Emma Withington reviews Lifeless Planet…
Our astronaut’s mission hasn’t quite gone to plan, as he awakes after crash landing on a desolate planet with a concussion. This can’t be right, the planet was supposedly full of life and potentially habitable for humans. Where are the rest of the crew? What happened here? Is this even the right planet? What were the Soviets doing here? Who is that mysterious figure in the distance? He is running out of time…and Oxygen.
‘This is not the paradise described back home’…
Lifeless Planet is a 3D Action/Adventure Puzzle game from the independent Stage 2 Studios. The game was originally released in 2014 for the PC after a successful Kickstarter campaign. The Premier Edition is now available on PS4 so, does it make one giant leap?
The first half of the game really sucked me in. Hearkening back to isolation puzzle games like MYST, with the atmosphere of Shadow of the Colossus, and containing some definite Valve influences.
It turns out the planet is not so lifeless – sidestepping the fact that you see running water within the first half an hour – as you come across a Soviet town. It soon becomes clear that they were not successful in their ‘scientific’ pursuits… As you explore the desolate town and the Research Complex, the game is afoot and you are hot on the trail of mystery and danger.
Rather than a continued discovery of what started out as intriguing, cryptic documents – which of course will carry a hint of, ‘what have we done to this lush planet?‘ – sadly the story deviates more into the latter; a human’s lament. This sort of story is a well used trope, but it seemed Lifeless Planet was going to create something much more unique than it became.
Where we are initially presented with a multitude of questions and the thrill of discovery, Lifeless Planet becomes overtly preachy by focusing on the environmental damage we can clearly see – occasionally to a harrowing extent – and drops the subtleties which were very engaging in the opening half of the game. Less would be more in this case.
You come across a mysterious woman, which is a real heart stopping moment – a dark slender figure in the distance, standing deathly still… Unfortunately the dramatic tension is tarnished by the reveal of her character, visually, too soon. Those intensely chilling moments became arbitrary as she turned out to be a poorly designed character model from the birth of PS2.
I can set aside graphical issues for an excellent story and reasonable gameplay. However, as the pace began to dwindle, the focus on gameplay issues and visuals became stronger, and aspects I may have set aside were glaring at me in the face…
Much like the narrative, graphically it is frustratingly inconsistent and where I am hooked by the story in the first half, it is much poorer visually than the latter half. Much of the early textural landscape and lighting takes me back to the mid to late 90s and the buildings have a Half Life-esque style. Some areas are completely flat and low res in unmissable areas, as things just seem dunked in the landscape without any layering – this could deter you from an area, simply because it doesn’t seem significant. Feeling sharp edged, polygonal, and seemingly rushed for a modern platformer.
There are some truly stunning moments, which enhance what is a compelling world at its core – these moments just raise questions as to why certain details, like the mysterious woman, don’t match up to the rest. There are true glimmers of greatness here, and I desperately wanted to see more of that.
The Sunset and Nightfall stages were particularly striking, lit well, textured and full of depth. The animations of ‘root creatures’ twitching along the pathways were excellent and elicited a response, putting me right back on the edge of my seat. The most consistently well rendered aspect of Lifeless Planet is our jubbly little astronaut, who is a very pleasing creation as he bounds around the world.
Overall it feels unfinished and like a remastered edition of a much older game, in areas. It tries to smooth over some of these issues on the PS4 with a softening vignette, but essentially it still doesn’t seem solid enough in its graphical approach. If Lifeless Planet was going for a retro feel it wouldn’t be an issue, but an endearing quality. That being said, retro-esque games don’t generally base themselves on the eye bleeding age of PS1 and they stick to one consistent style. It holds itself as an early PS3 game in my eyes but it drops down a couple of generations on and off throughout.
The music and atmosphere is absolutely fantastic, eerie, mesmerising, and holds your attention. The soundscape is the game’s biggest asset and keeps you engaged through to the end.
As the game begins it seems wonderfully vast, as you wonder how many different directions you can take. It is largely linear as you follow tracks left by your crew, or the footprints of the mysterious woman – which is integral if you want to stay alive. This renders any sort of open world exploration nigh on impossible.
Mechanically there is not a huge amount to talk about in Lifeless Planet, however what mechanics we do have feel quite jarring in places. Essentially, it consists mainly of platforming ‘jumping puzzles’ – which aren’t as puzzling, as they are frustrating. It’s clear where you need to reach but our spaceman isn’t always hugely cooperative. You do acquire a jetpack upgrade for sections that require extreme jumping and conveniently ‘runs out of fuel’ once the instance is complete. For me, jumping was the least jarring. It was actions as simple as pushing barrels or moving rocks which really effected my gameplay – something so basic was much more of a chore, as your astronaut humped objects to the desired areas…You also have the ‘Robotic Arm’, which you use to solve relatively simple puzzles. It can only be used in specific spots, so is essentially a matter of lifting a piece of alien rock and placing it in the hole above…
Of course there are the all important oxygen levels. This is something I expected to play a much larger part. There are no levels to monitor, or any way of knowing when these instances will occur and they only run out at specific intervals in the story – it’s unlikely you will perish when our astronaut begins to suffocate, as there will be one of the oxygen modules nearby. These have been deposited in advance for your arrival, across the planet…
Lifeless Planet is intriguing enough to persevere through the 4.5 hour playthrough and the PS4 edition manages to make the game a smooth experience – but can’t quite cover up graphical pitfalls. I wouldn’t write it off completely as a terrible game but the price point of £15.99 is a little steep, considering its length and replayability value. I would recommend giving it a shot if it reduces to somewhere around £5.
Experience: There is a flash of brilliance at its core, but just misses the mark with inconsistencies and jarring gameplay; removing you from what is, at times, a chilling and engrossing experience.
Replayability factor: Low.
Game Mastery level (Trophies): Easy – may require a second playthrough.
Emma Withington – Follow me on Twitter