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Impressions: Lifeless Planet

Dear Astro

Look, I know exactly 42% of you think Going For A Walk games are destroying videogames, but this is one instance where a game would be a whole lot better if it stuck to observation over interaction. Insta-death jump-puzzles are not what a game about exploring a strange, apparently uninhabited new world tinged with tragedy and mystery really needs. Wonderful, sweeping scenery: yes. Vast, surprising architecture: yes. Clangy soundtrack of celestial doom: yes. Russian-language audiologs: yes. Eerie, lonely stomps across apparently infinite alien terrain: yes. Yes! A strange and unsettlingly space-place, free from guns and conventional monsters. Yes. Falling off a ledge again and again: no, why, no, no, no, please, no.

That I want to play more of Lifeless Planet, that I want to spend more time in it, even despite its jump'n'fail misery, says much about the place it has built.

OK, the setup: you're a long-haul astronaut who's given up years of his life to voyage to a distant planet. When he arrives, his fellow crew are missing and there are strange signs that someone might have somehow gotten there before you. What? How? Who? Help?

It's a quest for answers, to discover whether all this is real or imagined, and whether anyone else is alive here. The preview code I've played is the first couple of hours of the game, and the most immediately (and indeed increasingly) impressive aspect of it is the architecture of its Mars-like word. It switches from dusty red canyons to incongruous habitation to almighty underground structures to heavy industry and to Other Things that it takes all my willpower not to include screenshots of. From a low key start, Lifeless Planet grows into something incredibly striking.

Unfortunately, it does seem like a case of setting and story first, game design second, because the essential quest for information is beefed up by a consistently irksome jumping puzzle game. Do you love falling down, dying and trying again? Then you'll love Lifeless Planet! This is the main game mechanic, and while there's something to be said for making jumping feeling clunky and clumsy because you're in a bally great space suit and the gravity's a bit off, it lacks the pleasantly languorous quality one might expect from extraterrestrial leaping.

Instead it feels fiddly and slippy, and tedious. This is early/Early Access code some later change is possible, but while the jumping itself could be tuned, it seems deeply implausible that Lifeless Planet could ever become a game that isn't primarily about irritating jumping puzzles - and in that it feels like it's somewhat squandered the amazing place it's built.

This issue isn't purely restricted to jumping, but a more a general 'don't fall off things' ethos. Take, for example, this:

A grand vista, a certain sense of vertigo, a clear statement of where you need to go. Sadly, the reality is a very long walk along a very thin wire, constantly adjusting your shopping trolley of a player-character, and doing the whole bally lot again if you tumble off the side at any point. Sure, it encourages patience, which is a required virtue in Lifeless Planet, in mood as well as play style, but it really does feel like playing for time before the next revelation or surprising sight, of trying to force 'game' onto what really wants to be a going for a walk and reading letters affair.

There's an attempt to liven the jumpy bobbins up with a jetpack which allows traversal of longish distances and heights, which does feel more satisfying and I'm An Astronaut-y, but it's cruelly snatched away again a few minutes later, at a guess to prevent players from leaving the beaten track. I would imagine it will return later, and be snatched away again later. I appreciate that this is essentially a scripted A-B game rather than free-roaming exploration, but basic navigation is that much more of a pleasure when the jetpack's short-range, short-bursts augmentation is in play.

There are some rudimentary physics puzzles too, involving pushing around the odd boulder or barrel or directing a mechanical arm to put Important Things into other Important Things, but in this preview code at least it's been lightweight, obvious and prescribed. Feels like the start of something though - I wouldn't mind that stuff becoming more involved later in the game, where more precision and speed is required - especially if it comes at the expense of more jumpy-pain.

But I want to get back to the sights that Lifeless Planet throws at my screen. There are remarkable images here, a bold sense of place and strangeness, a combination of the incongruously Earthly and the avant-garde, of the anachronistically normal and the unsettlingly massive. Despite a perhaps over-earnest occasional voiceover, there's also a Tarkovsky-like atmosphere, a sense that this strange, dead place is as much purgatorial as it is actual. It's a game that manages to get impressively under my skin, keeping me there, keeping me determined to keep on despite my inner rebellion about the jumping.

I'm not in quite so much for the plot, much as it's mustering a reasonable degree of intrigue (revolving around who got to this planet before you, how they did it and what happened to them), but rather for what sights the thing's going to throw at me next. So far, it's admirably grounded, just about refusing flights of fancy. Hard sci-fi through and through, I hope, though there are strong hints of something Other. I just want to see unexpected things rising magnificently out of the red rocky terrain, to be greeted by something I could not have predicted as I descend into a new valley or reach the top of an arid cliff. So far, Lifeless Planet has delivered on that front.

I was disappointed and frustrated when the preview code ended, because I wanted to see more.

I want to see more. And I'm willing to suffer a fair bit more death-by-jumping to achieve that.

Lifeless Planet will be with its original backers and on Steam Early Access any day now.

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