Wot I Think: Lifeless Planet

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.

This guy might be alright, who knows?!

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.

This one's a fake, I think. BE VIGILANT.

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.

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32 Comments »

  1. zind says:

    Perhaps I shall give it another go, then. I dumped it in my “maybe later” file after I did a “save and quit” and reloaded to what I thought was an unacceptably distant past checkpoint. If it’s about 5 hours total, though, I can fit that in a weekend.

  2. Meat Circus says:

    An unfortunate combination of unnecessarily pedantic jumping and floaty awful controls unfortunately detracted from this game’s atmosphere until I basically decided it wasn’t worth the hassle.

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      Bugamn says:

      Is the Meat Circus complaining about jumps?

      • Josh W says:

        If that wasn’t your actual pseudonym, this would have been an amazing dismissive remark. It’s still pretty brilliant even in context.

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      But I Powerup From There says:

      Seems like such a weird choice: to make a moody, story-led exploring game, and then add stupid clown physics because game.

  3. seruko says:

    the story and atmosphere are great! the main character is rediculous. some of the jumping puzzles are extremely frusterating because of the lumbering controls.

  4. Ross Angus says:

    This sounds right up my cup of tea. I’m glad it lives up to the early promise.

  5. waltC says:

    I wish game reviewers would get very precise in their grammar when talking about save game functions–one of the most important aspects of any game, imo. Are we talking about check-point saves? Sounds like it, but the word used is “autosaves,” which is not at all the same thing. We’re left to guess at the check-point nature of the game by the vague references to having to repeat some sections…which leads to the next query…is there are a save-anywhere/anytime capability? These things need not be nuanced in a review, but rather precisely detailed, imo.

    • zind says:

      Agreed, but to answer your question it is definitely checkpoints and not autosaves. No save-anywhere at all, which is what led me to stop playing it on my first go.

    • Ben Barrett says:

      … so what’s the difference between a checkpoint and an autosave?

      • zind says:

        Checkpoints are saves that happen at certain points or events within the game, autosaves happen periodically based on time played.

        If one person takes 5 minutes to finish a segment and one person takes 25, they will each have one checkpoint after the segment but the 25-minute person could have multiple autosaves at various points in the middle of it.

        EDIT: Also the more salient point is that autosaves are often a convenience feature that exists within save-anywhere games and checkpoints are often the only method of saving progress in checkpointed games.

        • Ben Barrett says:

          A massive number of RPGs I’ve played made autosaves every time I entered rooms/areas/what have you.

        • trjp says:

          I cannot remember a game which saved on an ‘every X mins’ basis – do you have an example?

          The difference between a checkpoint and an autosave is much more profound anyway – checkpoints are NOT saved!!

          Checkpoints are areas within a larger area where you are returned if you die – at least as long as you have ‘lives’ remaining. Quitting the mission/game will reset you to the start of the area when you next play howver – your progress was not ‘saved’ (if it was, it’s an autosave, not a checkpoint)

          • Sacarathe says:

            Neet explanation zind; trjp most games that fall resolutely into the RPG, RPS and RTS genres have auto saves, the total war series does it on the start of turns and battles for example, in many cases it works as a sort of “crash” barrier in games, because these saves are done before a new content zone is loaded, such switching between a 2d and 3d environment. Rolling autosaves are the best policy, eg, 1-5 saves spread over 25 or 50 minutes during game play.

            I do believe it is rare to find autosaves and checkpoint saves in the same game, but it is not uncommon to find all three types of save in the same game, especially if you consider “restart level” to be a checkpoint.

    • stage2studios says:

      The 1.2 update I posted to Steam yesterday (coming to DRM builds today) adds more autosave points. In general there are only a few minutes (or less) between saves now. They are indicated clearly by a little old-school floppy disk icon so you can quit without losing your place.

      There are also liberal “checkpoints” as you refer to them, so if you die in the course of the game you don’t have to repeat much to get back to that spot.

      Thanks for checking out my game!

  6. donrogers says:

    “It’s best to come into the game unspoiled, ESPECIALLY not knowing about the Soviet Base.”

    “If you haven’t seen Fight Club, it’s best to not know that Ed Norton and Brad Pitt are the same guy.”

    Slow effing clap. Way to go, RPS.

    • Urthman says:

      Crap. I forgot this was one of the games I was going to try to avoid spoilers for…

    • The Random One says:

      I think it’s less like that and more like watching The Matrix without knowing it starts in a large computer simulation. I mean… the game’s logo has a scythe-and-hammer as the P.

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      J. Cosmo Cohen says:

      It made me laugh. I just imagined Ben typing and thinking, ‘It was ruined for me so I’m going to ruin it for you!’

      • Cpt_Chaos says:

        Well it didn’t make me laugh, sorry for my lack of humor. I like my games (especially story/atmospheric-driven kind of games) spoiler-free thank you very much, and the way this was pulled really annoyed me. I was literally like “WTF” the moment I read the sentence. I mean what was he thinking? And it was so unnecessary: How hard is it to AT THE VERY LEAST pull some warning and/or spoiler tag right before writing this? Especially considering he was full aware that this would ruin some people’s enjoyment at least to some degree.

