Being someone who appreciates good science fiction and has an interest in real-life space exploration, it's easy for me to become intrigued with any game that promises to let me explore an alien world. Lifeless Planet promised to let me do just that, so it was a no-brainer Steam Summer Sale purchase for me last year, despite the mediocre critical reviews.
The basic premise of the game is that you play as a colonist sent to alien planet thought to be rich in life and habitable for humans. You wake up from cryo-sleep to find your ship has crash landed and your two crewmates are missing. Worse yet, the planet you crashed on seems to be a desolate wasteland devoid of life.
Are you even on the right planet? If so, where's all the life?
And we're off to find our missing crew-mates and figure out why the planet is lifeless.
From here, you set off to follow the tracks of your fellow crew mates in an attempt to find them and figure out where you are. Things get complicated very early on when you find a long-abandoned Soviet village. Wherever you happen to be, the Ruskies beat you to it!
But this just opens up even more questions: how did the Russians get here? And where did they all go? The mysteries behind these questions are supposed to be the driving force behind the game.
Walking, double-jumping, and elementary puzzles
The bulk of the game, thus consists of wandering around the various alien landscapes in search of answers. This exploration requires a moderate amount of fairly trivial platforming, and you stop occasionally solve an elementary puzzle.
Platforming is mostly comfortable and works adequately. You have a malfunctioning jet pack that allows you a small boost to elevate you to higher platforms, jump longer gaps, or soften your fall. I had some occasional problems with the character sliding off of the geometry, and there were a couple areas late in the game that required multiple jumps without stopping that were difficult to control accurately. But other than that, the challenge of the platforming was minimal. The intended route is always obvious, so there was never any question about where I was supposed to go.
Your jet pack allows you to clear pitfalls and jump over large obstacles.
Puzzles aren't much more of a challenge. They are almost all environmental or physics puzzles that vary from "find the key" to "put the rock in the hole" to "push the boulders". There's nothing here that a grade-schooler couldn't figure out.
The rest of the game is just a steady walk along the linear paths between the platforming and puzzle sections. There are also a few more contrived challenges. At some points, you'll be given jetpack fuel that allows you to jump higher and further in order to clear some bigger platforming challenges. There's also a couple times when your suits begins to leak oxygen, and you have to rind a reserve supply of oxygen within a minute or two before you die.
Oxygen leaks are a contrived mechanic.
These things are all scripted events that happen at pre-determined points in the game in order to solve specific challenges. Fuel and oxygen are not resources that you have to manage, even though the game makes them out to be. Perhaps this is a hold-over from an earlier design phase that was going to have more open exploration and resource-management?
The oxygen leaks are completely pointless, since the reserve pods are always located just a few dozen paces away from where the leak starts. The challenge is just "walk to this point quickly or die".
Mineral samples are just Achievement bait.
There's also some collectible mineral samples hidden around the world for you to find, but they don't have any gameplay utility. On top of that, the game includes numerous nooks, crannies, and side paths, but only a small fraction of them actually have anything in them. This becomes a strong disincentive to explore, since it quickly starts to feel like a total waste of time.
Since satiating the character's scientific curiosity isn't a compelling enough reason to explore, the only other incentive to deviate from the linear paths would be to enjoy the game's scenery. The use of depth of field and other graphical effects do provide a tremendous sense of scale and awe to the game's desolate landscapes, in a way that reminded me of Shadow of the Colossus. Looking over the edge of a crater or valley, it might look like a huge expanse of territory that would take an hour of game time to walk across. These visuals are deceptive (in a good way), since even the seemingly largest environments can be traversed by the character in a matter of minutes. But they sure feel bigger!
At one point, I came across a giant crater and thought "there's no way I'm going to walk into that!". But, low and behold, trekking to the bottom of the crater is required.
Objects in screen are closer than they appear.
