Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Lifeless Planet

While some games attract me based entirely on their art direction or general gameplay concept, some are based on the ideas they present for their narrative. One such game is Lifeless Planet, developed entirely by David Board, with some audio assistance. After stumbling upon it while flipping through my Steam recommended for a sale event, the concept of an unknown planet that was once visited by Soviets intrigued me enough to consider buying it in the future, though I would not get around to doing so for some time, and due to monetary concerns I had to pass over a physical release via Limited Run. Eventually, I would finally pick up the Premier Edition of the game when it was at a deep discount during a Steam sale, opting to play it not too long after getting a copy. I overall found it worth the wait, even with some minor shortcomings.

On their way to an unknown planet, a crew of astronauts crash-lands on the planet’s surface. One unnamed astronaut survives, managing to find an oxygen supply shortly after landing. As he explores what was supposed to be an uninhabited planet, he comes across an abandoned settlement, with signs that the Soviet Union had already been there before. As the astronaut continues to investigate, he comes across a mysterious Russian woman still alive on the planet, while occasionally having vivid hallucinations regarding his wife back on Earth.

The story has some interesting ideas, which attracted me to the game, and fortunately it executes them well. While there are occasional cutscenes, just about all of the story is told through gameplay, with the astronaut’s commentary providing some insight into how he sees things and various audio logs and visual cues telling the story of the Russian settlers that came before. Up until the end of the game, audio logs and documents, accessible via the Holo-Log by pressing B on a wired Xbox controller, provide a good amount of world-building as to how the planet works and who the characters are, showing that a lot of thought went into its setting.

The gameplay is similarly minimal, though for the most part it works for what the game is trying to accomplish. There is a fair amount of platforming and you can get a little more distance by using your jetpack, though in some areas you can temporarily give your jetpack a boost for extended flight. However, some of the platforming can be a little tricky since a lot of it is momentum-based, since it takes a second or two for your running speed to increase, plus you can’t make any hard turns mid-flight, so you must aim your jumps accordingly. Additionally, there are some points in the story where you need to refill your oxygen supply, though it’s usually fairly close by when it happens.

A Russian settlement on a supposedly uninhabited planet is the first
sign that something is wrong.

There is still some variety present in the form of environmental puzzles, usually solved by interacting with objects in the right manner. You can pick up and push objects where possible, though later on you unlock a robotic arm upgrade for your jetpack that allows for some more careful interactions, such as pressing buttons or moving small rocks into a specific hole. If you go off the beaten path, it’s possible to find hidden mineral samples, though these serve more as hidden collectibles than anything.

While there is no combat in the game, the latter half of the campaign sees you having to deal with plants that could kill you when you get too close to them. Smaller plants kill you right away, though larger plants immediately die off after attempting to attack you, creating solid surfaces that assist in some of the platforming. I will note that the smaller plant attacks are very sudden and can be extremely startling, with the first several times especially feeling more like jump scares for me.

For an indie game, the visuals look decent and the setting takes full advantage of this. The environments feel appropriately barren and can instill a feeling of loneliness in the player, especially in the earlier sections of the game. While the levels are often very open in design, there are some subtle indicators as to where you’re supposed to go next, such as the presence of green moss or shallow lines in the sand. Despite the smart placement of these indicators, there was one point during the Chasm chapter where it wasn’t entirely clear to me where I was supposed to go next, which I cleared up for myself by consulting a video walkthrough for that specific moment.

The voice acting is overall decent, with the astronaut player character getting the most dialogue outside of the aforementioned audio logs. Bob Carter (of Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat and Dragon Ball Z fame) is good as the astronaut, delivering a performance that makes him convincingly come across as an average person caught up in a bizarre situation. Since the audio logs were left by the Soviets in-universe, the spoken audio is naturally in Russian with the text auto-translated to English; since I am nowhere near fluent in Russian, I trust that said audio is accurate. The lack of background music for much of the game allows the music by Rich Douglas to stand out more when it happens, fitting the tone of the situation nicely.

Lifeless Planet is a decent game, showing what a title developed almost entirely by one person is capable of. The overall simplicity of the gameplay can be hit or miss for some, though it does work to provide some variety to the experience to prevent it from becoming stale. While a little on the short side, about six hours on a first playthrough, I would still recommend giving this game a chance, especially if you can get it on sale.

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