by Quinn Levandoski
reviewed on PC
Space, The Final Frontier
Can we call world-immersion a genre now? There’s probably a better name for it than that, but it seems like the last few years have seen a dramatic rise in the number of games where the primary objective isn’t as much about killing bad guys or “winning” as it is to just walk around and experience the universe the game has created. To observe and explore for observation and exploration’s own sake. Stage 2 Studios’ game Lifeless Planet, a Kickstarter success story, flirts the line between being one of these world immersion games and being a puzzle platformer, and while I had a lot of fun with it, I think it would have been a better overall experience if it left the puzzles behind.
In Lifeless Planet players hop into the moon boots of an astronaut on a mission to a far away planet in search of the abundant life their preliminary scans have shown should be there. Unfortunately, as they almost always do in games, something goes wrong. The ship crash lands. The player wakes up not knowing how long they were unconscious for, where exactly they are, or where any of their crewmates are. While looking around, the astronaut finds something perplexing to say the least- the remains of what seems to be a deserted Soviet civilization, complete with houses, research bases, medical facilities and more. Even stranger is the woman he keeps seeing off in the distance, seemingly daring him to follow her. I’m not going to go into the plot any more than that because uncovering the points and twists is the best part of Lifeless Planet, but finding out what the heck is going on, and if everything you’re seeing can even be possible, is the whole point of the game.
The themes brought up throughout the game, some subtle, some not so much, are widespread and generally effective. Our space-faring scientist has to deal with loss, loneliness, self doubt, the prime directive, and more. Unfortunately the pacing and thoroughness at which these themes are explored is hit and miss. Some of the mysteries, such as why there is a town sitting in the middle of this barren planet, are revealed far too quickly. I would have loved to explore a little more in the metaphoric dark. Others, and perhaps the game as a whole, seem to drag on longer than they should. The rest, particularly some side-stories that pop up, just never come to any sort of meaningful conclusion at all. I realize that it’s probably a conscious choice to leave things unknown, but it’s occasionally things that don’t benefit from open-endedness and instead just seem like a waste of time. These are the exceptions though, and overall I very much enjoyed the narrative being spun.
Something immediately noticeable about Lifeless Planet is that it has fantastically rich and convincing atmosphere. While the graphics leave something to be desired from a purely technical standpoint, the visual and aural direction really sell the whole thing. Some of the alien vistas are truly beautiful, and walking around the seemingly endless barren deserts feels as isolated and alone as being on the other side of space should. I enjoyed just walking around. I wish there were more places where I could just explore, listen to audio logs, and not worry about anything else, because the developers are very talented at creating a place worth uncovering. The voice acting is also much better than I’ve experienced in many other indie games, and lends gravitas and believability to bouts of dialogue that could otherwise come off as boring or disingenuous.
Some of the best moments, and ones that really sell the emotional state of the player character, are the ones that connect back to Earth. Our astronaut has more or less lost his wife there, and his mind won’t let it go. On occasion we’re teleported to Earth-like rooms, and we have to fight with ourselves to decide what’s in our minds and what’s really in the world.
This is probably going to sound weird, but the more game-y moments in Lifeless Planet are actually the weakest parts of the experience. I’ve already described in great length how the title is fantastic at building a world and a mystery to fill it, and how doing simple things like listening to audio logs or exploring vistas to uncover the truth are satisfying enough that if the game focused on those alone I’d be happy. Unfortunately the game's bits of platforming and puzzle solving leave a lot to be desired. Simply put, both are uninspired. Most of the platforming isn’t difficult because of complex timing or dangerous obstacles, it’s difficult because the controls were meant to act like a guy in space. That is to say they’re very floaty and a bit imprecise; fine for normal movement, but not so much when trying to hop from one small rock platform to another. The puzzles simply seem unnecessary. They’re rarely difficult, and normally consist of “look around this room for a keycode or dynamite” instead of anything that requires thought. If that’s all they were going to be, things that take up time with no real mental reward, I’d just as soon they be left out altogether.
Luckily, while there were more than a handful of them, they were rare enough that it didn’t detract too much from the bigger picture. The same can be said for some of the resources, namely oxygen, which isn’t really a puzzle but suffers from the same problem of being a time-waster instead of mental or dexterous challenge. The thing about oxygen is that it doesn’t actually run on a meter. If there were actually an oxygen meter I could see that would make me be careful with my movements that’d be fine. It’d make me employ strategy into where and when I went places. Instead the low oxygen warning triggers at certain points no matter what. For example, early in the game I found an oxygen tank by a building and tried to fill up, but it said I was already filled. I walked around for quite some time, hit a checkpoint, and then it told me I was out of oxygen and needed to find that tank I had seen. No problem I thought, I'd walked around quite a bit. The problem is that when I replayed that segment because I died, I skipped all the walking around and went straight for the checkpoint, only to get the same message. What’s the point of arbitrarily forcing me into that situation despite my attempts at smart play by filling up my oxygen early?
Lifeless Planet is a really fun experience, but not a very good game. I’d still recommend it based on the entertainment I got from exploring the mysteries of the game’s world, but I wish I didn’t have to deal with questionable puzzles and mechanics to do so. I think it is unique enough to be worth its asking price for those that are fans of the genre though. The developers over at Stage 2 Studios clearly have talent with things many games really struggle with, and I hope that in the next game we see from them they are able to build on that foundation to deliver the game I think this one probably should have been.
Intriguing mystery, a world worth exploring, good voice acting, and deep themes.
Simple time-wasting puzzles, imprecise platforming, occasionally questionable pacing.