This sense of scale is one of the game's greatest strengths. But this world doesn't come close to the level of beauty established by Shadow of the Colossus. There are a few interesting alien landscapes, but most of the terrain (especially early in the game) is just bland, generic desert wasteland that might as well be anywhere in Arizona, New Mexico, or Utah. These environments quickly become repetitive, and I feel like at least three or four of the early levels could have been removed - or condensed into one - without detracting significantly from the game.
Textures sometimes also look pretty bad. Some areas have rippling texture patterns that are supposed to look like craggy rocks, craters, and small dunes, but they all look flat and unconvincing - even with my graphic setting on max.
The more exotic environments (like Mt. Doom and Yellowstone) don't show up til late in the game,
which can make the first half look dull and repetitive.
As it stand, I can definitely see how someone might get bored, since the first half of the game lacks variety, and most of the worthwhile and attractive environments don't show up until the last act of the game.
Allegory: what science fiction does best
So if the gameplay and environment aren't enough to carry the game, we're left with the story. That story will seem very disjoint and obfuscated for the first two acts of the game. The writers set up about four independent storylines:
- Why is the planet lifeless?
- How did the Russians get here, and what happened to them?
- Mysterious architecture possibly built by a precursor alien race,
- A personal story about the astronaut's emotional ties to earth (or lack thereof),
All four of these plot elements are established fairly early in the game, and then they run mostly parallel until the final couple of chapters. At that time, they are all suddenly tied together in what turned out to be a surprisingly concise little package. The end result (as I interpret it) is an allegory for a controversial socio-political issue that has come up several times in the real world.
These sorts of allegorical tales happen to be one of the things that science fiction has always excelled at since Mary Shelly first invented the genre with the publication of Frankenstein (ironically, at a time when the idea of a woman writing literature would have been in the domain of science fiction). This game uses the alien world as a story-telling device to parallel a human story. Whether you agree with the designers' apparent position on the relevant allegorical issue, they actually did a pretty good job of combining these seemingly disjoint plot elements in such a way that each of the plot threads listed above actually ends up being relevant.
It may not seem like it at first, but there is a point (and a message) to your seemingly-hopeless adventure.
Admittedly, I did have to sleep on it before realizing what the game was trying to tell me (but that's only because I stayed up late finishing it):
[Show Spoilers] [Hide Spoilers]
The doomed, secret, Soviet colony
The basics of the narrative, as I understand it are pretty straightforward: the Soviets found a portal to this alien world that was full of life, but they unknowingly introduced a pathogen that began killing off the native vegetation. At the same time, they began using radioactive rocks (called "green fire") to power the massive, alien portal that allows them to receive supplies from Earth. Unfortunately for them, this green fire's radiation was one of the powers that kept the planet's life in equillibrium by helping the flora to grow.
Once the green fire began to become exhausted, the planet's life began to rapidly succumb to the effects of the Terran pathogens. But this plant life was not only alive, but also sentient. Thinking that it was under attack by the humans, it began striking back, killing the colonists with spiky tendrils and causing environmental disasters. But it was too little, too late, the planet's demise was a foregone conclusion. During the crisis, the portal loses contact with earth, and instead appears to show an advanced alien city. The Russians suppose that this is the homeworld of the aliens who built the portals, but they elect not to flee to the alien world in the hopes of saving their colony.
A mysterious, seemingly-alien, Russian woman guides you through most of the game.
One Russian woman, Aelita, had a strange mutation that infused her body with radiation from the green fire and allowed her to heal and revive dead plant life. In an act of desperation, the Soviets conduct experiments on her to try to turn her into a photosynthetic, plant-like organism in order to communicate with and / or heal the aggressive plants. For reasons that I didn't quite pick up on, this plan failed, and Aelita ended up being the only survivor on the dead, oxygen-less world.
In the meantime, the Cold War has ended on earth, but the Russians have kept their portal and alien colony a closely-held secret. So when the international space agencies discover this mysterious world that supposedly harbors life, they send a team of three scientists on a one-way mission to explore, study, and begin colonization preparations on the planet. Perhaps due to sabotage from the Russians, their ship crash lands. But all three scientists survive - at least at first.
