Developer: Stage 2 Studios
Publisher: Stage 2 Studios
Platform: Xbox One, PC
Released: Xbox One – May 2015
I’m going to begin my latest stream of consciousness with a declaration: the title of this game is a damn lie! Between you, the woman you’re following (hardly a spoiler, it’s in the description of the game) and the mysterious force that’s hell-bent on annihilating you at every moment, I’d say this planet has a bit of life on it. Then again, “Sort of Still Got Some Life on It I Guess Planet” isn’t a catchy title, and even though there are other lifeforms, this is still very much a lonely expedition.
I don’t think I’ve felt this isolated in a long time when playing a game, even in the face of other life forms and excerpts from Old Russian documents. Normally, you’ll have a constant stream of dialogue with a cast of supporting characters, offering wisecracks and generally being ignorant of the perils around them. Not here. The only thing that holds your attention and guides you in any way is the internal monologue of your heroic astronaut, and the aforementioned woman in the distance. But is she leading you to safety? Or to a grisly demise? And what is with the native flora?
You might notice me skirting around the plot here, instead of my usual bombastic synopses that I tend to deliver, and that’s because I want to avoid spoilers. The game touches on themes of love, loss and sacrifice which are executed rather well, but they might be avoided or skipped over unintentionally by most of the common gaming crowd.
The story unfolds at the same level you choose to engage with it as collectible documents fill in the gaps between cut scenes and monologues, offering you more background on the characters and the planet as a whole, but you do need to seek those out in order to gain the full picture. It’s not exactly taxing to find most of these collectibles mind you, as they tend to be lit up, but there are a few that require taking the scenic route.. Furthermore, a lot of things can still be left open to interpretation. Only once I trawled through the internet in a relentless pursuit of answers did I begin to fully understand what happened, and that’s only because the creator David Board took to the Steam forums to answer questions about the plot.
But, of course, the plot can only be a good as the thread, or gameplay in this case, that ties it all together, and on the whole I found it to be simplistic, too easy and somewhat dull. I can see why there’s an achievement for finishing the game without dying, because for once, that achievement actually seems possible! In order to traverse this totally not lifeless “Lifeless Planet”, you’re given a jetpack and a robotic arm with which to solve puzzles, but these puzzles are usually little more than “move the block into the right place and then you win”, or “find a way to clear this chasm”. The jetpack itself is a double jump for the most part, but in certain situations, it will be upgraded to a multi jump jetpack. This is when the gameplay becomes most interesting as you cross huge ravines, but even then it’s not exactly anything hugely inspiring and is often incredibly short-lived.
This is the type of game that suffers from the contrivance of being a videogame. How can we, the gamer, believe this planet to be lifeless, desolate and intimidating when once we begin to run out of oxygen, there is always an oxygen tank within eyeshot? Or when we need extra fuel for the jetpack, why is there is always some not too far away? It sounds like I’m nitpicking, but it takes you away from the immersion that the game tries so desperately to create. Pity, really, as the game as a whole is quite atmospheric. A tense soundtrack that suggests danger at every corner, combined with desolate, hostile environments containing ruins of events that transpired before the landing really help to sucker you in.
There is some danger to worry about however, though not in the form of regular enemies. The obstacles that challenge our intrepid space traveler come in the form of the environment, even with regards to the “mysterious force that stalks your every move”, but that would be giving too much. For me, this causes a bit of a disconnection between the urgency you’re supposed to feel in trying to escape the antagonistic planet, and the leisurely pace with which you can tackle most obstacles. Sure, being able to take your time because there’s no real enemies for you to deal with is good for a platformer, but it flies directly in the face of the entire plot of the game.
So is there enough life in this game to consider a purchase? My initial playthrough took less than 4 hours, and besides achievements, I have no real compunction to go through it again. Whilst I did find the experience to be enjoyable due to the overall premise of the game, the themes it tackles and the foreboding atmosphere, I found the gameplay to be completely lacklustre and not very challenging. If I was judging this on story alone, I’d be a little more favourable, and I do think it could work in another medium. Maybe a short written story. But as a game, I’m left wanting.