Thursday, December 24, 2015

Game Review - Lifeless Planet (Xbox One, 2015)

Video games can provide experiences that no other medium can because of player interaction.  The best books and movies can tap into the audience's emotions, but the mere act of guiding a character generates enough investment in the narrative to drive deeper than a film ever could.  Lifeless Planet is a prime example of this sort of game.

In fact, it is one of the best storytelling games I've ever played.  While some games let you overcome complex challenges or beat your friends in a head-to-head match, Lifeless Planet provides a brilliant stage for exploring the world its developers created.  Therein lies both the strongest and weakest features of the game, but I'll get to that in a bit.

The Basics

Lifeless Planet opens with an astronaut making the first trip to a planet 30 light years away.  Unmanned probes have indicated is full of plant life with an oxygen-rich atmosphere, but when the astronaut crash lands, he discovers it is actually barren and hostile.

Yep. Chock full of life.
From there, he desperately searches for answers and a way home.  The path ahead is riddled with small puzzles and platforming sections, but for the most part, the emphasis is on exploration - looking for clues and finding minerals and other objects that suggest something about the planet's history.  Each discovery brings new questions, leading to a more complex narrative than you might initially expect.

The Good

And that narrative is amazing.

As I played, I kept thinking that the story was ripped straight from a Twilight Zone episode.  The desolate world provides the perfect backdrop for that kind of reality-questioning vibe.

More impressively, that tone persists throughout the entire game.  After one piece of the story fell into place, my focus shifted seamlessly to another part of it - "ok, so that's how that happened, but I still don't know about this other thing.  Maybe it's this."  This process continued for the 9 hours or so that it took for me to complete the game.

Large structures make an appearance, too. Hmm.
And at the end, I still had questions.  That lingering uncertainty about key story elements often makes for an unsatisfying conclusion, but for Lifeless Planet, it still felt like all the necessary bits were wrapped up.  The story was told, but it gave brief insight into a fascinating world, which left me digging for more answers.

In short, Lifeless Planet succeeds in telling the kind of story that is usually reserved for the best science fiction.  It's awesome.

The soundtrack also plays a crucial role in setting the tone.  While the game is usually quiet, some bits of music will occasionally pop up to enhance the tension of a particular scene.  It's done really well, and it further complements that Twilight Zone feel.

And... desks?

The Not-So-Good

For Lifeless Planet, I don't think it's quite fair to list "bad" features, as nothing is overly negative.  There are, however, a few things that could be a lot better.

An obvious one is the graphics.  While they did a great job of conveying the isolation of a lifeless world, there are some places where simple textures undermine what could have been breathtaking structures or objects.  Similarly, there are a few cutscenes featuring human beings, and they look pretty bad.

These graphical issues aren't enough to detract from the overall experience in a significant way, but there's some lost potential in making the game even more engrossing.

Time to jump!
The real frustrations come with the gameplay mechanics, though.  Unlike most games I've played, your character actually conserves momentum when jumping - once you're in the air, you can't change your direction or speed.  While nice from the perspective of presenting some realism, this is definitely a place where I think realism should be sacrificed for good gameplay.

The reason?  It can be really easy to misjudge jumps, and I often found myself having difficulty getting up to speed on small platforms.  It led to me failing a number of platforming sequences where it felt more like the game was screwing me than a lack of skill on my part.

Another problem lies in some of the dark sections of the game.  When night falls, you'll understandably need to use a flashlight to get around.  The issue is that your flashlight isn't very powerful, so your sight is limited enough that the platforming can be nearly impossible.  Finding the next platform is a big challenge, and it's far more frustrating that fun.  I spent well over 10 minutes stuck in one area, jumping every way I could (and dying) in a desperate attempt to find the next platform.

I'm just saying that the few dark sections are either poorly designed or should be a lot shorter - or both.

Despite these criticisms, Lifeless Planet provides an unparalleled experience.  If you're a fan of classic science fiction or you're looking for a fantastic story of isolation and confusion, you should absolutely check out this game.  If you're more likely to get invested in the gameplay, you might be better served elsewhere.  I still highly recommend it, though.

My Rating: 8/10 - great.

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