Without dialogue, text or any form of heads-up display, Planet Alpha is not your usual platforming game.
A 2.5D adventure that sees you cast on a mysterious – and dangerous – planet, Planet Alpha doesn’t hand anything to you. There are no pop-up tooltips, no story exposition; you’re alone in a strange environment, and it’s up to you to figure out what the hell’s going on. For the most part, that’s pretty straightforward – keep moving forward, climbing and jumping along the way. But there are times where Planet Alpha’s obscurity can be a bit of an obstacle. Thankfully, wrapped up in a strikingly beautiful package, the good far outweighs the bad in this unique platformer-puzzler.
The game opens with you, an unknown character, presumably a space explorer, slowly limping across a vast, sandy landscape. Falling down a ravine, you find a strange object to interact with, and you’re soon back to full health. Able to run and jump, exploring the landscapes ahead of you is now an easy and pleasant task. The first level of Planet Alpha eases you in gently; without much threat, it allows you to get used to the game’s mechanics and introduces you to a few puzzles. What you’ll be most enamoured with, though, are the game’s visuals.
Planet Alpha is, at times, absolutely breathtaking. The world you find yourself in is alive with flora and fauna; beautiful, fantastical creatures mind their own business in the background. It’s colourful, vibrant and incredibly varied. Every screen of the game feels like a work of art. There’s a strong emphasis on light and dark – in fact, the game’s main conceit is your ability to fast-forward time to cycle between night and day. And with levels alternating between bright, outdoors environments, and dim, cave-like areas, you’ll find yourself constantly changing between the two. From platforms high in the clouds, bathed in blissful blue skies, to rocky pathways underneath an overgrown forest of plant life; every area that Planet Alpha throws at you is simply gorgeous.
But the want to stand still and just take it all in is, at times, at odds with this planet’s perilous nature. The serenity of the opening section doesn’t last long, and soon, the game reveals its true self to you. Planet Alpha is out to kill you. And without a weapon or any means to defend yourself, your only options are, for the most part, to run or hide.
Planet Alpha is out to kill you
Whether it’s hostile robots trying to shoot you with their laser guns, giant dinosaur-like creatures mindlessly crushing you with their monstrous feet, or flying bugs hell-bent on tasting your blood, there’s danger every step of the way. Your lack of any means to attack is frustrating at first, but you’ll soon adjust to it when Planet Alpha’s extremely clever level design begins to show its head. Sometimes you’ll need to use stealth, hiding in tall grass, waiting for an opportunity to run past, unseen. Other times you’ll need to use the environment to your advantage, and it’s here that Planet Alpha’s gameplay really shines.
Perhaps you’ll lure a robot towards you, only to see him get squashed by a hulking beast that crosses its path. Or maybe you’ll turn the planet’s natives on each other, forcing a creature into the path of a malfunctioning robot. However you do it, outsmarting the inhabitants of your new environment feels incredibly rewarding.
Rewarding, too, is solving the game’s puzzles – although these are a little too far and few between. Your ability to cycle day and night is used fairly frequently – it’s key to solving a couple of puzzles, and you’ll also need to utilise it to manipulate Planet Alpha’s flora. Plants that shrivel up at night become vast platforms for you to jump onto when basked in sunlight; and plain-looking leaves in the daytime are transformed into glowing flowers that mysteriously imbue you with a boost of speed under the cover of night.
Still, as interesting and well-implemented as the day/night mechanic is at times, it ends up feeling underutilised. Some levels of the game barely use it at all, and darker areas – set inside caves or industrial structures – are devoid of night and day altogether. It’s a shame the skill isn’t more evenly used – but at the very least, it’s fun to watch the landscape change in front of your eyes at your will.
It’s those indoor areas devoid of daylight that posed the biggest irritation of Planet Alpha. With no signposting or narrative direction, it’s entirely up to you to figure out where to go. It’s usually pretty easy to see, but in the dark of a cave, a far-off platform you need to jump to isn’t always clearly visible. I died several times by falling into a void just because I couldn’t see where I was supposed to go. But with a very generous checkpoint system, you never lose too much progress. Just expect quite a lot of trial and error before you get the desired outcome in some areas of the game.
For fleeting moments, Planet Alpha ran the risk of outstaying its welcome. There were times when areas felt too familiar, and sneaking past enemies got a little repetitive. It also felt a little unforgiving at times; with creatures a little too hostile, and areas a little too obtuse to navigate. But the moment a new scene unfolded before me, and I had to stop in awe to take a screenshot, all was forgiven. Absolutely, Planet Alpha puts style over substance, but that doesn’t mean what’s there isn’t worth experiencing. It doesn’t have the best platforming you’ve ever experienced. Nor does it have the best puzzles. But what’s perfectly adequate, when coupled with those visuals, ends up being something quite special.