work in harmony with the music beautifully, particularly once… Well… Argh…
I’m treading as lightly as possible when it comes to the plot. I was mostly unspoiled when first played, although I had watched some amount of the Early Access demo a few weeks beforehand. Naturally, this is the preferable way to experience the game (though I can only imagine how good it must be going in not even knowing the premise of finding the Soviet base) so if you’re simply looking for a recommendation: yes, it holds up. It leverages the strengths of its format beautifully, tying almost everything back to the simple explore-’n'-jump mechanics that bind the whole piece together. It will expertly switch between environmental information to audio logs from long-dead Russians to musings on the environment from the protagonist.
If there is a weak link, sadly, that’s where it lies. John Spaceman the Astronaut, as must be his name, is a little on the quippy side for a man lost, alone and most likely terrified. He’ll crack jokes while strolling along power-lines miles into the air or when moments from death by giant falling rock. It’s immersion shattering when the rest of the world and the lore surrounding it are so well constructed. In a game about mystery and the unknown, he’s American and brash, breaking step with the silence or Russian of everything around him. Little details like having all the audiologs play in Russian, echoing in the empty space around you, are what make Lifeless Planet amazing – so having this dude at its core is a damn shame.
There are some trade offs for the highs. For a game of this type, it’s unafraid to kill you and set you back. The autosaves are generally acceptable, but a couple of times I was annoyed with how much I had to repeat. Equally, while the vast majority of the environments are wonderful, there’s a particularly firey one with liberal insta-death triggers and poorly defined safe areas. Like I said above, I was never lost per-se, but the removal of the freedom to wander, mess up and fix myself was out of sync with the rest of my time with the game.
There’s the barest hint of it being unfinished, too. Some of the act transitions are disjointed, not logically flowing from the exit point of one to the load point of another. This worsens as the game continues, from ending up at the end of now-mysteriously-blocked corridors to seemingly teleporting during overnight rests. When certain resources – particularly oxygen – are needed is entirely arbitrary and obviously triggered by reaching areas or passing boundaries rather than more logical reasons. It’s possible that originally there was more of a survival element to the game but that it was abandoned and what the final version contains is a ghost of those systems. It was likely right to remove it, but it’s a shame that the shadow of it is left rather than something more coherent.
In quality, not quantity, is where Lifeless Planet tries to shine, so these slight missteps are a shame. If you demand a certain amount of playtime out of your purchases, the five hours or less it took me to complete won’t fill you with confidence, though I left many areas without full exploration of every corner. Plus, every moment of that will be spent in abject wonder by all but the most cold-hearted, mechanic-focused play-machines. Every tone it attempts is struck with confidence and talent, from creeping horror to outright terror to reflective serenity. Give it a moment and you’ll be stuck with it until you’re finished.
You can grab Lifeless Planet on Steam for £14.99 normally, but £11.99 in the current sale. Or it’s $19.99 cut to $15.99 on the official site through Humble. We’ve also got Mr. Meer’s thoughts on the first few hours over here.