When you first start playing Lifeless Planet, the premise seems simple. You are an astronaut from Earth on a one-way journey to a very distant planet that scientists have predicted to be life-sustaining. However, before you land, there are complications and you wake up alone in the middle of a barren and lifeless planet instead (hence the title). As you explore this distant and empty planet, the reason for it being desolate and uninviting is slowly made clear.
The story of this Lifeless Planet is, by far, the strongest part of this game. It is written incredibly well, and through brief cut-scenes and discoverable scientific documents, you are given a clear picture of what caused the havoc on an otherwise promising ecosystem. Without spoiling much of the story, Hollywood’s favorite villains, the Russians, came to the planet by means of a portal they discovered back on Earth. I use the term ‘villains’ very loosely, because they aren’t actually evil, but their role in the story qualifies them as the antagonists. Their intention was to secretly create a metropolis and master space related technology, and then announce their superiority to Earth to increase their standing among other humans. For reasons I’ll leave unspoiled, it doesn’t work. If movies and modern media have taught me anything, this is a very Russian scheme.
In all seriousness, the plot relies too heavily on Westerners’ preconceived paradigms of Russian ideals and how they achieve them. Russians, in American entertainment, make a very convenient enemy. In the historical context of the space race, during which this takes place, Russian scientists and military officers devising a strategy like this is reminiscent of Cold War era propaganda. This is part of what makes the plot so strong. This issue I have is how heavily Russian stereotypes are played on in the scientist’s personal documents, and other story progressing elements. I’m just not convinced that Russian scientists habitually promoted the greatness of ‘the motherland’ in their interstellar findings.
Another aspect of Lifeless Planet that stands out is the planet itself. In the time I’ve spent reviewing video games, I’ve never played one which made me appreciate emptiness (by design) as much as Lifeless Planet. I loved looking around and finding nothing, then suddenly happening upon human civilization after wandering across the expanse. One section towards the beginning of Lifeless Planet has you wandering without any landmark in sight. I wandered around looking for as much as a rock to tell me where to go, and found very little. It was a powerful moment because I felt completely lost and helpless, and when I found a landmark I frantically ran towards it hoping it was where I needed to be. While the human structures don’t have a lot of visual diversity, they still communicate where important sections for the human colonies were. The really impressive structures are the ones that existed on the planet before humans made first contact. They are full of wonder and mystery, yet you will never truly know how they work or what their purpose was. Several sections of the game take you to other incredible parts of the planet. From the barren badlands to the volcanic valley, the reward is in the journey and not just the destination.
Gameplay, unfortunately, is an lacking. In Lifeless Planet, you’re allowed a very limited range of movement and interaction tools. You have a booster pack which allows you to double jump, and when you have extra fuel you can boost several times in succession. Platforming and traversal in areas where you can only boost once is nothing incredible. It is your standard series of jumping from platform to platform, with the occasional moving block to help you reach a higher platform. Having multiple boosts helps add variety to the tired 3D double jump platforming genre that Lifeless Planet belongs to. Being able to scale great distances makes it feel like you’re actually jumping around in the gravity of a distant planet. Finding a far off platform that you’re not entirely convinced you can reach, yet summoning up the courage to try for it yields the sweet reward of completing an impossible jump (or plummeting to your death). With either single or multiple boosts in the game, there is still nothing that Lifeless Planet does that is fresh or unique compared to other 3D platformers.
The one unique tool you have at your disposal is a robotic arm you pick up part of the way through the game. I was excited by what Lifeless Planet might task you to do with it, but unfortunately it never amounts to much more that grabbing hard to reach objects or pushing distant buttons. I would have loved to see it used to lift pipes overhead for plumbing or electrical puzzles, lower you down from a platform, or even to carry some important object across the game.
The game’s score is light and atmospheric, which adds greatly to the experience, yet causes some sections to feel underwhelming. The music is almost like a fusion between Techland’s Dying Light and Bioware’s Mass Effect. It enhances the feeling of exploration and loneliness, and also adds to important moments and discoveries. I wish there was more aggressive or energetic music in certain areas of the game. Jumping from rock to rock over scalding magma was cool, but it would have been even more dramatic and thrilling with a great musical accompaniment.
Considering the half-realized gameplay dynamics, Lifeless Planet is still a very well-crafted game thanks to its story, and the dead planet which still feels organic. After my time playing Lifeless Planet, I would recommend it based on the story alone. If you aren’t fond of 3D platformer games or you are looking for a stand-out title in the genre, then this game probably isn’t for you. If you want to experience a deep and thought provoking story, however, and don’t enjoy the repetitive and mundane platforming, you might enjoy Lifeless Planet. At minimum, it’s worth watching a ‘Let’s Play’ to get an idea of the story.