There are so many games out there that wear their inspirations proudly, pinned to their breast like a badge of the highest honour. For some, it ends up showing just how lacking their imitation ultimately is (take Fall of Light: Darkest Edition’s love for Dark Souls, for instance), but for a select few that obvious love letter serves as a springboard for something enchanting in its own right. Planet Alpha falls so comfortably into the latter category it’s impossible to not be swept up in its 2.5D puzzle-platforming and vibrant extraterrestrial backdrop.
You can see the games that have left their impact on Planet Alpha’s Danish developer. The sense of wonder at exploring a foreign setting of Another World. The creative solutions to environmental puzzles of Abe’s Odyssey. The occasional need for stealth to evade a seemingly unstoppable antagonist, a la Inside. The tension and suspense of Pitfall. But none of these creative nods ever feel derivative because this is a game that takes familiar elements and weaves them into something fresh and exciting.
As a humanoid astronaut, you awake on a strange new planet filled with an ecosystem of alien beasts of all shapes and sizes. Giant colourful flowers bloom in the foreground while massive structures expand and glow as day passes into night, and back again. Ferns and bushes glitter with a beguiling effervescence as you pass by, with creatures of every colour scurrying in your wake. It’s a world you know almost nothing about - and one utterly devoid of dialogue or explanation - but you instantly want to keep exploring. The art style - which uses bold colours on low-poly models - works brilliantly thanks to a clever use of shadow, lighting and a camera that alternates smoothly between watching from a distance and swooping up close as you navigate through countless new places.
Giant dinosaur-like creatures lean into view from the background and butterfly-esque oddities pirouette to safety like otherworldly spinning tops. There are plenty of beasts native to this world that aren’t so friendly (including one giant beastie you’ll encounter deep in the planet’s depths), but it’s the ones that have arrived in your wake that are the biggest threat. You see, an army of B-movie-style robots have touched down and they’ll atomise you on sight as they attempt to take the planet by force. Without any normal means of fighting back, you’ll need to use the environment to sneak around them as they patrol both the foreground and background.
Planet Alpha's brand of platforming is relatively simple for the most part - you can grab ledges if you’re near enough, climb vines on the side of cliff faces and crouch to crawl through small gaps - but your intrepid avatar has enough of a floaty jump to ensure you can keep scaling obstacles while taking in every little detail the developer has crammed into the game's ten chapters. Momentum also plays an important part, with certain fauna that - when approached at the right time of day - will enable you to leap incredible distances. There’s also a handful of semi-hidden stages with a low gravity twist that require some serious platforming accuracy to navigate.
It’s a mostly linear experience, although every now and then it isn’t always that obvious where you need to go next - mainly due to the over-reliance on shadows and darkness at times, and the use of multiple elements in the foreground - leading to some frustratingly unnecessary deaths. You can also move objects marked with a diamond shape to make rudimentary ledges to reach higher platforms, but that’s where the familiar mechanics end.
Planet Alpha’s big ace up its vacuum-sealed sleeve is the ability to control the night and day cycle of this new and verdant realm. By holding ‘ZL’ and ‘ZR’ you can spin from morning to midday to evening to nightfall to sunrise, creating some of the most captivating vistas you can see on Switch right now. Being able to actively affect the time of day isn’t just some throwaway gimmick, either - it’s a fundamental part of how you interact and survive on Alpha Planet. From dynamic platforming formations to some subtle yet devilishly clever environmental puzzles, it helps elevate a platformer that would have just been memorable for its aesthetics and pace.
Cycling between different times of day will cause a flower to bloom in the light of the sun (ideal cover for sneaking) but retract at night. Some puzzles will require you to line up constellations or align floating planetary bodies to mimic a certain shape cleverly hinted at in the environment. And that’s just the surface. Sadly, those grander, more elaborate puzzles are a little too few and far between but your celestial manipulation still plays a huge role in the moment-to-moment gameplay, be it using scenery during stealth sections or creating rudimentary platforms when outrunning a giant foe at speed.
Planet Alpha looks gorgeous running on Switch, and it’s only when certain character models get too close to the screen or things are moving a little too fast that you start to the rasterised edges standing out a little more clearly - we noticed this far less in handheld mode, but the game holds up really well in docked mode, too. There’s the occasional moment of slowdown, but these instances were so rare they never impacted our time on Alpha Planet. We did experience little glitches here and there - such as our explorer getting stuck on a cliff face while climbing or stopping to assume the outstretched arms of the ‘bind pose’ - but these minor imperfections do little to detract from the impressive ambitions it manages to achieve.
It’s impossible to not be caught up in Planet Alpha’s charms. The product of one man and a small indie team from Denmark, it’s a game that runs remarkably smoothly considering the detail of its environments and the vibrancy of its art style. The platforming won’t blow you away - especially if you’ve become trained in the twitch arts of Hollow Knight and the like - but with some brilliant puzzles, a rewarding balance between endangered stealth and peaceful exploration and some of the most intense set-pieces we’ve ever played on Switch, Planet Alpha has secured a place as one of 2018’s most important indie releases.