Lifeless Planet - Vapid and Beautiful
Lifeless Planet sells itself as an action adventure tribute to Cold War era science fiction. What’s clear from the very beginning of the game is its dedication to creating a rich atmosphere and an engaging plot, but its gameplay may be unable to keep up with the elements surrounding it.
It starts with an international space mission’s crash landing on a planet that was supposed to be covered with a blanket of life. Of course, when the unnamed astronaut the player controls wakes up, they find their crew missing and the planet lifeless – just as the game’s name suggests. The astronaut must explore a barren landscape to find his crew and figure out why the planet has turned to waste.
The astronaut provides commentary and occasional flashbacks to reveal a character left troublingly lonesome after the loss of his wife. The fair voice performances and writing are enough for the clichéd premise to be convincing and successfully instill loneliness to the player. What really makes it work is the raw isolationist tone emanating from the very composition of the environment. Grand expanses of seemingly endless nothing stretch out towards the horizons. Massive cliffs, rocks, and mountains dot the landscape to remind the player just how small we humans are. The camera itself is positioned purposefully distant from the player to compound the humbling effect. The astronaut is small, lost, and alone. The player feels small lost and alone.
As the game progresses, the mood evolves with it. The environments become increasingly hostile and sinister in appearance. Horror elements are sprinkled in adding an effective sensation of uneasiness. It’s not terrifying, but it does venture into unnerving areas to evoke the frightening nature of space exploration.
Regardless, the astronaut keeps going. According to the occasional loading screen, it’s what his wife would have wanted. He eventually comes across the ruins of a Soviet colony, adding new elements to the mystery. Why are the Soviets here, how did they get here, and what happened to them?
Logs from the colony’s leader can be discovered providing clues into the planets colonization and destruction. It’s no surprise the story’s themes play heavily with the environmental consequences of man’s hubris, but the game trickles out new information and insights at a satisfying rate. New ideas are consistently unveiled, often altering previously formed understandings of the plot. It successfully provides answers leading to more and more questions. While the outcome likely won’t take anyone by surprise, the long and twisted road to get there is a deeply fulfilling mystery.
Unfortunately, the quest for understanding might as well be the sole driving force of Lifeless Planet as its gameplay leaves much to be desired. For the most part, there isn’t much to do other than walk from clue to clue while admiring the game’s rustic beauty along the way. It’s almost enough to work as an endearing walking sim, but it adds clumsy mechanics on top of what could have been a purely explorative adventure.
The most common obstacle is basic platforming, but the game lacks tight enough controls to be anything more than frustrating. It requires the mastery of managing forward based momentum over precision jumping. This direction makes thematic sense with the planets low gravity and generally large settings, but it ends up feeling as though the player can lose control at any moment. The problem is made more evident when the player comes across special jetpack fuel allowing for multiple bursts. With triumphant music accompanying the new ability, these moments are presented as empowering, but the sight of fuel canisters often produces dread. More boosts means longer jumps, and longer jumps provide more opportunity for failure. The particulars of the game’s physics can be learned over time, but successfully landing a jump never feels skillful. Getting past a platforming segment should feel like an accomplishment, not a relief.
Occasionally a lite puzzle will block the way, but calling them lite puzzles feels a tad gracious. Solutions are always obvious and are never far away. More often than not, they only require a peculiar sphere to be placed inside an equally peculiar obelisk providing power to doors or elevators. A cool mechanical arm is sometimes required, but it isn’t used for anything remarkable. It’s just conceptually intriguing and nothing more. The puzzles never give an intellectual challenge, but do succeed in managing the games pacing while occasionally triggering neat visual treats.
While lacking in enjoyable gameplay, the game’s mysteries and environments are enough to carry the game to its conclusion. Lifeless Planet is occasionally frustrating and often vapid, but still manages to be engaging and beautiful.