What must it be like to be marooned on an alien planet? My anxiety goes through the roof whenever I leave the bubble of my hometown so I don’t place a lot of faith on my ability to cope if I were stranded on some unknown world, thousands of light years away somewhere. In the case of the nameless space pilot in Planet Alpha, their bad luck is two fold: stuck on an foreign world that’s been invaded by a legion of Robbie the Robots. Recalling memories of Playdead's Limbo and Inside, Planet Alpha is a side-scrolling platformer/adventure game where you guide the poor astronaut along a linear path across the planet to escape, occasionally solving puzzles and avoiding detection along the way.
I want to start out with the good. From the very beginning, Planet Alpha dazzles with extraordinary alien landscapes and habitats, teeming with all kinds flora and fauna. This planetary excursion will take you through lush forests, dark and gloomy insecticide nests, long forgotten ruins, and even across floating islands hanging impossibly high in the sky. These habitats have a tendency to clutter the screen with different objects, such as giant leaves, thick clouds, massive tree trunks, toppled columns, which easily obscure your character’s placement. In any other game I would have a problem with this but everything in Planet Alpha is so damn pretty and vibrant and lush that I didn’t mind. What’s more, these objects behave dynamically depending on the time of day. There are points in the game where you have to solve puzzles by manipulating the planet’s transition from day to night (and those hours in between). Changing day to night not only affects platforms or plant life needed to advance but the background elements will react to the change as well, giving you the distinct impression that everything on this world is alive. This is best seen during moments where the game leads you to open areas where you can view the planet surface stretching across a stunning horizon. Majestic flying beasts soar and cut through the sky, towering plants and other biological elements sway against the bright, shining rays of the sun. It’s during these moments that witnessing the terror and violence wrought by the invading robots gives off a genuine emotional resonance as giant battle cruisers, drop ships, and War of the Worlds-like Tripod machines lay waste to this pristine and serene place. Without a doubt, Planet Alpha is drop dead gorgeous. It’s a shame, then, that the platforming gameplay doesn’t reach near that same level of quality.
The astronaut doesn’t speak, can’t fire a gun, or punch. All you end up doing is holding the analog stick to the right to move forward (never backwards), jump up and over obstacles like moss covered rubble and stone columns, and climb ivy-covered walls. The first half hour of the game is great: you run to the right, taking in all the sights and sounds of this strange place. Climb over ruins, hike up walls, push stones along the ground to help you reach inaccessible platforms, and when the robots arrive, sneak through tall grass to avoid their deadly laser bolts or steer them into various dangers. Once that initial feeling of wonder passed, however, I found myself increasingly annoyed with how startlingly repetitive the game is. A typical moment goes like this: walk for a while, climb a wall, walk for a while, solve a puzzle, walk for a while, climb over some ruins, walk for a while, sneak past a robot, walk for a while, side down cliff, die because you didn’t see a pitfall amongst the busy foreground, restart checkpoint, jump over pitfall, walk for a while and then pretty much do all that again until you reach the end of the game. Even though the astronaut moves at a nice pace, I grew to dislike those quieter moments in between puzzles and encounters because there’s nothing to do. If the entire game were a drawing, these areas would show up as wasted white space. Give me something to read, an alien to talk to or at least something to stop me from falling asleep.
In regards to Planet Alpha’s puzzle designs, they don’t require too much strain to solve. Hey, here’s a large gap, how are you going to cross it? Certain areas let you control the the time of day to trigger a puzzle by using the trigger buttons to shift from day to night (incidentally, this is another feather in the game’s already beautiful cap). Once the invasion intensifies, you’ll have to find ways to sneak past or lure robots away from the area while not getting shot at or vaporized. Unfortunately, these turn into frustrating trial and error situations that have you dying several times before figuring it out. I grew to hate the far too common situation of running into a hazard (there’s only one move speed, keep in mind) and die from it because it appeared without warning. I would also randomly die from laser blasts or by large, moveable pieces of the environment that I thought I was a safe distance from. Checkpoint respawns are merciful but these sudden, jerky ends are about as fun as running into a brick wall at full sprint.
Planet Alpha was a polarizing game for me. It’s probably one of the most gorgeous games to come out this year and there wasn’t one location on the planet that didn’t elicit some sort of awed verbal response. Furthermore, the lighting effects are quite dazzling, especially after you’re given free reigns to change the time of day instead of doing it from marked platforms. Sunlight peeks through forest canopies and shifting to night time allows certain plants and fungi glow brilliantly against the dark. Best of all, there’s no interface to get in the way. The platforming gameplay, however, leaves much, much more to be desired. The repetitiveness of the obstacles, the cheap deaths, the annoyance of later platforming sequences set in low gravity, frequent trial and error, and the time it takes to pass through elongated hallways that connect puzzle rooms and platform set pieces all contribute to making the whole thing a bit too tedious and empty for my liking. Now that I think about it, if Planet Alpha were an animated short, I think I’d like it a lot more because the visual storytelling is far more interesting than anything else.
Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.