Rough Landing – ‘Lifeless Planet’ Review

At last, Lifeless Planet has made its way to Xbox One – but is there a soul to be found in its desolation?

Prior to playing Lifeless Planet, I found everything about the game to be incredibly intriguing. A Cold War era, classic science-fiction, free discovery, and the thought of exploring a world vastly different from our own all piqued my interest immensely. Perhaps being so intrigued with the title is what ultimately made it such a disappointing game to play.

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Gameplay

The biggest let down of Lifeless Planet is its core gameplay. To better illustrate the crux of the titles issue, lets start from an example from early in the game.

After a crash landing on an unnamed planet 15 years away from Earth, I found myself wandering what appeared to be a massive open wasteland. I refueled my air and prepared myself to explore. Only, what appeared moments ago to be an open environment for me navigate suddenly became incredibly linear. You can walk to the left or right as much as the game allows, and you might even find a collectible here and there, but in the end you’ll end up bottlenecked into the next area ahead of you.

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A common structure in games today is what I refer to as the illusion of choice. By this, I mean a game makes you think you have an option of where to go and what to do, but in reality there is only one outcome. This can be a good thing, (see my Wolfenstein: The Old Blood review) but in many circumstances, it just ends with the player being disillusioned and disappointed.

On top of what are essentially linear environments, the core of Lifeless Planet relies on puzzle solving and minor amounts of exploration. Unfortunately, though, the puzzles end up being repetitive. In fact, I can only recall three real puzzles in the whole game that just are repeated ad nauseam. The first has you picking up conveniently placed TNT to blow up an obstruction, the second has you pick up an alien space battery and use lift to simply place it, and the last has you push items here and there to cause an environmental reaction. Pretty standard stuff, and by the halfway point in the game, the puzzles felt tedious and mundane.

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One of the more interesting environment variants in the game

Despite puzzle shortcomings, some gameplay elements felt particularly strong in Lifeless Planet. My absolute favorite sections in the game revolve around the unnamed astronaut using his air-powered jetpack to jump from cliff to cliff over deep chasms. Sadly, the game only featured about two of these sections leaving the rest of the game to walking down narrow or steep passageways narrowly avoiding death occasionally.

The gameplay of Lifeless Planet is part of what got me jazzed about the title in the first place, and I couldn’t be more disappointed about its execution.

Plot

As briefly mentioned above, the game is propelled by an astronaut exploring a planet 15 years after leaving Earth. Upon reaching his destination, the astronaut (he is never given a name) has lost his crew and begins searching to find them. Before you discover your crew, though, you, oddly enough, stumble upon a human settlement. The astronaut mentions how they were told they’d be the first on the planet and that it was a one way trip, so this new discovery spurs into action the rest of the game.

Easily the most intriguing location in Lifeless Planet
Easily the most intriguing location in Lifeless Planet

From here on out, I am done talking about the premise in detail not because I’m afraid of spoiling the game, but rather because the game just stops being interesting from there. Sure, there are little snippets of intrigue here and there as you try to figure out what happened to the Soviets who vanished long before your arrival, but it never really builds to any satisfying revelation as.

Another quick note, there are awkward moments occasionally when the game is changing locations where you’ll hit a (thankfully) short load screen. One moment, you’ll be on one side of a massive door and it will be day and after the door opens and you cross the threshold, it will suddenly be pitch black. This jarring sense of pacing really felt like an odd plot device to move the game along.

For the sake of brevity, the plot, much like the gameplay had a tone of interesting concepts but developer Stage 2 Studios never leans into the fascinating theme and era enough to really create anything memorable. When the credits rolled at the end of the game, I was rewarded with an achievement for beating the game in under four hours making one wonder if the title is truly worth the $20 (or your local equivalent) price of admission.

Graphics, Performance and Audio

This portion of the review should be brief as it is the most obvious thing to notice about Lifeless Planet. To be frank, the graphics are quite dated and it detracts from the overall experience. I’m far from the type of person who expects AAA quality graphics in all my games, but every model besides the astronaut moves and looks like something straight from a PlayStation 2 game. Even on a next-gen console, the game has some pop-in at middle to long range.

An area that fell victim to a fair amount of pop-in
An area that fell victim to a fair amount of pop-in

As far as performance goes, Planet is pretty solid. Because of the rough visuals, things come together pretty well for the game and seem optimized. There were some noticeable frame drops is some of the more “open” parts of the game. To avoid spoiling too much as it happens late in the game, there are a few environments that feature some foliage that perform quite poorly. Luckily, both sequences are on the brief side.

Excluding the short jetpack sequences, the strongest area in Lifeless Planet is the game’s audio. All the noises coming from the astronaut and his suit sound muffled like one would expect from a space/planetary exploration title. There are also collectible audio logs that are dubbed in Russian that are interesting and help flesh out what little bit of story the game features. Compared to the rest of Lifeless Planet‘s offering, the audio is miles ahead.

Verdict

This otherworldly game has some entertaining moments and is strung together by excellent concepts. Because things seem so great and unique on paper, the dull and repetitive nature of the title all the more disappointing. I wanted to love Lifeless Planet, hell, I wanted to at least like the it, but a myriad of gameplay and plot decisions bogged the game down.

Unfortunately, Lifeless Planet would be an utterly forgettable title if it weren’t so painful to think of how brilliant it could have been.

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