A right-to-life allegory
These first two plot threads are all back-story that you learn as you progress through the game, and it's all pretty easy to follow and generally pretty predictable.
With the player's arrival on the planet, the third plot piece comes into play. The very first scene of the game establishes that the player has a girlfriend or wife, since a photo of her is prominently displayed on the interior of the spacecraft's window. But voice-overs of an interview with the character reveal that he had to have "no connections on earth" in order to qualify for the mission. So is this girlfriend or wife dead? Apparently so. The character begins to have hallucinations of a hospital bed and we learn of an accident that the wife suffered.
Near the end of the game, we learn two important things. First, the portals between Earth and the alien world are temporally out of sync. It wasn't an advanced alien world that the portal was pointing to; it was a version of Earth hundreds of years in the future.
Secondly, you learn that the character's wife is not dead, but instead on permanent life-support. The interview voice-over reveals that your character wanted to give her every chance of living, even though he wouldn't be there to see her recovery.
This is where the parallel between the planet and the wife comes into play. Both are presumed to be "dead". The lingering radiation of the green fire keeps the planet's life on a form of life-support. This lasts for years until the character shows up and helps Aelita revive the planet's life force. Aelita acts as a "miracle cure", the effect of science that the character doesn't yet understand.
The final chapters of the game reveal the true nature of the alien structures.
Aelita is to the planet, what the character wants for his wife: a future miracle cure. So when he steps through the portal to the future version of Earth, he does so with renewed hope that his wife may have found a second lease on life while he was gone. For all he knows, she is still alive in that future Earth.
Thus, the moral of the story would seem to be to not give up on loved ones who seem to be dead, paralyzed, disfigured, or otherwise impaired. We should preserve their life in any capacity possible in the hope that one day, they can be healed. According to this game, that would include individuals who are brain dead and reliant on artificial life support.
End of Spoilers
Unfortunately, if the dull gameplay doesn't hold your interest through the whole game, then even the story will seem like a disjoint, confused mess.
Allegorical story isn't good enough to save the game from its technical problems and dull gameplay
There are also significant technical problems. There are occasional graphical glitches and the physics sometimes behave awkwardly with the geometry. It's also occasionally possible to jump to areas that you apparently aren't supposed to go, and I hit a couple of invisible walls during my explorations of the game world. But such things are minor and can be easily overlooked.
More serious glitches can't be ignored. I had a recurring issue in which all the pause menu options were inert unless I toggled the game's language setting back and forth between another language and English. That's a weird one...
I also had a couple issues in which missions became impossible to finish because cheap deaths or my own mistakes would result in essential objects becoming inaccessible, and the autosave doesn't reset their location. A couple objects required for puzzle solutions would become hopelessly trapped in the hostile plants. I also had a situation in which I jet-packed off of a moving platform, which locked the platform at a location in which I couldn't get back onto. Both of these situations require that the entire mission be restarted - fortunately, you don't have to restart the whole game.
I do want to say that I enjoyed the game's soundtrack and voice acting. There is a musical track that has a sound effect that reminded me of the fog horn during the descent to the underground prison in Silent Hill 2, which is probably my single favorite video game sound effect of all time.
Oh really? It's the minerals that tipped you off about volcanic activity?
Are you sure it wasn't the active, erupting volcano?
But in the end, Lifeless Planet doesn't do enough right for me to recommend it. The gameplay is mostly functional and competent, but boring. The visuals and story are both good, but not good enough to overcome the tedious gameplay and game-breaking technical issues. If you're someone who really likes old-school science fiction, then this game might be worth the six or eight hours it will take to complete (and it's not worth it, unless you do complete it). Otherwise, you'll probably wind up bored out of your mind.
But apparently, the creators like it enough that they are also adapting it into a live-action short film. I probably won't watch it.