Lifeless Planet / 21st of July 2014
After almost four years, from conception, through Kickstarter and Steam Early Access, Lifeless Planet was finally released on the sixth of June this year. Developed by Stage 2 Studios it’s the product of virtually one developer, namely David Board, and tells the story of an interstellar space mission gone disastrously wrong.
With almost no opening cut-scene - other than a brief take off which then cuts to a crash landing - the game begins and drops the player into the shoes of the games protagonist, an unnamed astronaut and apparent sole survivor from said crash. It’s both clever and bold. Armed with no more information than the astronaut you’re controlling, you’re left to fend for yourself and set out in whatever direction you choose, no heads-up display, no objective markers, just a warning that your oxygen levels are dangerously low. This may sound like nothing more than an exercise in frustration, after all what if you go the wrong way, will you be doomed to indefinitely wander this dusty, barren world Stage 2 has created? Thankfully not, thanks to subtle audio and visual cues such as a reflective glint in the distance, followed up by a sweeping rise in the game’s score, you’re kept on track. The game delivers a feeling of genuine wonder when exploring that many larger games fail to capture, without the hindrance of aimless backtracking.
This approach to game development is something I can’t praise highly enough, and it’s part of the reason why I want to love Lifeless Planet. I want to be able to say it’s an outstanding display of what can be achieved with a little original thinking and how it’s a great example of the merits of crowdfunding, but I can’t. Sadly the game is hamstrung by a few bad decisions and some shoddy gameplay mechanics.
Without a doubt Lifeless Planet is a game all about story, it’s the mystery that begins from the moment you first pick up the controller, and builds as you wander this alien world and chance upon a cold war era soviet booklet. Soon the questions start to pile up and as you continue to explore, the games outstanding score and minimalist - yet absolutely spot-on art style - creates an exceptionally immersive experience. The atmosphere of this desolate world is haunting, generating a great sense of tension and unease despite the fact that there’s nothing intent on doing you any harm. You’re just alone, without anyone to help you. But because the game manages to convey all of this this so well, and so early on, it creates a problem as you progress. Rather than taking around two to three hours to complete, Lifeless Planet clocks in at around five to six hours. And as a result the game begins to drag, if it were a feature length dash then that feeling of unease may have been easier to maintain and it may well have been a better game. Instead after around four hours the game begins to feel like a bit of a slog, and you’ll most likely find yourself wishing for the credits to roll long before they do.
This feeling is further emphasised by the incredibly frustrating platforming sections you’ll come across around two thirds of the way through. It’s odd to say that the core gameplay mechanic, i.e. platforming, is something that makes a game actively worse. Especially when the idea behind it is quite simple and elegant. Lifeless Planet’s astronaut wears a jetpack of sorts, designed to give you a brief boosts when jumping and traversing the terrain, as well as functioning as an air brake to help slow you down when falling from heights. However in practice the controls are overly twitchy - even with a game pad - resulting in situations where you’ll attempt and fail a series of jumps maybe four or five times, yet on your sixth attempt it will work absolutely fine despite not doing anything differently. This along with glitches such as falling through moving platforms if you happen to move while on them, and catching if you attempt to jump too close to walls, really detract from the experience and undo much of the goodwill the game manages to build up.
When the game does try to mix things up with a puzzle section things don’t fare any better. Items such as movable power sources, dynamite for blowing up obstacles, or even oxygen tanks all feel like they’ve been dropped in front of you completely without context. If you’ve ever played a Prince of Persia game and thought to yourself; it’s quite a coincidence I happen to possess the unique skills necessary to reach this rather inconveniently placed switch? Then you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. But in a series all about acrobatics and fast paced platforming like Prince of Persia, the why doesn’t really matter. In a narrative driven, slow burner like Lifeless Planet it does. There are too many occasions where you’ll be given an oxygen warning, only for a fresh tank to be inexplicably placed right around the next bend. The end result being that these sections feel lazily made, as if they should have had a little more thought put into designing them, otherwise why even bother.
At £14.99 Lifeless Planet is hard to recommend, if it had been half the length or half the price would be easier to forgive the games wobbly mechanics. But at that price and with almost no replay value they’re too much to overlook. There are parts of a great game here and hopefully Stage 2 Studios can build on what it’s learned and create more polished and streamlined games in years to come, the potential is there and maybe Lifeless Planet will provide the necessary experience.