Lifeless Planet is a perfect example of a game for which nearly everything has gone wrong. Like TinyKeep, almost every feature is contradicted by another feature until the game is a boring, confusing mess. It’s one of those new-fangled narrative-driven games, but no – it’s a 3D platformer. It’s a 3D platformer, but wait – the controls are absolutely god-awful. The controls are absolutely god awful – oh, yeah, this game is terrible.
The game starts off promising: you are an astronaut whose ship has crash-landed on its destination, minus two crew members. After a bit of wandering you come across a ghost town, which is weird, because your mission was supposed to be one of discovery (or something). The audio-logs are distinctly Russian, there’s an underground research lab, and damn it, this place was supposed to be unpopulated. The whole thing is rife with intrigue.
Quickly, however, the game’s cracks begin to show, and its faults rear their very ugly heads. After the burst of exposition that starts the game, the rate at which you’re fed information slows to a crawl. Instead, you’re presented with about four hours of awkward, frustrating 3D platforming and puzzle-solving. What could have been succinct, ninety-minute Campster-fodder turns into a slog of terrible proportions.
Lifeless Planet is stuffed to the breaking point with undisguised filler platforming sections that don’t even pretend to move the story forward. They’re as contrived and idiotic as any 3D platforming is, but the reason it works in other games is chances are it takes place in a cartoon rainbow world. Lifeless Planet is an atmospheric game that takes itself very seriously, so when you’re asked to scale a canyon wall by bounding up rocks jutting out of it, it really makes you wonder just what the fuck this game is supposed to be making you feel.
And it isn’t as if these platforming sections are even any fun. Your little astronaut controls with the grace of a cruise liner, as he makes an elaborate U-turn every time you change direction. This, combined with the fact that there is no strafing, only turning the camera left and right, combined with the low gravity, is a recipe for just the kind of complete disaster this game is. Admittedly though, when the game allows you seven puffs of air from your jetpack, basically allowing you to fly, the platforming can be somewhat enjoyable.
The aforementioned “extended boost mode” is one of a handful of gimmicks the game juggles in a futile attempt to spice things up. You’re also occasionally given a robot arm to operate with things taller than you, which is pretty cool, but disappointingly, it’s only ever useful in one puzzle about a dozen times throughout the game. Root-like creatures growing out of the ground can be aggravated to shoot out a spike you can use as a bridge sometimes, which is sort of neat. That’s about all there is to that, though.
As I mentioned before, Lifeless Planet seems to believe itself to be a very sophisticated game. Its tone is somber, its gameplay simple, its walking abundant – just like the best of them, right? Well, as can be expected by now, the game does everything it can to make the whole story seem like a joke.
Its narrative is delivered mostly through audio logs, which are completely in Russian. You’re reduced to having to read each audio log as best you can as an incomprehensible Russian recites it at the same time, and you can really hear him wondering why his voice work is even necessary. Due to the inherent lameness of audio logs and the total lack of any environmental hints as to what’s going on, Lifeless Planet becomes a journey from exposition to exposition, with nothing to think about in between except for how fucking annoyed you are.
The story itself is barely anything anyway. What it comes down to is an explanation of why there were Russians here, why there are no more Russians here, and you sitting in your chair saying “Okay” when it’s over. Next to nothing of any meaning or coherence happens in the game’s runtime, and the narrative breaks off into a tangent in the last 10 minutes which, confusingly, becomes the ending.
Character development of any description is thrown out the window, in favor of clear, ineffective heart-string tugging. Your two astronaut buddies die in your hands but have no dialogue, names, or presence before their death. Through most of the game you’re accompanied by a woman, but she has no English dialogue, and even her Russian is purely for barking at the player to “watch out” in a couple of sequences. She doesn’t do much but sit cross-legged while you solve puzzles, and then suddenly play a pivotal role in the game’s odd little conclusion.
The game’s barely-functional nature does nothing to help along its already shambling story. Your camera is reset to a random angle at the end of all the cutscenes (cutscenes which are jarring and hilarious to begin with), leading only to you being disoriented. Sometimes you’ll be prompted to “find oxygen! you’re running low!”, but these instances are scripted and the oxygen is sparkling 30 seconds away, turning this budding mechanic into nothing but railroad tracks.
All of this is a shame because sometimes Lifeless Planet gets everything right. There’s a startlingly tolerable jump-scare that proceeded to unnerve me for the next half hour and still makes me feel like there’s someone behind me, and its atmosphere building is occasionally very effective. The soundtrack is of an almost inappropriate quality considering the game it’s serenading, and definitely makes you feel the genuine creepiness of your surroundings.
For all the stigma behind the term ‘walking simulator’, Lifeless Planet is a great reminder of why walking simulators are what they are. Everything that isn’t the story gets in the game’s way, shoves it to the ground, and beats it to death. A few fleeting moments shine, but this game is a dismal pile that couldn’t have been saved by anything but being scrapped.
Ethics disclosure: This game was purchased by the reviewer