Space has always been a popular setting for video games, yet more often than not they have focused on action or horror tropes to tell stories. Lifeless Planet by Stage 2 Studios attempts to capture the quiet isolation and unease of exploration to a faraway world, evoking such works as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Solaris. This game is part of Steam Early Access, yet while it is not yet a complete experience, what exists is very strong even in this developmental stage.
The premise of Lifeless Planet is that you play as an astronaut who has crash-landed on a desolate and uninhabited planet. You quickly realize however that not only have Soviet astronauts already discovered this place, but that they had been there for some time and seem to have all disappeared. This game does an outstanding job of setting up the story and posing a number of questions in the player’s mind. Is it all a hoax? Is time travel at play? What planet is this actually? At this point, I have no idea but I can’t wait to find out as the game’s development completes. The story is conveyed via logs found in settlements and structures, which is not the most innovative method of storytelling. What it lacks in creativity however, it makes up for by being unobtrusive.
Most of this game (so far) takes place on this mysterious planet’s dusty, barren surface. It in many ways evokes the desert landscape of Journey, which is to say it is starkly beautiful. While the exterior visuals have a minimalistic beauty, the interiors are even better. A brief sequence where you explore an abandoned bunker shows off the game’s lighting effects, and they are at least as good as anything I’ve seen this side of Dead Space 2. For a game still in Beta, I can’t wait to see what kind of further visual flourishes Stage 2 has up its sleeve.
Along with Journey, another game this reminds me of is the first Mass Effect. Like that game, this piece of science fiction calls back to the 1960s and 1970s as its visual and thematic foundation. Cold War imagery, minimal environments, and ponderous pacing allow Lifeless Planet to carve out a spot in a genre that’s been so done and overdone in video games.
At its core, Lifeless Planet is a platformer as your astronaut uses a combination of low gravity and jet boosters from his oxygen tank to navigate environments. It’s not the most complicated or elegant platformer out there, and some of the sequences are downright frustrating thanks to your lack of mobility and inability to control jumps once they are executed. This mechanic was the cause of more than a few moments where I needed to take a break because I didn’t have quite the right amount of momentum, or didn’t push the ‘double jump/boost’ button hard enough and fell to my death. Practice makes perfect though, and there’s certainly nothing broken here — it’s just rough.
Being an Early Access game, Lifeless Planet is on sale for $12.99 but is only a playable demo at this time. The continuation of this game’s story is promised with future updates, but there’s no telling exactly how much content that will be or whether it will build upon what’s there. As it is however, the game which is playable is very strong. Some frustrating platforming sequences aside, the currently-available game that I’ve played has intrigued me more than just about anything else I’ve played so far this year. I really do hope that Stage 2 Studios manages to finish Lifeless Planet, because there is real potential for it to end up being one of 2014’s finest games.
[+Beautifully stark] [+Unique game world] [+Strong story (so far)] [-Frustrating platforming] [-Early Access]