On its barren surface, Lifeless Planet: Premiere Edition is a difficult game to quantify. Is it a sandbox exploration title? A walking simulator? A puzzle-platformer? A sci-fi adventure with a splash of horror? In truth, it’s an amalgamation of all these things, but it only ever dips its toes into these creative sources and ends up feeling shallow and undefined as a result.
Part of this is clearly a conscious decision on the part of indie developer David Board - the one-man outfit behind Stage 2 Studios - with a veil of mystery and the unknown permeating every corner of its alien world. It makes sense for the game to keep you guessing as to its true nature, but much like the story that ties its disparate parts together, that dissonance never really comes together and you’re left feeling rather unsure about what you just spent three-to-four hours playing.
But, for all its faults, there’s something rather compelling about it. Sure, it might look like something you’d find on a PC Gamer magazine demo disc from the early 2000s, but there are some vistas scattered throughout the game that are so captivating that we found ourselves stopping to marvel at them while exploring the barren alien wasteland around us. It’s indicative of Lifeless Planet’s entire ethos: a crude experience, but one with fleeting yet impactful moments of brilliance.
You’ll explore its story in the boots of an American astronaut who crashlands on said alien world. What was meant to be a lush and verdant new home reveals itself to be a dead wasteland seemingly devoid of life. With your remaining crew missing and potentially lost forever, it’s up to you to unravel the mysteries unfolding before you. And there are some intriguing, almost Lost-esque clues dotted around, very much like narrative breadcrumbs.
If this really is an extraterrestrial world, then why is there a human settlement here? Why are there records and flags suggesting this was the work of the Soviet Union? And where have all the men, women and children gone? Is it all just an elaborate hoax? These are the mysteries that Lifeless Planet lays before you in its first hour, and they make for an interesting way to draw you further into its world. The problem is that the world in question is such a largely uninspiring place to inhabit.
The game more than lives up to its name; the titular planet feels empty. And while it’s obvious the lack of detail is a necessary sacrifice in order to enable a single developer to create sandbox environments as open as these, it just seems a little redundant when you discover these ‘open’ areas are actually quite linear with only one true route from end to another. Even the interior environments you encounter look like something out of the fan-made Counter-Strike map community. It’s all just a little too low-fi.
However, it’s still quite fun to explore. There’s something paradoxically satisfying about running around an alien landscape, using the single boost of your jetpack to jump from one rocky outcrop to another. You occasionally get access to a souped-up version of your jetpack when traversing much larger areas - making for some of the game’s most enjoyable sections - but these more engaging platforming set-pieces are few and far between as you’re too often stipped back to your basic level of thrust. Sure, the controls are a little clunky and it’s way too easy to overshoot your jumps, but it’s still a memorable way to break up the long periods of hiking through another barren gulley.
There’s no combat to speak of, although there are dangers that we won’t spoil here, so expect to be caught out by the occasional jump scare. In fact, we’re impressed with how well the game builds a sense of growing foreboding. Rich Douglas’ score has multiple personalities, slipping from chilled-out resonance to a sinister crescendo, and it does a wonderful job of elevating the game in which it resides. It’s by far Lifeless Planet’s strongest addition.
While its crude looks and disparate gameplay elements can make for a spartan experience, there’s still something bizarrely compelling about Lifeless Planet: Premiere Edition. There’s nothing particularly remarkable about its occasional platforming and simple environmental puzzle solving - and its story never truly offers the payoff its mysteries set in place - but you’ll still enjoy the short time you spend with it. An ambitious little curio, even four years after its original release, but one that sets its sights a little too high for its own good.