Indies You Might Have Missed: Lifeless Planet

Indies You Might Have Missed: Lifeless Planet

If you dig quiet, contemplative environmental puzzle games like Another World and Ico, you owe it to yourself to check out this tale of a space expedition gone horribly wrong.

Since E3 2015's surprise announcement of The Last Guardian's resurrection, I've had Fumito Ueda on the brain.

Recording an episode of Retronauts about his two games—along with replaying them—helped me calm the fires of this rekindled fixation, but now I can't help but see Ueda's influence everywhere. Just as he and countless others (like Hideo Kojima) found inspiration in Eric Chahi's Another World, Ico has become a similar catalyst for a new generation of developers. There's the more obvious nods, like Lost in Shadow and Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, along with other games that simply draw from Ico's best elements: its sense of minimalism, or the bond players gradually develop with an AI-controlled character.

Stage 2 Studios' Lifeless Planet isn't strictly an Ico-like, but it definitely carries some of the qualities I like most about Ueda's work: it largely involves a lonely exploration of a hostile-yet-beautiful world, where the reasons behind its decline don't make themselves entirely obvious—at least, not at first. And while long stretches play out like your average walking simulator, in which you're asked to do nothing more than keep moving and absorbing the atmosphere, Lifeless Planet contains its share of platforming and environmental puzzles as well. Aiding its efforts is a sense of level design right out of the School of Valve: Like Half-Life 2 and Left 4 Dead, Lifeless Planet has a way of implicitly steering you through its strange environments through clever visual cues, rather than glowing waypoints and big, flashing arrows.

Outside of tasking you with wandering towards the next point of interest, Lifeless Planet breaks up its gameplay into three distinct segments: desperate scrambles for oxygen, as you search the landscape for the next canister of life-giving air, Jumping Flash!-style platforming challenges, which enhance your astronaut's mid-air boosts for some vertigo-inducing vertical action, and your standard puzzles that involve interacting with the mysterious technology left behind by the planet's former inhabitants. The way these segments are distributed throughout might be a little contrived—you somehow find the equipment to super-power your jumps immediately before an area where you'll use this specific ability—the way they constantly cycle you through different types of challenges makes up for their slightly inorganic qualities.

Lifeless Planet isn't necessarily as ambiguous with its storytelling compared to Ueda's work. While the visual clues littered throughout do a great job of shedding light on what happened before your space-faring crew crash-landed, it has a disappointing tendency to show, then tell—typically via the standard video game narrative devices of journals and audio logs. But this lack of confidence doesn't damage Lifeless Planet's overall effect all that much, since the game typically falls back on its rich atmosphere to convey feelings, rather than the panicked scribblings former inhabitants who died horribly.

If I've piqued your interest, Lifeless Planet is currently available on Steam, and its Xbox One port quietly launched on the Xbox One's marketplace in May. Definitely give it a shot if you're interested in an experience straight from the School of Ueda.

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