When I was asked to play an indie game for the site called Lifeless Planet, by Stage 2 Studios and available on Steam now, I half expected yet another game which drops you into a Day Z clone with no instructions and a server full of assholes. But as it turns out, Lifeless Planet is a drop into an atmospheric puzzle game with substantially less assholes….Now I’m the only asshole on the server!
What’s the story? You’re part of a 15 year mission to help investigate an apparently lush, fertile world with abundant vegetation. But when your ship crashes into the planet you find yourself stranded in the middle of the desert, and are left to wonder the wastes alone in search of your team, or answers. I would love to de-construct the plot and analyse it, but that would do the game a disservice. The plot is a lot like Prometheus (and I mean that in the best way possible, considering I am apparently the only person who liked that film), in that you’re best knowing as little as possible. Along the way the mystery slowly unravels before you, as you follow the yarn of intrigue towards a sombre yet optimistic pay-off.
The only issue I have with the plot is that the game feels the need to explain everything to you, and I mean EVERYTHING. I wouldn’t mind, but the game is good at conveying its story and solutions to problems though gameplay alone. It’s like they paid the voice actor by the day, and wanted to get their moneys worth. Which I can’t really fault, since actor Bob Carter puts in a fantastic performance. But the game seems to be confused on how it wants to get its story across. Do they want a silent protagonist who the audience projects onto, or a rounded out and developed character. The game leans towards the former, and as a result you’re taken out of the moment by an interrupting dialogue. There are moments where the voice-over plays an interview with the main character prior to the beginning of the mission, with it’s own story regarding his wife. I wish that the narration were kept to these sections, where they feel like they work. The game would’ve been a lot stronger if they had been consistent in it’s subtly.
The games real strength lies in its atmosphere. There are so many moments where the game’s direction shines through; you see something in the distance that you might miss if you’re just blazing through, which helps create a complete world as opposed to a straight corridor with the occasional distraction. The game is a linear path at the end of the day, but it’s layout and design is very good at helping you forget this fact. The music also helps play a huge role in creating an unsettling atmosphere, saving it for the right moments to help set the mood of the situation. The rest of the time you’re faced with dead silence, which plays into the theme of isolation and drives home the deserted atmosphere.
Of course a game needs gameplay, otherwise it’s just a guided tour that gives you carpal tunnel syndrome. Gameplay is split between platforming and puzzle solving; both of which are a little mixed in my book. Platforming is held back by the sloped platforms you have to jump to, which can also cause you to bounce backwards into the abyss at the worst possible time. Though thankfully the majority of these sections are taken up by jetpack sections which are pretty fun; the low gravity makes subtle calculations in jetpack bursts vital to making your mark and prove to be one of the more enjoyable aspects of gameplay.
The puzzle solving once again is a little divided on effectiveness; some require careful thinking and help you feel accomplished, while most of the puzzles amount to “find the thing and put it into the other thing.”. It feels like artificial gameplay lengthening and could have used a few more hours in the design area. Though if there is one part I’ll criticize, it’s the lava level; just damn this stage! First of all you can’t touch the black and red platforms otherwise you’ll burst into flames. The safe platforms are the dark grey and red platforms, which look like the unsafe platforms and make long jumps a huge pain in the ass. Secondly when all the platforms look the same, it’s easy to get turned around and loose track of your sense of direction, making you stay there far longer than is necessary. This isn’t helped by the camera pointing you in a random direction when you respawn, which can lead to involuntary backtracking and a distinct loss of patience.
Something else worth noting is the transitions; you’ll cut to black in one area, then the game fades in somewhere completely different and it’s night now. This is a really jarring transition and could have been fixed by dividing sections with an interior section joining different areas.
On the whole Lifeless Planet is a fun game; flawed, but fun. If you can let the atmosphere and level design suck you in, then it’s easy to ignore the games shortcomings. The game’s not too long; I clocked in about 4 hours, so I suggest picking it up when you have an evening free and judge for yourself. Or pick up during the Steam sale and let it get buried beneath all the other games you’ll never find time to play.
+ Intriguing story
+ Fantastic atmosphere
+ Jet-packing is fun!
– Puzzles lack design
– Bad respawning
– Little replay value