A failed mission to an alien world is standard stuff for games, but the Lifeless Planet twist—the discovery of an old, abandoned Soviet outpost on that world—is a good one. What happened to this planet that was thought to be so full of life when your mission began 15 years ago? Is this really a Soviet base, or is it some bizarre alien scheme of unknown purpose? And who is this woman—if she is a woman—dogging your steps? So many questions, so much mystery. And so much disappointment when the big secret proves to be far less intriguing or imaginative than I expected.
It looks like a platformer, but Lifeless Planet is really more of a 'walking around simulator' as they've come to be known, like Dear Esther or The Stanley Parable. There's some jumping here and there, but it's simple stuff and relatively rare. I fell to my death most often because of clumsy controls, rather than any designed difficulty.
I played Lifeless Planet with a mouse and keyboard instead of a controller, which some may blame for my lack of agility, but my astronaut stand-in was simply not very nimble. That's to be expected from a guy in a space suit, but the inability of a man wearing a jetpack to change direction in mid-leap really doesn't ring true. That awkwardness extends to the robotic arm I picked up fairly early on, a device required to interact with alien power generators and locks. It's difficult to use with any precision because it doesn't move as it should: the "E" key to extend it seems to simply move it upwards instead.
The presence of the arm at all feels forced, and it's not alone in that regard. Tanks of jetpack fuel that allow me to jump much further and higher than normal in some areas very suddenly run out once those areas are cleared, and when I needed to clear out blocked passages, there was always dynamite lying conveniently nearby. So much of the game feels nakedly arbitrary and disjointed. It's beautiful in places, peppered with stunning alien vistas and appropriately haunting music, but levels often change without any kind of transition: I'm in one place, and then suddenly I'm in a brand-new environment, with no clear idea of how it happened.
Lifeless Planet's real problem is that it drags on far longer than it should, with no real reward for persevering through it. I wished it was over well before it actually was, even though I knew the plot hadn't advanced nearly far enough to provide a satisfying conclusion. And that was precisely the outcome: All the promise embodied in the image of a near-future astronaut coming over a ridge to discover a Soviet textbook half-buried in the sand of an alien world goes largely unfulfilled, and while the story does move through the requisite steps from beginning to end, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense.
Lifeless Planet fumbles toward profundity, with big ideas about the nature of life, the universe and everything that it just can't quite put its finger on. The story itself is less interesting than it initially appears, but the delivery is problematic as well. Snippets of a pre-launch interview with the lead character, some of which you can hear in pre-release promotional trailers, are delivered at a very uneven pace, with gaps of multiple levels between them that leave them feeling out of place and almost entirely pointless. Audio logs scattered throughout the game world similarly explain what's going on, but not why, and some very basic questions that come up over the course of the story go completely unanswered.
It's frustrating, because for all its problems, I felt an honest sense of excitement exploring the crumbling Soviet outpost, and the things-I-won't-name-to-avoid-spoilers were wonderfully strange and even creepy. And there are places where the sweeping landscapes and subtle orchestral soundtrack come together so perfectly that I just had to stand and stare for a moment.
From the moment I first read about its 2011 Kickstarter until the last of the credits rolled off my screen, I wanted to be able to be able to embrace Lifeless Planet and shout from the rooftops that this it lives up to, and yes, even exceeds all the great potential it showed prior to release. Regretfully, I cannot. It begins brilliantly, but by the end it's become an overlong slog. The platforming and puzzle-solving is simplistic, there's far too much pointless walking around, and most disappointing of all, its promising story stumbles to an incomplete and almost incoherent conclusion.
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