I’ve previewed several Steam Early Access games for GIZORAMA since the platform’s inception. Some have been great, some have been terrible, and some have demonstrated enormous potential whilst still lacking the essential polish of full game. Lifeless Planet, the first of these games to see a full release on Steam, fell into the latter category of Early Access games. It was great at building tension and building its world, it just needed to iron out some of its pesky platforming issues and bugs. Unfortunately, the full version of Lifeless Planet is still full of bugs and glitches, as well as horrendous pacing, and some seriously shoddy level design.
Lifeless Planet follows an unnamed astronaut when his space shuttle crashes on said planet. From here, he searches for his crew mates and for answers upon discovering the Soviet Union’s presence in the form of abandoned towns and research facilities. What begins as an intriguing sci-fi mystery soon descends into a meandering mish mash of plot elements that crop up and disappear seemingly at random. Information about the astronaut’s wife is teased through audio recordings of an interview he took part in on Earth, but these sections are few and far between, and aren’t fleshed out enough to make you care a great deal. What’s more baffling is, these throwaway back story beats serve as the game’s inevitable ending and supposed payoff, though it feels more like a desperate, last minute attempt to inject emotion and sentiment into a game that otherwise severely lacks these elements.
The entire game doesn’t seem to know what it’s about. Is it about solving the mystery of why and how the Soviets got here? Is it about the mysterious woman the character meets at the beginning of the game? Is it about his wife? Is it about the Triffid-style plant monsters that begin to grow and attack the player from beneath the planet’s surface? The game is about all of these and none of them. Most of these story threads just sort of peter out, either through lack of resolution, development or simply because the game loses interest in one and moves on to the next. Sections regarding the Soviet’s dealings on the planet were probably the game’s most effective moments, particularly when they’re delivered in authentic Russian language audio logs, but these moments just sort of disappear about half way through.
When I played Lifeless Planet in Early Access, only the first hour and a half of the game was available, with the rest being promised at a later date. This section of the game is still great, it builds tension well and crafts its world and story elements well. Environments range from wide open, desolated spaces on the planets surface, to claustrophobic, dark corridors in the Soviet research facility. After the Early Access portion of the game, though, every environment is simply a vast expanse of chasms and platforming sections in different shades of brown, each more frustrating than the last.
It’s at this point that the game forgets it was telling a story. There’s a narrative at the beginning, and some semblance of one at the end, but there’s an entire 3 hour midsection of the game that serves no purpose but to fill for time with needless and infuriating jumping sections. You see, the astronaut is easy to control when he’s walking or running on relatively level ground, but when he jumps he controls sluggishly. These sequences reminded me of the Mako parts of the first Mass Effect game; you explore barren environments devoid of activity while you control an avatar that handles like a severely obese man on a bouncy castle. There’s no let up with these parts either. It’s just jumping section after jumping section, until the very thought of jumping makes your heart sink and your skin crawl.
The endless jumping would be bad enough without the game’s poor level design. Levels after the Early Access portion all just blend into the same conveniently (and inconveniently) placed brown platforms one must jump between as the astronauts jetpack ejects its depression “hiss” for the umpteenth time. One section of the game places you in an uneven mountain range of lava and molten rock, a sure sign that one is about to experience hellish gameplay. I was unprepared for how bad this section would actually be. Some of the rock textures were slightly redder than others, to indicate that these rocks would burn you to death if you touched them. Fair enough, no argument there. That is until you step on to an identical rock texture that doesn’t burn you at all. At this point, the entire canyon became fair game for an unbearable slog of trial and error jumping to see which textures would burn me and which ones wouldn’t. This is to say nothing of the invisible walls of fire that also plague what I’m sure is actually an accurate representation of Hell itself. At one point this section started to become so unnavigable that I lost my way and couldn’t remember where I’d entered from. I thought I’d found my way back, but the game had actually just assigned me a previous checkpoint for going the wrong way, instead of taking me to the correct checkpoint I’d already passed.
There are also some puzzles in the game, but these require little to no intellectual capacity and usually end up being “put ball in hole” puzzles or “shift block into other block” activities. This lack of competent gameplay wouldn’t matter if the game’s story had reared its head a few more times, but there are far too many long sequences where nothing is going on at all.
All of this is packaged in a game that is plagued with bugs and a general lack of polish. There were parts where I died, only to respawn next to my own corpse. At another point I fell down a hole in a scripted dream sequence, only to die when I “hit” the floor in the “real world”. It’s a shame too, because the first part of the game looks pretty great. It’s not graphically intensive or anything, but it’s designed pretty well for the most part. There’s also a great soundtrack to be found in Lifeless Planet too, one that mixes sombre orchestral tones with pulsating synthesizers in a way that actually manages to feel fresh and interesting.
For all the good will its tries to gain at its outset and with its ending, Lifeless Planet is a game about one thing: jumping. Constant, frustrating, sub-Tomb Raider jumping that serves no purpose other than to make you want to tear out your own soul and throw it at your monitor. If I never have to jump again, it will be too soon.[review]