need to know
Price: $6 / £3.50
Release date: July 31, 2014
Link: Official site
I've criticized games for making me memorize every level. I rarely find it more fun than solving problems on the fly, or with premeditated strategy. There are a few special games, though, that loop past that criticism, wind through furious delirium, and land among my favorites. Super Meat Boy is one, Hotline Miami is another, and Lovely Planet now joins them. It's not quite of the same caliber, but it's fantastic.
Lovely Planet is first-person shooter—it's played from a first-person perspective, and you shoot things—but shares few traits with other modern shooters. It includes 80 levels (unless there are more I somehow haven't unlocked— ed. note: there were ), and they're all beaten in under a minute. Beating them, however, can take 10 or more tries—let's say, 100 or so more tries. The number of failed attempts isn't recorded, sadly, but I clocked about seven hours just getting to the final area.
Gotta go fast
Your 'gun' (a stick, really) fires an infinite supply of purple cubes that fly in slow, straight lines. Shooting accuracy is less important than I'd like—bullets don't retain your momentum and there are generous hitboxes around the stationary 'baddies'—but combined with its high-speed platforming, Lovely Planet is a brutal test of precision. There's only one way to survive its obstacle courses: restart over and over until you've memorized every flick of your wrist from the level start to the purple pole at the end. It's built for speedrunners who will exploit every bit of code to shave milliseconds off their runs, but just finishing a level is an accomplishment.
Here are a few reasons you might die or otherwise fail: You were hit by a projectile. You were hit by a homing projectile (you must shoot them out of the air). You jumped too soon. You jumped too late. You shot a neutral character. You didn't shoot a baddie (you must shoot all of them to complete a level). You shot and destroyed a platform you need to jump on. You let an apple touch the ground (they're fired into the air like skeet disks, and must be shot down). You touched a red blob on the ground. You turned left when you should have turned right.
The five areas gently introduce new concepts, then escalate to challenges I sometimes thought were mistakes. There is no damn way it is seriously asking me to hit a damn jump pad, spin around, shoot a damn apple, turn back, shoot the damn blob on the next platform, and nail the next damn jump. And then, through brute force repetition, I do it. I learn the first jump—using Lovely Planet's total air control to strafe and spin mid-leap—and then I can repeat it, and then I move on to the next problem.
Later, I'll bound across jump pads blasting three or four projectiles out of the air in milliseconds, feeling roughly like I've cracked the Matrix. The mechanics are all so simple that I can practically see the code as a homing cube closes in on me, languidly halving its distance, and then again until it smacks into my face. The enemies always behave the same and the physics never surprises me, and that predictability makes Lovely Planet solvable by bashing my head against it until conscious thought is replaced with pure eye-hand mastery.
Beating a level in that autonomic trance feels amazing, and I even enjoyed the cruelest stages, sore wrists and all. My glowing praise for Lovely Planet only dims for its presentation. I had few technical problems outside of occasional frame dropping in windowed mode, and that it refused to save my resolution setting, but I never fell in love with Lovely Planet's lovely planet.
I don't mind that it rejects newfangled things like 'lighting' and 'textures'—visual simplicity is an asset where precision jumping is required—and I don't mind how cheerful and cute it is. I've cried out for more Nintendo-style whimsy on PC in the past, but unlike a Nintendo game, there's no clever, coherent world building. Lovely Planet's areas are only differentiated by minor additions to the motif—the swamp is shrouded in fog, for instance—and they're weird, but forgettable. There's some attempt at narrative in mysteriously silent cutscenes, but I couldn't follow them. It's more abstract than 30 Flights of Loving, and not as appealing as its Katamari Damacy inspiration.
The sound design is another sore spot. The 'pshew pshews' of my bullets and lazy groans of dying baddies lack vitality, and the latter are sometimes so drowned out by the music that they're not useful indicators that my shot hit. Eventually, I turned off the music. Each area has a single looping theme song, and while the third area's chipper beat grew on me, the first's aggressively happy tune did not.
Lovely Planet's awkward keyboard-navigated menu is its worst quality, along with its limited and poor presentation of information. At the end of a level, sometimes I get stars. I don't know what the stars mean. Sometimes I set a WR, which I've determined stands for 'world record.' I'm glad my MLG pro skills are being recorded, but there's no name attached to record times and no leaderboard otherwise. I can't compare my times to my Steam friends', or see how I rank except against the one world record.
At least I know I'm the best—as long as you ignore that any records I set were in an early copy, against almost no other players. I'm sure they'll be crushed as soon as Lovely Planet releases, but I love how beating a level makes me feel like I've tapped into some impossible agility, like a seasoned t'ai chi master demonstrating his superhuman mind and body control.
Lovely Planet expects things of me that initially seem absurd. Then, by the end of a level, it's hard to remember why I thought any of it was hard in the first place. Its rapid repetition training can be grueling, but learning, succeeding, then mastering its trick jumps and perfect projectile slinging is heavenly.