Lifeless Planet Review (XONE)

Lifeless Planet screen 1
Lifeless Planet screen 1. Stage 2 Studios

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Lifeless Planet is a dream game for me.  A sci-fi game set on a distant planet where exploration and discovery is the focus, not shooting everything that moves.  It tells a great story without lengthy cutscenes.  It is thrilling and exciting despite not having any weapons or even enemies to fight.  It features a vast world to explore where you always know exactly where to go, but there aren't markers telling you what to do or even a map to check.

  Lifeless Planet is basically the opposite of the dumbed-down "AAA" titles we see from big studios these days, and it is one of the best games I've played on Xbox One in quite a while.

Game Details

  • Publisher:  Stage 2 Studios
  • Developer: Stage 2 Studios
  • ESRB Rating: “T" for Teen
  • Genre: Adventure
  • Pros:  Fantastic presentation; incredible exploration; fascinating story; no combat!; will constantly surprise you
  • Cons:  Platform jumping; simple puzzles

Story

Lifeless Planet is the story of an astronaut who sets out to explore a distant planet.  When he leaves Earth, this distant planet is green and full of life, but when he arrives via crash landing more than twenty years later, the planet is totally dead.  Not only that, but he isn't the first human to set foot on this planet - there's an abandoned Russian colony already there.  He isn't quite alone, however, as a mysterious woman suddenly appears to lead him through surprising dangers lurking just below the surface.

  The rest of the game is spent investigating what happened to the once green planet, what happened to the Russians, what's the deal with all of the alien technology scattered around, and also trying to figure out a way to get back home. 

The story is told through documents and audio logs you'll find all around the world, as well as commentary from the astronaut.

  The audio logs are all in Russian, so you have to read what they're actually saying on your PDA.  In a nice touch, the astronaut usually gives you the gist of what a document or audio log says by speaking his thoughts out loud, but if you want to go in-depth and get all of the details, you'll need to read every file you come across.  Or you could just ignore it, but in doing so you'll miss out on a really fascinating story that is pure 50's/60's-style sci-fi.

Gameplay

Lifeless Planet is entirely about the thrill and joy of exploration.  You walk around and look at stuff and solve some puzzles, and that's it.  You have no weapons, and there aren't any enemies to fight anyway.  It is all about exploring an alien planet, and I love it.  There is a surprising variety to the environments, ranging from dusty plains, to canyons, to a dead forest, a man-made dam, underground labs, and much more.  You don't have a map or any sort of onscreen markers telling you where to go, either, yet somehow you always end up exactly where you need to be thanks to incredibly smart game design.  A blinking light on an oxygen unit (you'll have to top off your O2 a few times during the game), a mysterious building on the horizon, a strange looking mountain, a tree, an alien structure - there's always something to draw your attention and keep you moving in the right direction.

 

There is also some light platforming and puzzle solving now and then as well and, again, through smart design you always know what to do and where to go.  Your space suit has a short burst of thrust, and occasionally you'll get access to more powerful fuel that lets you use multiple boosts during one jump.  The platforming is dead simple - just jump from one rocky outcropping to the next - but there is some precision required as you can easily jump too far and miss platforms entirely.  I have to admit, though, that I got pretty tired of the platforming by the end.  It wasn't ever difficult, just tedious.

 

The puzzles are a little over simple as well, usually consisting of pushing an object to help reach a higher area, blowing something up with dynamite, and a few other surprises I won't spoil.  The "solution" is always right in the same area as the problem, though, so figuring things out is never too taxing.  There is a puzzle or two that does take some critical thinking - mostly in the "If I do this, then this should happen ..." variety - that can be satisfying to solve when you first see them, but overall the puzzles are pretty light.  I would have preferred more puzzles over the platforming, though.

I think the thing I like most about Lifeless Planet is how un-video-gamey it is.  It doesn't hold your hand and tell you what to do, it doesn't shoehorn a crappy combat system into a game that didn't need it, it doesn't force you to sit through hours of cutscenes to tell a good story.  Heck, it doesn't even have any sort of UI overlay.  It is just your astronaut exploring a big dusty planet.  The exploration and puzzles are based on real world logic where you think something "should" work, or walking this direction "makes sense", and it always does.  It only takes about 5 hours to beat Lifeless Planet, but I jumped back in for a re-play immediately just to soak it all in again.

Perhaps the best thing about Lifeless Planet is that the rewards for playing it are simply new scenery to look at and a new piece or two of the story, but it is worth it.  Not to be too hyperbolic, this is one of those experiences where your mouth will be agape in awe, and you'll have goosebumps the whole time.  It is like the thrill of leaving the vault for the first time in Fallout 3, but that feeling is repeated over and over throughout the game.  You see some incredibly surprising things in Lifeless Planet.  It is occasionally scary, sometimes nerve wracking, briefly warm and happy, mostly surprisingly desolate and lonely, but it is all put together into an amazing journey that no one should pass up.

Graphics & Sound

You could pick apart the visuals in Lifeless Planet and say it isn't very impressive looking, but then you'd be missing the (dead) forest through the (dead) trees.  Sure the textures are generally simple and there isn't a ton of detail in places that could have used it, such as buildings, but there is a definite beauty to the game's simplicity.  It is important to note that the game isn't exclusively the red/brown world seen in screenshots as there are a lot of other areas in the game that will surprise you.  The lighting is also fantastic and little details like the world reflecting off the astronaut's helmet in real time is awesome. 

The sound is also very well done.  There are only a handful of characters, most of them speaking in Russian, but they are all performed very well.  The soundtrack is mostly subtle atmospheric music that enhances the lonely and desolate vibe of the game, but it does occasionally pick up.  It perfectly matches the mood at all times and really enhances the experience.  Likewise, the sound effects are pretty limited to just the wind and the soft thuds of your footsteps, but it all works wonderfully.

Bottom Line

Lifeless Planet isn't your typical game, particularly on consoles, but it is because of that fact it is one of the best experiences I've had on Xbox One since Ori and the Blind Forest (which also happens to be an indie game, go figure).  There are no enemies to kill, or even any weapons for that matter.  There is no real "action", but it still manages to be exciting.  It isn't a graphical powerhouse.  And you have to do a bit of work (reading, oh no!) to understand the story.  All of those things are what make it so great, though.  Lifeless Planet is a game all about exploring an alien planet.  Pure.  Simple.  Nearly perfectly executed.  The $20 asking price may be a tad much, but Lifeless Planet is one of the most memorable and thought provoking games around, which makes it well worth it.    

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