You’re a scientist sent to investigate another planet 15 light years away. This planet is thought to be full of life and possibly similar to Earth, however a crash landing leaves you stranded on what appears to be a barren wasteland. Was your mission a hoax? As you begin your search for the rest of your crew, you stumble upon an abandoned Soviet Union research base in the middle of nowhere. Not only does the planet seem devoid of all life, but what in the hell were the Soviets doing here in the first place? Welcome to Lifeless Planet.
Lifeless Planet was created and developed by David Board, and successfully funded via Kickstarter back on October 24, 2011. Since then, David has been hard at work in creating one of the most atmospheric adventure games in recent memory, made all the more impressive as it was developed by a single person. Coupled with a perfectly placed musical score, Lifeless Planet is all about adventure and exploring the unknown. It’s almost survival horror at times, often navigating pitch dark corridors with nothing but your helmet light to guide the way, all while perfectly timed audio queues keep you guessing at what’s behind door #2.
At its core, Lifeless Planet is a sci-fi themed, 3D exploration platformer with a balanced attention to both core mechanics. However, the game also delivers a very strong narrative through its audio logs, text documents, and spoken dialogue from the protagonist himself. Aside from exploring the game’s otherworldly environments and soaking in the ever changing atmosphere, you’ll uncover the mystery of the planet and the missing Soviets in a way that almost felt like a well written episode of The Twilight Zone. Mysteries unraveled at such an excellent pace that the experience never felt stagnant, and I never lost my desire to explore every nook and cranny to get as much out of the story as I could.
It’s almost impossible to explain why the writing in Lifeless Planet was so excellent, as exploring and obtaining that information on my own played a huge part in why I ended up enjoying the game so much. As the nameless scientist, you’ll explore the desolate planet and most likely become disoriented early on as you’re not entirely sure where to start. That’s good though, as the game promotes exploration and instinct as a way to lead you along in the early going. What appears to be a massive open world eventually narrows itself down a bit, but requires a bit of finesse through various exciting platforming segments using your jet pack; initially giving you a kind of double-jump, but eventually upgrading in to an octo-jump of sorts.
I had a lot of fun with the jetpack, especially during some of the more intense segments where I could tell a lot of TLC went in to platform placement. There were often times where I would see a platform in the distance and think “there is absolutely no way I can make this jump..“, but the jetpack’s octo-jump not only made it completely doable, but really exciting! Of course we have to keep in mind that our little scientist friend is inside of a bulky space suit, so he’s not the fastest or most graceful person on Earth.. or.. wherever it is that he is. He moves at a naturally slow human pace and his bulkiness sometimes caused me to either over or under shoot ledges, or even turn myself off of a platform, down to my inevitable dirt nap 15 light years from home. This may come off as clunky platforming to some, but it felt realistic to me given his situation. You may not enjoy this aspect of the game, but I never felt like it was me against the controls. It just had a slight learning curve that eased its way in over time.
Aside from all of the exploring and puzzle solving, you’re also equipped with a robotic arm that can be used to pick up and move objects far beyond your personal limitations. This came off as a little gimmicky at first, and although it controlled well, I’m glad it wasn’t overused during the course of my 5 hour playthrough. Speaking of gimmicky, there are certain portions of the game where you’re prompted to refill your oxygen tank, or your jetpack happens to run out of fuel; basically removing your ability to multi-jump. I’m not sure if the game was originally supposed to have an oxygen meter of some sort, but it felt odd that I’d run out of oxygen at random intervals just so I could run 100 yards in front of me to a randomly placed refill container. I also felt the same way about the jetpack fuel, but it was easier to swallow since it kept the platforming segments from relying too much on its multi-jump functionality.
Another complaint that I have has to do with how the game segues in to each chapter, as one moment you’re exploring under the blistering sun, and the next you’re walking around in the dark. I appreciate the constant variety in level designs, but how each zone connected with each other really didn’t make much sense at times. There were even one or two instances where one level would end with an open hallway, and the next would start with you at your back to a dead end. I’m not sure if this was due to time constraint, maybe having to trim out a bit here and there, but it definitely made things a little awkward.
Although those were my primary concerns, Lifeless Planet also features a few technical flaws worth mentioning. In its current state, the game does offer the option to “Save & Quit”, although saving is virtually useless as the game will always start you at the beginning of whichever chapter you left off at. It’s approximate 4-5 hour play time makes it the perfect game to dish out in one or two gaming sessions, so it’s not something you’ll have to endure more than once or twice. I also ran in to an issue where I was unable to interact with an important object in the environment, but there was a quick workaround for this that I found while browsing the Steam forums, so it wasn’t something gamebreaking as much as it was slightly annoying. Even still, I’ve encountered far more bugs in games created by full AAA-sized teams, and again, none of the issues were gamebreaking or rage inducing, so they’re much easier to overlook.
Overall, I was completely surprised by Lifeless Planet. I had many jaw dropping moments while traversing its environments, especially with such a diverse offering of locals and ecosystems to hop and jump my way through. It also contains such a well executed soundtrack that was very reminiscent of the Mass Effect series, and always seemed to perfectly set the mood for whatever was going on at that exact moment. In fact, I highly recommend playing through Lifeless Planet using a set of headphones.
What really brought the whole experience together for me was the combination of everything the game did well, like exploring new areas, discovering new answers, being rewarding for my curiosity with hidden audio logs, or constantly introducing unique environments that I couldn’t wait to step foot in. It has some obvious flaws I’ll admit, and it may be a hit or miss title for some. But Lifeless Planet is probably the most atmospheric release that I’ve played so far in 2014, and what it did well, I feel it did damn well.
Recommended for fans of: Exploration, adventure, and discovery games. Those looking for something different and exciting.
*This review is for the PC release of Lifeless Planet. According to developer David Board, the game will also be making its way to the Xbox One, hopefully some time this fall!
Bradley Keene is the Executive Editor here at What’s Your Tag?, generally handling news, reviews, and a bit of our public relations communications. He’s an aspiring writer and Baltimore native that can usually be found watching terrible B-movies or knee-deep in a roguelike, a horror game or some sort of point-and-click adventure. His favorite console is the Dreamcast, favorite game is the original Metroid, and he could watch The Goonies for the rest of his life. Contact him by e-mail at the address above, or follow his insanity on Twitter.