        You may think I am overreacting, but ok so be it. Fact is it left a very sour taste in my mouth, was absolutely avoidable and certainly didn’t help to convince me to buy it right now (although I may at some later point when it is inevitably heavily discounted).

        tl;dr SPOILER WTF?!

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      strangeloup says:

      To be fair, that bit of information is in the game’s Steam description, so it’s hardly a cataclysmic spoiler.

  7. altum videtur says:

    It would appear to me that the link between Russia and misery has become completely indelible in popular culture by now and the very concept of the Soviet Union is tantamount to desolation. This isn’t some Anglo-Saxon curiosity either. Read Russian fiction or play their games or watch their movies. They feel it too. And apparently adore it, which is fair enough.

  8. tormos says:

    so can we get Pope Ratzo in here to talk about how he hates it and it was terrible because something something kickstarter something something 2014?

  9. NothingFunny says:

    its Early acccess was one of the worst cases of a game void of anything to do, it felt like a scam. Well, unless you think that walking around empty terrain makes a good game.

  10. Geebs says:

    Thanks for he reminder, I was totally going to pick this up and I totally still am!

    Edit: and I did.

    Edit edit: and I really like it so far.

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    Hypocee says:

    It’s probably good you did this writeup. I’d watched the release trailer and gone from interested to dismissive upon encountering Dead Woman Guy So Sad, Ghost or Hallucination Maybe Weeeeird Huh Metaphors.

  12. Fansal says:

    ‘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. [..] There’s a Valve-tier level of care gone into the placement and variety of ways in which it is done …’

    Right, because who doesn’t remember fondly how in Half-Life 2 the way to the next level was literally painted green with those alien algae from Red Planet …

    The review is written very well as I’ve come to expect from RPS, but there you are way off the marker, Ben. I just finished Lifeless Planet and in my opinion it’s an exercise in boredom with bothersome platforming and some mind-numbingly dull ‘puzzles’ thrown in for good (or bad) measure. The headache-inducing depth of field doesn’t help either. My advice: Stay clear!

  13. urbanautomaton says:

    The review made this sound great, and I do see the game’s attractions; I bought it today and am nearly at the end (god, I hope). I’ll be honest, though: atmospheric though it is, the jumping puzzles are a bridge-with-missing-segments too far.

    Even allowing for low-gravity physics, the controls are way too slow, and some of the jumping segments are ludicrously finicky (some of them in the dark for good measure). It’s not just the jumping, either; I got stuck on the terrain many times, which required replaying even more of the game than when I merely plummetted to my death.

    Weirdly though, I haven’t had any of the quips from the main character; he’s been totally silent for me, apart from plot-advancing dialogue, none of which seemed to strike a bum note.

  14. Polifemo says:

    I would classify this under “not for everyone”. If you dont like long atmospheric scenic walks it’s not that the game is bad, it’s just not for you.
    I hope we get more “not for everyone” niche audience games just for the sake of having more excuses to tell those “if I dont like it you cant like it” people to sod off.

  15. Devilfish says:

    This game really disappointed me. I enjoyed the time I spent with it, but not nearly as much as the game promised I would at the start.

    First you get dropped in en empty desert with no directions on where to go. Great, free exploration! No, wait, instead you’re going to follow this extremely linear path for five hours.

    Okay, but there’s weird happenings and hallucinations (or are they?) and creepy environments and it’s starting to remind me of The Void, which can only be a good thing. So it’s definitely getting mysterious and complicated and creepy! Only no, there’s no real mystery. Just follow the linear path to the next bit of straightforward, non-twisty, linear story. The twists and mindfucks hinted at in the beginning never happen. The story is bafflingly straightforward, no interpretation required.

    Okay, but collectibles! That’s fun! Only no. I spent two hours checking out every nook and cranny only to be rewarded with some info about quartz. What you can find isn’t all that exciting, and 90% of the time when you veer off the linear path, there’s nothing there. I quit doing it by the fourth or fifth zone.

    Basically, as soon as you find some green footsteps, that’s the best part of the game over, and it’s not going to deliver on anything it’s promised to do by that point. No exploration, no weird twisty story, no extra mystery questions beyond the two introduced in the beginning (“who is she?” and “what do I do now?”) no deeper plot, no layers, nothing. And while the environments are very beautiful, as soon as you start to expect the weird alien landscapes, they don’t exactly surprise you anymore. So you settle into a routine really quickly, because the game can’t surprise you or keep you on your toes after the one-hour mark, and you’re just running along the linear path with almost nothing to discover. For hours. Basically, hold down W and press space at the appropriate time until story conclusion.

    And it’s not a BAD story. Not at all. It’s just not nearly as indie-weird and sci-fi deep as the first hour of gameplay might lead you to believe, and everything gets wrapped up with a neat little bow at the end, so there’s not much to think about after you’re done playing.

    But is IS fun and it IS beautiful. Like I said, I don’t regret buying it. But I think it’s best to think about it as a very pretty physics platformer and nothing else.