Planet Diver is likely to receive frequent comparisons to Downwell, and while they're not unfounded – both feature downward-scrolling arcade presentations and substantial procedural generation – they may be unfair. Both games have more than enough differences to allow them to coexist. That said, with its kinetic pixel art, unorthodox gameplay, and ferocious pace, Planet Diver certainly feels like it belongs in the catalogues of Devolver Digital or Vlambeer, and the developers know it – the options menu even provides a “Vlambeer Shake” toggle. The game follows a spacefaring daredevil and her mechanical assistant Buddy as they use an advanced wingsuit to descend the massive chasms of various alien planets, making bets and whimsical decisions on the way to give the player goals to achieve. As gameplay-justifying premises go, it’s pretty blunt, but it’s difficult to argue with the exciting entertainment that results.
Admittedly, the game’s first impressions are poor. The cutscenes and interface are confusing jumbles of comic book panels and useless details, respectively, and the snarky dialogue between the diver and Buddy often feels forced. Additionally, when a level starts, the need to press the arrow keys repeatedly to shift across multiple “lanes”, rather than holding them to do so, initially makes the controls feel unusually unresponsive. However, while most games start out novel and slowly deflate their entertainment value as repetition sets in, Planet Diver gets better with time. In some cases, this is by design (the last planet, for example, includes a trippy section with several unique features and obstacles), while in others, it’s simply a by-product of recognizing and exploiting the game’s nuances.
Chief among these is a balance issue that, once resolved, makes the game vastly more enjoyable. In an effort to play up the protagonist’s daredevil identity, accumulated currency (“star stuff”) increases in value when collected at higher speeds. The issue is that each level’s goals are almost always impossible to achieve at top speed, but pay out large star stuff bonuses anyway. Ignoring the speed multiplier altogether is thus the obvious course of action, and though that’s not a perfect solution, discouraging players from constantly asking, “Am I going fast enough?” allows them to focus on the more diverse and interesting objectives. These range from hugging walls for extended periods of time to luring enemies into hostile territory, and although some of them repeat, they only do so in new environments with different challenges, ensuring that no mechanic overstays its welcome.
Besides, the gameplay is ludicrously fast even when acceleration is not a conscious decision of the player. Apart from swerving left and right, the only controls available are dashing and braking. The former causes a continuous speed boost (at least until the next brake or damage incursion), but is also the primary method of attack, making it absolutely necessary, even in cramped conditions. Braking obviously drops the pace, but since it’s simultaneously a dodge maneuver, quick reaction time is still required for it to be effective. While “controlling a fast thing is inherently fun” isn’t the most ground-breaking revelation a game has ever had, Planet Diver supplements its high-speed foundation with an impressive variety of obstacles and surprisingly enjoyable boss fights.
Additionally, there’s a decent amount of depth to be uncovered by purchasing mods for Buddy between levels. Without any statistics to alter (e.g. attack or defence), most of these offer tangible differences to how the game is played, such as a permanent dash attack that can’t be braked, or a laser weapon that prevents lateral movement while firing. These alterations prove invaluable, and not just because they add some multiplicity to the experience; as the challenges of each level escalate, careful mod selection often becomes the only path to success, and choosing well feels oddly fulfilling, akin to correctly targeting an RPG enemy’s elemental weakness. Different wingsuits can also be purchased, but as these are entirely cosmetic, they feel like a missed opportunity for additional depth more than anything.
The rest of the game is a broadly positive experience slightly marred by small issues. The heavy use of procedural generation, for instance, reliably weaves together functional, distinct versions of each level 95% of the time, but whether your goals will be attainable on the remaining 5% is a total crapshoot. Furthermore, ruinous bugs occasionally rear their heads, but only in specific circumstances involving the superfluous Arcade Mode. The aesthetics embody this quality ratio as well; the visuals can be indistinct at times, but they’re always flashy and eye-catching. Similarly, the sounds of connected attacks and collected items are immensely satisfying, but animal cries are unbearably annoying. The most consistent aspect is the soundtrack, which features a collection of lively swing melodies expertly designed to implant themselves in the human brain while perfectly complementing the action and somehow never sounding repetitive.
Planet Diver is an unexpectedly ambitious title. A lesser developer would have been content with the simple concept of dodging rocks while hurtling along at nearly unmanageable speeds, but the team at Fabraz have expanded from that baseline admirably. By incorporating extensive procedural generation, a lengthy string of original content, and a bombastic presentation, they’ve created something engaging on more than just the instinctive level of “speed = fun”. It is by no means the best possible implementation of these mechanics – it’s unbalanced and a little sloppy – but once its complexities are penetrated, it’s a great way to spend a few days’ time.