Lifeless Planet isn't a particularly good game, and yet I felt compelled to play through it. Maybe it was because I'd just finished reading The Martian and liked the idea of exploring an alien planet - completely alone, cut off from everyone and seemingly with no way to get home. Whatever the reason, despite being an extremely basic adventure game with platforming elements, the odd simple puzzle, and visuals that could have been lifted out of the late 1990s, there's something about Lifeless Planet that's intriguing.
After a brief intro sequence, in which you crash a landing pod onto an alien planet, you're left to get on with things. You play a US astronaut who volunteers to go on the mission as he has nothing to lose at home. What follows is a third-person adventure across a series of open but desolate environments as you attempt to figure out what happened on this strange planet, and if there is any way to get back home.
It's rather a plodding adventure, wandering from one area of interest to the next, finding messages left by cosmonauts who had established some kind of settlement before things went horribly wrong. The game does a fairly good job of directing you (although at times it makes use of a crude marker system that is explained loosely by the plot) but occasionally the correct path is far from obvious, asking you to go around objects that sit perilously close to a cliff edge or down a hill that was blending into to the inaccessible terrain beside it. These moments shatter the sense that the world here was lived in, suggesting instead that these paths had been designed to be awkward for the sake of it.
Your only tool to assist you on your travels is a jetpack, upgraded to allow more than one boost per jump at arbitrary points when it's necessary. Most of the time it's a device that acts as a way to cross slightly larger gaps than possible with a single jump, whereas the much more useful enhanced boost lets you cover big distances with multiple jet pack blasts as you fly through the air. Combined with some fairly small surfaces to land on, this boost-centric platforming can cause the odd problem but it's mostly rather simple, with only one sequence in a lava-based area causing anything approaching a headache.
There's some mild puzzle solving to do along the course of a fairly short-lived adventure, and it really is basic stuff. Frequently you'll have to use an electronic arm to pick up alien power cells and place them inside generators, use the extending arm again to press some buttons in the correct order, or simply just use your astronaut to push blocks around. Occasionally things will get really exciting and you'll start to run out of oxygen, causing a panic for all of three seconds before you realise a top-up is metres from your location.
It's rare to play a game with a sci-fi setting like this without having to contend with aliens, each desperate to put some kind of high-tech laser bullet into you for daring to move. The threat in Lifeless Planet is predominantly plant-based, with your movement triggering spears to violently burst out of the ground, potentially impaling you and causing immediate death, or smaller branches grabbing your feet and pulling you under - again causing instant death.
For a game built around the idea of exploration of a foreign environment the fact that the visuals are so primitive severely restricts the impact the vast landscapes make. Considering the simple geometry and terrible character models it's amazing the locations are as effective as they are, at times impressing artistically despite the shortcomings. Lifeless Planet was made on a small budget with a tiny team, but there's no denying that grander visuals would have taken a compelling game and made it considerably more enjoyable, otherworldly and immersive.
Lifeless Planet delivers a brief adventure just about worth taking, but it doesn't offer enough technically or say enough thematically, despite the odd flourish on both counts. It's an interesting game rather than a truly good one, but if you want something a little bit different it definitely delivers on that front.