When I first saw the trailer for Lifeless Planet, I found its initial premise very intriguing. It put me in mind of seventies science fiction movies, especially the idea of travelling to a distant planet only to find evidence of human culture. Its minimalist approach also seemed a positive factor, as I tire of games with an excess of controls. So, I placed the title on my wishlist and waited for a suitable sale. It appeared recently as part of a bundle, so I ended up buying it for £4.12 which is ridiculously cheap. Now many of the reviews that I have read seem to be upset by the lack of game play within Lifeless Planet. It is fair to say that navigating the world and solving the puzzles certainly does take second place to the narrative. In fact, it may be better to classify Lifeless Planet as an interactive story. However, I am more than happy with this approach and do not feel that every title should be an arduous struggle of skill and twitch gaming. Things do get a little more taxing as you progress through the levels and advance through the story.
The game follows an Astrobiologist on a trip to a remote planet that is supposed to be rich with life. After a fifteen-year journey the ship unexpectedly crashes on the planet surface. Our protagonist awakes to find his crew missing and the new world a wasteland. As he journeys through the wilderness he finds traces of a Soviet Colony that appears to have been deserted decades ago. Is it all part of some sort of psychological test or has he sustained a head injury? Furthermore, is he alone on the planet or is the elusive female he keeps glimpsing, more than just a hallucination?
Beyond running, jumping and navigating environmental hazards, Lifeless Planet asks very little from the player. Occasionally there are puzzles to solve but they are far from taxing. Obstructions mean that explosives are often nearby. Power cores for the alien generators are never too hard to find. Jumping in the low gravity requires some judgement but is quickly learned. From time to time your jet pack gets a minor boost but it is somewhat perfunctory. As is using the robot arm, which turns up midway through the game. The controls can be a little sluggish at times but rather than this be a deal breaker, I just consider it part of the ambience. Your avatar is after all wearing a cumbersome space suit.
The main selling point of this game is the story, ambience, soundtrack and vistas. Lifeless Planet is more interested in playing with your emotions than taxing your gaming skills. There is no combat, dismemberment or overpowered melee skills. Just a atmospheric tale that slowly builds the intrigue over time. The minimalist dialogue, mainly from flash backs and computer log entries are strangely melancholic. The game's use of music is sparing and often arrives to bolster the drama. However, it does not telegraph or mitigate the plot. The environment itself is also a major character. Although the right path is often easy to find, players are constantly drawn away by an urge to explore.
Lifeless Planet provides five or so hours of entertainment if you take a leisurely approach. The story is enjoyable and despite having a somewhat obvious message, it is earnest and relevant. This is a game to be experienced, rather than franticly "played" through. It oozes atmosphere and is satisfactorily different from standard indie fodder. If you are only interested in the traditional definition of a game, then it may well not be for you. For those that like the science fiction genre and strong narratives that make you think, then Lifeless Planet may well prove to be a very entertaining experience.