In striking contrast to Race to Mars – a space-themed game I previewed last week – Lifeless Planet is a fairly polished and accomplished game. It delivers a fairly nuanced and creepy slice of sci-fi mystery/horror, without ever devolving into cheap scares or excessive gore. Although Lifeless Planet succeeds at nearly everything it attempts, it still threw its fair share of glitches and bugs at me; forcing a slightly sour ending onto an otherwise fantastic experience.
Things begin in a uniquely promising way. You are an astronaut, and you have crash landed on a mysterious planet. Your crew is missing – presumed dead, and you have no idea where you are or how you got there. This opening sequence takes place on an open stretch of alien desert, and leaves one feeling instantly daunted and antagonized. Though this feeling of oppression and foreboding remains throughout Lifeless Planet (most AAA games have trouble maintaining this level of eeriness consistently), this sense of feeling lost or confused does not. Thanks to some intuitive and somewhat sneaky level design, one always knows where to go in Lifeless Planet. There might be a slightly discoloured rock to make you think “Hey, this looks different”, but never does the game shamefully throw arrows or markers at you so that your destination is painfully obvious. Hand-holding is fine, nay welcomed, so long as it is hidden beneath plain sight.
This also means that Lifeless Planet can get fairly creative with its environments. Despite forcing the player to follow a fairly linear path, the game’s locations always feel as expansive and overbearing, or as tight and claustrophobic as the situation demands. When one is leaping from rock to rock on a dusty alien canyon, the sense of loneliness experienced is extremely powerful, as is the understated yet affecting sense of fear one feels when exploring abandoned an abandoned Russian research facility.
In terms of functionality, Lifeless Planet continues to prove that less is sometimes more. Most of the game consists of walking around, jumping and jetpacking across chasms, and solving the occasional simple puzzle; nothing incredibly strenuous or mind boggling, but enough to keep the pace at a constant medium. Since atmosphere is the game’s main draw, keeping its mechanics simple keeps players engaged in its mysterious world, and only enhances its ambience.
Lifeless Planet‘s narrative is similarly subtle, and unravels its sci-fi mystery with great confidence. Most of the actual exposition is dished out through data logs (read in real Russian, rather than just a Russian accent) and internal narration, creating a drip-like feeling of sporadic discovery. There was one disappointing moment wherein our protagonist looked at a board of diagrams and schematics, then effectively turned to the camera and dumped a po-faced explanation of story events right onto his audience. Its unfortunate, because making the same discovery on one’s own would be ten times more intriguing, not to mention rewarding.
Although you might have started dribbling and sweating at the thought of jetpacking across a mysterious alien planet, these sequences are undoubtedly the worst part of Lifeless Planet – thanks in part to the game’s choppy controls. Trying to platform with any precision is a little like playing hoopla with arthritis; camera sensitivity is about as low as it could conceivably get, and jumping around feels clunky and uncomfortable. Of course low gravity space-hopping is never going to be as fast and furious as parkour in Mirror’s Edge, but it does feel rather on the lethargic side at times in Lifeless Planet.
Perhaps the reason the aforementioned jump and fall sections of the game were so frustrating for me was because the game’s checkpoint system glitched about a fifth of the way through. Any time I was sent plummeting to my death thanks to a poorly judged jetpack jump, I was sent back about an hour and a half’s worth of game time. This happened three times. Bear in mind during this time I had to traverse a telegraph wire across a huge fissure, so I came rather close to another checkpoint reset and possibly a minor heart attack.
I ended up having to quit playing the game entirely when I kept sinking through the floor of an elevator I needed to ride. I was seriously disappointed to end my time with Lifeless Planet this way, because aside from some clunky platforming, and these eventual game breaking bugs, the entire game is a wonderful sci-fi exploration game. I should say, however, that there are others out there not experiencing the same problems I encountered, so I can still recommend Lifeless Planet, albeit slightly reluctantly. If you’re after a cosmic chiller but found Dead Space to be about as subtle as your racist uncle’s wedding speech, Lifeless Planet is a must-have. Truly, few games show such an effortless command of tone and atmosphere as this one does. In all honesty, I never wanted to leave – it’s just a shame I had to.