The first few moments of Lifeless Planet are awe-inspiring and more than a little unsettling.
I’ve just woken up dazed and confused after crash-landing on a strange alien planet I’ve been sent to explore. My crew is missing, my ship is smoking, and barren red rock stretches for miles in every direction.
Suddenly, I get a notification that my oxygen tank is breached and draining quickly. I take off in a panicked sprint towards a blinking light in the distance, an Oxygen supply tank. My vision starts to tunnel-vision and the screen grows dimmer with every step, but I make it to the tank at the last possible moment. Only then do I take the time to survey my vast surroundings. How the heck am I going to explore all of this?
Lifeless Planet is a game that entices with its potential. Developed by just one person, this exploration platformer appears massive on its surface with a strange alien world that begs to have every corner examined in search of secrets and hidden details. Unfortunately, that façade of openness quickly gives way to masked linearity, and the vast majority of the time its corners are empty.
After that initial flurry of excitement, I’m guided down a path with walls too high to climb. After some basic platforming I arrive in another wide-open area, this time with a mysterious Russian settlement of houses. I’m excited to pick through them, to try and find hints as to how and why the Russians got to this planet first, only to realize that all of their doors are locked. Searching around the settlement reveals a couple of audio logs, but ultimately it feels empty.
This type of tease is constant throughout Lifeless Planet’s six-hour adventure. The game alternates between wide-open areas with very little to actually find and linear paths with platforming that quickly grows repetitive. Walls or cliffs border every area, and there is always only one way to get from point A to point B. There’s a puzzle to solve occasionally, but those puzzles are never more complex than carrying an item to a new spot or pushing a boulder a few feet.
A good platformer throws new challenges at the player or introduces new gameplay mechanics to keep things fresh. Lifeless Planet does a bit of both, but neither does much to mix up the established formula. The terrain changes over time and new insta-death traps are introduced for added difficulty, but these just make it feel like walking through similar rooms with different coats of paint. All of the environments feel empty, and hiking from one end to the other is more of a chore than a journey of exploration.
Lifeless Planet comes alive when it introduces a multi-jump boost that allows you to bound across the surface and leap over large gaps. Rocketing across the alien surface gives a great sense of momentum and speed, but that mechanic is only given and taken away in specific sections and those sections are always over too quickly.
The mystery that the game introduces is an interesting one that kept me engaged throughout, but the added exposition into your astronaut’s past comes too sporadically to create much of an emotional connection. He simply doesn’t have enough of a personality, and any revelations about his life land with a thud.
There are other little annoyances that pop up throughout the game. Audio logs are spoken in Russian, and there’s no way to fast forward through them. That means that you’re stuck trying to read the translation while Russian blares through your speakers, and the Russian continues to the end of its recording even if you finish reading and close the log. Other text logs still have their placeholder gibberish text.
Overall, Lifeless Planet has flashes of potential, and I’d be excited to see what developer Stage 2 Studios could do with a bigger budget and a full team. But as it stands, this game would have been better served with less focus on expansive environments and more focus and filling those environments with interesting and well-polished things to do.
Lifeless Planet PC Video Game Review | Stage 2 Studios | June 6, 2014
(This game was reviewed with a download code provided by the publisher)
(Cameron Gidari is a freelance writer and the author of Manhattan Before8 and Seattle Before8. Follow him on Twitter at @CGidari)