The mission isn't going well. After spending years in a cryo-chamber so that they could survive the rigors of long-distance interstellar travel, a small group of astronauts has crash-landed on the planet they were sent to explore. There's one immediate survivor, and the prognosis is not good. His landing craft is wrecked, the planet – supposedly rich and full of life – looks like a barren desert, and, most importantly of all, his oxygen is running out.
His first objective is to find fresh air, which means walking out into the desert and looking for supply vehicles that were dropped onto the planet in preparation for the astronauts' landing. Fortunately a glint on the horizon helps give the unnamed spaceman a waypoint, and he sets forth, jogging towards the target. Fortunately, it's a supply vehicle, and with his oxygen levels topped up, the astronaut starts exploring the environment, looking for clues as to why this once-fertile planet has become a desert during the time it's taken him to travel there from Earth.
Created largely as a solo project by David Board, Lifeless Planet is an odd combination of third person walking simulator and platform-puzzler. From the very outset, the astronaut's quite considerable trek through the game is made challenging by environmental obstacles, the occasional red herring path, and what often look like dead ends. However, there's always a way forward, usually in the form of some platforming. Despite his bulky space suit, the astronaut is quite athletic, and can jump with the help of a jetpack, which can give him a boost when negotiating the game's many platform challenges.
After a brief trek across the desert, and navigating some narrow ravines where you learn the ins and outs of Lifeless Planet's basic platform mechanics, the astronaut comes across a line of very earth-like telephone poles. It's the first of the game's many mysteries that throw up more questions than there are answers. What are they doing here, and why do they lead to a small abandoned Earth-like town? How did these people arrive here, and where have they gone?
Fortunately, along the game's linear golden path, there are clues in the form of audio journals that you can pick up and listen to. These slowly weave together a narrative that begins to reveal who the colonists were, and what happened to the planet to turn it into a desert. However, they don't explain everything, and the main mystery – a fleeting woman who you ultimately pursue throughout the game – isn't revealed until the final part of the adventure.
Where Lifeless Planet works best is in its early stages. It has a surreal atmosphere that's further enhanced by a series of little vignettes that the astronaut uncovers as he explores the abandoned town, and the facility beyond it. It makes you wonder what's going on, and indeed whether the astronaut is perhaps suffering from some kind of psychotic episode brought on by the crash, or spending too much time in deep sleep. It's all quite nicely paced, and helps really draw you into the game. At least, it certainly worked for me – but then I'm a sucker for this kind of sci-fi mystery.
The story further deepens as you move beyond the town and its underground facility to a precipitous pass above a deep canyon. As you progress, you discover buildings that don't necessarily look like they should be where they are, and you get your first sight of another human. At least it looks human. But by the time you reach where they were standing, they’re gone. Who is this person, and how can they survive the harsh environment? This is the big question that really drives the storyline for the rest of the game.
It's at this point where the platforming aspect of the game really starts to come to the fore, and there are plenty of tricky jumps that need to be made as the astronaut scrambles along the treacherous canyon path in pursuit of the humanoid. The jumping mechanic is a little on the floaty side, and seems somewhat imprecise at first. However, once you get used to timing the thrust of your jetpack, you can make quite accurate jumps. And even if you do occasionally miscue a jump, the respawn points are generally fairly generous and don't require too much retreading of familiar turf.
Throughout the adventure, you can find useful jetpack boosters that temporarily enable you to thrust multiple times to cross particularly large gaps. That can lead to some heart-stopping moments as you attempt to stick a landing on a small piece of rock jutting out from the side of a canyon, for example. Some of these jumps almost feel like leaps of faith until you get used to the considerable distance you can travel, but for the most part I found Lifeless Planet's platforming quite entertaining.
However, while I enjoyed the platforming overall, I did encounter a few frustrations deep into the game. There are a few situations where environmental hazards can prove particularly tricky to avoid without foresight, and that can lead to some moments of annoyance when you suddenly and unexpectedly die without notice. Fortunately it doesn't happen too often, but there's a section of the game where you're walking through a particularly challenging environment in the dark, and it can sometimes be difficult to see hazards before it's too late. The deaths just feel particularly cheap.
There is some very limited puzzling to do at certain junctures of the game, and on the whole it's all very straightforward. Fairly early on, you gain a robotic arm for your space suit that's used for lifting and placing objects, as well as pressing buttons on alien structures. The contraption is a little clumsy to use, but it does the job sufficiently once you get used to its slightly awkward controls. There's also a particularly obscure puzzle in a volcano that I ended up solving more by accident than design. While it does sort of echo a puzzle earlier in the game, I didn't make the connection, and had I not backtracked from what turned out to be a false path forwards, I think I'd have become totally stuck. The reason why I'm calling it out is that for the most part Lifeless Planet's puzzles are all fairly easy and obvious: This particular puzzle just seems to be completely out of alignment with the others in terms of difficulty.
I also got stuck in the landscape a couple of times while playing through the game. Since Lifeless Planet is the creation of a very small team, I can understand that things like this might be missed, but nevertheless, it was particularly annoying when I got stuck at a critical point, and ended up having to reboot and replay about 20 minutes of the game to get back to where I was.
Other than that, though, I enjoyed playing Lifeless Planet. It starts out strong, and while it can't quite maintain the momentum and depth of mystery that it initially sets out over the course of its six-or-so hour duration, I nevertheless really liked its storyline. The ending is a little vague and open-ended, but I thought it was a nicely told yarn that feels like classic, oldschool sci-fi.
However, while Lifeless Planet provided me with a good afternoon's worth of entertainment, I think it's a quirky game that's not for everyone. Its heavy emphasis on platforming seems at odds with its walking simulator story design. It's a weird mix of genres that I can definitely see being too slow-paced for platform fanatics, who'd probably like their action more focused, while walking sim fans will probably not enjoy the sometimes-tricky platforming elements getting in the way of their unfolding story. In other words, to get the most out of this game, you really need to be a fan of both genres. If that's you – and you also enjoy sci-fi stories – I'd recommend taking a look at Lifeless Planet.
Lifeless Planet is an interesting mash-up of genres, blending a walking simulator and platform-puzzling with a mysterious and quite gripping premise. Its slow pace mightn't be for everyone, but if you enjoy action adventures, are partial to tricky third-person platforming, and like classic sci-fi yarns, it's worth checking out.