When I first got my hands on a horizontal slice of Planet Alpha at EGX Rezzed 2017, I was suitably impressed. While it was still rather barebones, you could see the potential there for a truly excellent game. Now, a year later, with my grubby mits of the finished product, it’s clear to see this potential has been fulfilled and then some. It’s as tense as Playdead’s Limbo, as enjoyable as any game I’ve played this year and as visually arresting as a collage of Richard Clifton-Dey’s retro sci-fi book covers.
Planet Alpha puts you in the bubble topped space suit of an unnamed protagonist marooned on a strange alien planet. Much like Playdead’s Inside, this game is played entirely on one horizontal slice of the world. You can move left and right, jump and climb higher or lower but you can never get any deeper into the 3D environments than the path the game sets you on. That’s not to say that Planet Alpha is two-dimensional. It’s exactly the opposite in fact; the fore and backgrounds are deep and highly detailed to give the impression of moving through a vast alien world. The game begins with one of my own personal pet peeves – moving slowly to indicate an injury – but it’s just a short sequence before you’re off climbing, jumping and otherwise exploring the planet. It’s not long before the planet is set upon by a hostile force who’re determined to strip the planet of its resources and it’s up to you to partner with the flora, fauna and even the planet itself to survive and hopefully stop them.
The art style of Planet Alpha is very obviously inspired by c.1950’s sci-fi movies such as Battle in Outer Space or Forbidden Planet while implementing modern twists on those inspirations and combined, it’s simply spellbinding. There’s an insane amount of detail wherever you look on screen from the beautifully lush jungles that give those Pandoran forests from Avatar a run for their money to the deep, dark, crystal filled caverns below the surface. Planet Alpha is visually stunning in screenshots but it is compounded by the life that is poured into every inch of the game when in action. There’s a tonne of bizarre and colourful species’ that inhabit the world around you that react to you being there. Jump up to some branches and spiral shaped creatures will fly off. Walk along some cliffs and in the distance, you’ll see herds of dinosaur-esque beasts roaming the plains. The hostile alien forces that descend upon Planet Alpha look part way between the Martians from War of the Worlds and the Yokians in the Jimmy Neutron movie; a weird visual mix but one that presents a menacing foe. To put it bluntly, Planet Alpha is like a “best of” collection of the most appealing aesthetics’ in No Man’s Sky without any of the boring planets in-between.
In stark contrast to the visual complexities of Planet Alpha, the game play interaction is simplistic compared to modern day standards. You can run, jump, crouch (which, when in long grass or bushes, hides you from the enemy’s gaze), climb vines or ladders, push certain items around and interact with just a handful of objects. This is a really stripped back experience – no crafting, no dialogue, no weapons or traditional combat, no objective markers, no inventory, waypoints or hints on what to do next. Instead, everything that Planet Alpha does is based upon its environment and visuals clues on what to do next. What’s most impressive about Planet Alpha is how much ingenuity and innovation is carved out of so little gameplay interaction. The game is built entirely on moment to moment problem solving where you’re surveying the world around you to find a way to overcome the dangers ahead. Sometimes that’s as simple as observing the patrol route of an alien and timing your movements so that there’s always a piece of scenery between you and them. It might be using a moveable block to reach a ledge that’s just out of jumping range otherwise. On other occasions, the path forward is noticing that the way forward is too deadly and to find a way up or under the threats. What’s more, Planet Alpha does some really smart, convention breaking things (that I won’t spoil here because they’re “wow, that’s really cool” moments that are best experienced first-hand) and it only does them once. There’s no recycling of ideas here. It’s all killer, just as much filler (but when your filler is retina tickling sci-fi back drops complete with alien battles, who’s to complain?).
The only other way to interact with Planet Alpha is the games most defining feature – during parts of the game, you can control what time of day it is. A press of either the right or left trigger buttons rotates the planet to shift the time of day. Not only does this make for a striking visual change – the light changes in real time as does the hue of the world which cycles through a complementary palette – it changes the physical features of the world too. Some of the flora and fauna of Planet Alpha only appear during certain parts of the day. Some fungus which might retreat into a hole during the day forms a handy platform to cross large gaps at night. Similarly, some plants close up their leaves at night which make them a perfect obstacle to block the view of hostile aliens.
Every so often, Planet Alpha takes a break from the problem solving to push some good old fashioned platforming in your face, more often than not, while you’re being chased by something deadly. Thankfully, these moments of sheer tension just as enjoyable as the head-scratchers. There’s a lovely weight and heft to the platforming and leaps in Planet Alpha that give you that toe-curling “Will I make it?” feeling, despite that fact that the game is very generous with its checkpoints. This unease is often built up by a soundtrack which complements the game play astutely.
What I find most impressive about Planet Alpha is that it manages to tell an emotionally powerful tale without saying a single word. Between the moments of action and the pondering, the game often treats the player to a vista which is telling its own tale on how the hostile alien forces are destroying the planet and its inhabitants. There’s this pang of emotion each time you see a stunning creature get blasted by the mechanical aliens that drives you on. When the beasts of Planet Alpha get their revenge, sometimes with your help and often without it, they’re real fist pump moments that are surprisingly impactful for a game with no traditional narrative telling system. It’s the kind of story telling which allows the player to make their own assumptions too with optional platforming sections and landmarks to find which give you a little more of a glimpse in the mysteries the game holds.
My 6+ hours with Planet Alpha have been almost entirely pleasant but it would be remiss of me not to mention a few niggles. Firstly, there’s some significant frame rate stuttering during one particular section of the game when there’s a lot going on both during game play and off in the background. While this didn’t effect my own personal enjoyment of the game, I know there’s a few of you out there that find frame rates and pixel counts important so I need to mention it. Secondly, there’s a few moments when the game probably needed to sign post the correct direction to go in a little more clearly. For a game that’s almost entirely reliant on visual draws, this happened far less than I would expect and these few issues all happened within one particularly dark section of the game.
It’s appropriate that Planet Alpha is to be the 100th game published by Team17. Since the longtime Worms developers added publishing to their stable of talents, they’ve made a name for themselves by bringing high quality games that break from the accepted conventions to the market. Games like Yoku’s Island Express, Penarium, Overcooked 2 and Beyond Eyes, developed by small, passionate teams that do things a little differently. That mentality is encapsulated within Planet Alpha, a very high quality game primarily made by just 3 people, none of whom would describe themselves as a programmer. And it shows that Planet Alpha was made by artists because it’s jaw dropping at times, awe inspiring on occasion and is mystifying when it isn’t dropping jaws or inspiring awe. It’s one of my personal favourite games of the year, despite a few niggles, making a huge swathe of game out of very little in the way of traditional interactivity.
Planet Alpha is launching on the PS4 (reviewed on base PS4), Xbox One, PC and Nintendo Switch on the 4th of September, 2018.
Developers: Planet Alpha Game Studio
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we recieved a review code for the game from the publishers. Please see our review policy for more information.