Published on September 16th, 2016 | by gareth0
Review by Arthur Reyes
On a dreary Thursday evening after a long day at work, a quick dinner with my wife and a few episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer I picked up my red and black PS4 remote and navigated back to the home screen. I moved over to the game that had just finished downloading, Lifeless Planet, a puzzle platformer developed by Stage 2 Studios and published by KISS ltd. The game had been released on PC back in 2014 but was just recently released for the PS4 on July 19th. The game cover hovered on my screen before pressing the “X” button to launch it, it depicted a barren desert with wooden telephone lines fading into the horizon, an astronaut standing just above the title facing a set of tire tracks and the large expanse of sand, and the title Lifeless Planet with the “P” of Planet depicted as the Soviet hammer and sickle. This cover, also the title screen, already gave me clues about the game, signs of human life, the telephone poles and tire tracks, and Soviet Russian involvement, the hammer and sickle.
So I launched the game and selected “Start New Game” on the title screen and I was met with a brief cut scene of a U.S. space craft crash landing on a planet. After the scene I was able to take control of an unnamed astronaut just outside of the wrecked craft. The landscape was a vast sea of beige sand with a single rock formation in the distance. Next to the craft was a glowing white object, notating to the player that it is something of interest. Upon approaching the object, a log entry pops up and the astronaut speaks mentioning a possible concussion and that his crew is nowhere to be found. At first the game was frustrating, as it appeared to be an open world sandbox, I wandered off in one direction but was unable to go very far, as a warning alarm went off and a message popped up saying the astronaut’s suit was leaking oxygen. I scrambled back towards the wreckage hoping to find an oxygen tank among the debris only to watch as the man tumbled face first into the dirt, dying of suffocation. I repeated this process several times until I realized the vague rock formation was meant to point me in the right direction, upon reaching the rocks the same ominous words flashed across the screen accompanied with warning bells, but this time in the distance there was an object flashing in the sun. Dashing towards the one thing that stood out among the rock and dirt, my screen began to fade as it did many times before but this time I reached the metallic structure, an oxygen refuel station. Afraid those first 15 minutes of gameplay had set the tone for the game, exploring and frantically looking for oxygen, I was wary about wondering too far from the station. However, after wandering for a little while it became clear that there was no going back as I was met with jumping puzzles and given the ability to use the suit’s jetpack to double jump. It was at this point that Lifeless Planet no longer seemed like an open world sandbox and showed its true nature as a linear puzzle platformer.
With the only way to go being forward, I trudged along, jumping across rock formations and making my way around obstacles, with the looming threat of an oxygen leak pushing me to move quickly. It was shortly after getting through the platform puzzles that the game’s story began to take form. Slowly making my way up a hill, there was an object in the distance, upon approach the image of a hospital bed sat puzzlingly in the middle of this barren wasteland before disappearing with the ground rumbling as boulders began to roll down the hill. After dodging what seemed like an Indiana Jones style booby-trap and making it to the crest of the hill, the camera pans out, dramatically recreating the image from the title screen: a vast expanse of sand with telephone poles trailing off into the distance. I followed the poles into a deserted town with a Soviet flag waving in the wind. After finding notes written in Russian and part of a security passcode, I found myself at ease when I found an oxygen tank, only to be met with a notification saying that my tank was full. Puzzled, I brushed it off and continued through the town until a tower loomed in the distance. Upon reaching the tower a cut scene commenced, showing one of the astronaut’s crewmembers bleeding inside. With some dialogue from our astronaut, and absolutely none from the dying crewmate, the ground rumbled as the crewmate was sucked beneath the sand. After such an eerie experience, the game throws on the warning bells once again and I frantically make my way back to the town to refill. It was at this moment that I realized there was no actual oxygen gauge that slowly depletes, but rather the need to refill oxygen was purely contextual. The first 30 minutes of gameplay set the stage for the 4.5-hour story centered platforming game that is Lifeless Planet.
While certain aspects of the game did differ and the linear aspects did get muddled at times the general idea of the game stayed the same: follow the path. For me the story, though told many times before “exploration of a lifeless planet where not all is as it seems”, was quite compelling, intriguing me to find out more. The entirety of the game is spent wondering through a linear path with the occasional obstacle in your way, but the music, readable collectables, and occasional quips from the character provide the narrative background that drives players to reach the end. The environments too, barren deserts, glowing cavers, icy mountains, fiery volcanoes, and windy canyons provide enough variety and beauty to keep the game interesting. Where Lifeless Planet lacks however, is in gameplay. The game is spent 70% of the time simply walking through the environments with the other 30% spent solving puzzles that involve jumping across platforms, avoiding deadly plants (yes deadly plants on a lifeless planet), and moving objects. For me the most difficult parts of the game were the occasional moments where it was unclear which direction I was supposed to go and unclear just how far my jet pack could carry me.
The things the game does well, the graphics though simple are beautiful and have a large variety and the narrative of the game is told well though auxiliary elements. Where the game needs work however, is its gameplay. First and foremost, the beginning of the game needs to be changed in one of two ways: make it linear like the rest of the game, giving players a very direct path to take, or remove the “oxygen leak” element which I believe should be removed entirely. The leaking oxygen element is used only a handful of times throughout the game and doesn’t fit at all, it adds a frantic pace that doesn’t exist throughout the rest of the story and makes oxygen seem like a vital role like one would experience in a survival game. If the developers wanted to keep the use of oxygen as part of the game it should have been a gameplay mechanic, rather than a contextual trigger. Lastly, the game needs congruity with it’s jet pack feature, there are several instances where the game gives players an extended jet pack to allow for longer jumps by bursting the jet pack while in the air. The extended jet pack is only available for those sections as the game notates “jet pack fuel depleted” once those puzzles have been completed, making this another contextual feature rather than a gameplay mechanic. The biggest issue with the extended jet pack sections however, is that they are incongruent throughout the game without indication. For instance, during the very first time players are given the extended jet pack they have to discover on their own that they can burst 3 times, later in the game, during another section I assumed I only had 3 bursts and frustratingly so couldn’t get across the gap between platforms, only to discover I had up to 7 bursts. While I admit giving players little instruction is consistent with being stranded on a planet all alone, features such as an extended jet pack should either stay the same or have indication of changes as the game progresses.
Despite the flaws in game mechanics and unnecessary features I felt the story, environments, and graphics deserved at least a 2.5/5 for Lifeless Planet. So if you enjoy games for narrative and environment aesthetics check out Lifeless Planet.