September 07, 2018

Planet Alpha - Review

Coming out of E3, Planet Alpha was one of the games that had my interest, so the question is, does the full and finished product live up to the expectations that were set.

Planet Alpha sees you take control of a nameless guy, for ease of writing, I shall call him bob, who wakes upon an alien planet, injured and unsure of what to do. That is it, the entire setup is contained in a single sentence, but as you start to look for shelter, things start to get weird and that is good. After falling into a strange whole, Bob keeps pushing forward across open desert and eventually passes out near the mouth of a cave, but soon Bob awakes in said cave, with no idea how he got there. As you are close to the caves entrance, you might notice a human looking shaped blob in the distance, but it is unknown who helps you, all you can do when you wake is keep pushing forward.

Pretty soon, you come across a room filled with some glyphs, which light up when you stand upon a pedestal, the game gives you one of only a few prompts there, it tells you to push the triggers, which in turn begin to rotate the planet, letting you swap from day to night and vice versa. As you do, the constellations in the night sky line up with some etchings on an obelisk, match that and you trigger a giant hologram of the planet, with some markers to indicate your destinations and then its off you go. But doing this calls in a robot invasion force, which apart from landing everywhere, seems to be pretty quiet about their progress, until that is, they spot you and then you are in trouble.

Planet Alpha’s biggest strength is that the game never holds your hand, it never shows you the way, does not speak to you, outside of a few control instructions, it just lets you be. When you enter a new location, you have to learn what all the things do, how plants work for hiding, what the objects look like that you can drag around and more, the onus is on the player and for the first time in a long I felt joy in being left to my own devices. When you discover new forms of robots, you will need to wait and see how they act, before you push onwards, if you move to fast, you are likely to just cause yourself a problem, which will result in your death.

There are a few times when the game will warp you into a dark space, where physics tend to be a little looser than out on the surface, these locations are also not explained in anyway, why you are there, what you do, or even a general sense of where to go.  While the lack of direction and hand holding was something I loved, the lack of context was something I hated, by the end of the game, you know nothing about what was going on, no translation of runes, no journals to read, not a single scrap of information. The fact the game lets you start over and experience the exact same opening as before, including the developer names on the screen, means that your journey is pretty much for naught.

While the story, of what there is, meaning nothing by the end, worse is that the gameplay itself is flawed, yes, I know, the lack of instructions and pure exploration is perfect, but it is in doing that that things fall apart. Bob is stuck to a fixed plain, meaning that you can only move left to right, you can jump and crouch, but that is it, enemies however are allowed to move around freely, in their spaces they inhabit, so if you get seen by an enemy, hiding and not moving from that spot, means you will get spotted more than likely and then die. Enemies that fly, will be able to get to you much quicker as well and Bob for all his planet rotating powers, has no defence, no attacks, nothing at all, so again, you will likely die.

The other gameplay flaw is that you spend a lot of time in the dark, not story wise, though that too, but the literal dark, which resulted in a lot deaths for my Bob and frustrations for me. Playing the game on Switch, in both docked and handheld proved to make little difference, as the game is just too dark at times to play, I even went hunting in the options menu for a way to make the game brighter, but no luck. The problem with the game being dark, is there a fair number of times when you are being chased by big bad things, only to have no idea what is happening, which results in your death, more often than not. Finally, there is something included that I hate, for a lot of the game, you are chased around by a giant robot and if he sees you, he blasts you and you die, except in the final sequence of the game, he chases you and misses each and every time, because the game needs it to be that way, while not game breaking, just a pet peeve of mine.

One aspect that I really liked across the board was the games presentation, from the rich and colourful visuals, to the soothing and sometimes alien sounds, combined it was something new, which today is a rare thing. Most of the look of the game is geometric shapes, which combine to craft pretty spectacular landmasses and because of the alien nature of the planet, there are large items that open and close, but look like giant shells. The creatures also benefit from a little alien inspiration, but while they look cool, there are only a few designs, most of the time you see them in the distance and rarely interact with them, of course, not counting a particular moment.

The sounds are pretty good, with the score being one of the more impressive ones I have heard this year, at no point did I feel like I had to turn down the music portion of the audio. Bob never makes a noise, so all you hear are the sounds of the world around you, most of that is the biggest way that you learn about threats. The robots, for all their menace, sound just like you would expect, there is nothing really special there, but still, hearing that beep as you approach a new area, can still make you stop. The most interesting portion of the sound comes from the later section of the game, when you journey into the planets depths, the cavernous sounds, combined with alien creatures and lava all blend together, to be something truly unique.

Planet Alpha was a game that I was very much looking forward to playing and now that I have, I can say that I was let down. The idea of a foreign world that you explore, without being shown where to go, was incredible, but the fact that by the time you get to the end, you get no closure to anything, is a letdown that I can’t overlook. The wonderful visuals and audio design help to keep me playing, but it is not enough to recommend the game to other people.

Review copy provided by Team17

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