**SPOILER ALERT: Certain storytelling elements and moments are used for interpretation and critique here. If you are interested in Planet Alpha, be wary.**
Party time, baby! Team17 have rolled up with their 100th game!
Ahh, what can be said about about the UK publisher and developer that hasn’t already been said? Since 1990, they’ve been pumping out quality game after quality game, with the likes of Alien Breed, Worms, and Superfrog, and that’s only the stuff they’ve developed. If you look at their publishing history, you see multitudes of gaming glory. Sheltered, Aven Colony, LA Cops, OlliOlli, Not a Hero, and here’s Planet Alpha to claim a piece of the plate.
This is a new 2-D side-scrolling “arty” platformer from team, err… Planet Alpha Team? Right. Planet Alpha itself was an idea conceived by one Adrian Lazar during his time at IO Interactive, where he focused on the Hitman series. Well, you can’t say he missed an important boat, but nevertheless, he gathered his team of pals from Denmark to work on this game, and the result? Well, let’s go deeper.
You play as Elvis from Perfect Dark– I mean, Edgar from Area 51– No, it’s Lem from Planet 51– Damnit, it’s just your standard “Grey” alien, ok? They’re wearing an old-school astronaut outfit like it’s Black Ops 1, and he’s awoken on this weird planet. After frolicking around posies for a while, robots from a 50s film invade, as they always do, so now our Grey is on the run from all of the hostilities on this planet, all to find out what the bloody hell is going on.
Planet Alpha is a weird game to show, or even talk about. It’s not that it shows its full hand immediately, it’s rather the fact that the hand is shown to be a royal flush, before the team goes “WAIT!”, and pull five more cards. These new cards aren’t better though, but the team are not deterred by this, and would rather shuffle the flush and the losers hand together, in the vain hopes that they can make a better hand come out of them.
What this leads into is a tiny see-saw of quality and quantity, with first impressions making you believe you’re in for an experience that’s unlike anything else. When you boot it up, and the blindingly vibrant art style hits you, you start to wonder where to draw comparisons from. You’ve got a dash of LIMBO and Inside during moments of brevity, there’s a hint of Mirror’s Edge. The real answer? Oddworld: Abe’s Odyssey.
Well, not exactly, mind you, you’re not helping other species to escape or whatever, but the narrative elements, and the feel of gameplay point in that direction. Gameplay mainly revolves around platforming and stealth, with our little Grey here being more nimble than Abe in just about every way. There’s a lot of parkour going on, and it’s all set to an absolutely mesmerizing visual masterpiece.
Seriously, the first hour of this game? Unmatched visual perfection. Graphics are next to “A mechanic where you scratch your arse” in terms of what I find most important in my games, but some of the vistas in this game, as well as the visual set pieces are unbelievably beautiful. There’s a few scenes in this game where you observe the landscapes before you, and I literally dropped my jaw at the spectacle unravelling in front of me.
The environments are quite varied too. One minute, you’ll be running across Mirror’s Edge set in Greek times, the next you’ll be gallivanting through thickly-detailed forests and swamp-like caves. There’s a good mix to it all, and Planet Alpha does try its darnedest to make you not feel like there’s a visual strain over time, which is good, as this game is longer than the usual games of a similar calibre.
There’s a ton of set-pieces peppered throughout your side-scrolling journey, ranging from sombre to breath-taking. One moment in particular had me shook from its heart-breaking potential, causing me to put down the controller in awe of what had happened. Alas, I will not spoil said moment, but you will know what I mean, and it showcases fantastic pacing on Planet Alpha Team’s behalf, rightfully earning almost every one of these moments.
If there’s one area where the visual and environmental design fails the game however, it’s the cavern sections, which are a pisstake-shade of black. It’s here where some story highlights are showcased as well, which is sometimes tough to figure out. I can’t tell whether that’s a giant bug trying to fight against the robots from Robots, or if it’s John Goodman trying to kill Roxanne… give me some figurative and literal light on the scenario.
Planet Alpha is different from predecessors of the same genre it’s rooting in, with a hearty mish-mash of parkour platforming, boss fights, platforming puzzles, and boss fight platforming puzzles. Some people might say that the game is putting too much eggs in one basket, and in some of those cases, you’d be right, although it’s rare that you’ll be flustered with what you have to do.
Part of the rare problems come down to visual storytelling lacking certain clarities. The narrative and gameplay tie together in this complaint, as since there are no words spoken, or rather “referenced imagery” that you can apply to the real world, it’s a bit annoying trying to figure it out. It can still be a hectic battles of wits, as our Grey here makes up for his lack of combat expertise with superior intellect, like a Rick & Morty fan arguing with stoners, but the difficulty can be iffy sometimes.
A small theory I have with me right now is that the team behind Planet Alpha, Planet Alpha, were possibly aware of certain tags that may have been thrown at the game if they made it pure visual storytelling. “Pretentious Wankery” “Obnoxious Walking Simulator”, stuff like that, and with this knowledge in mind, they set out to make it more differentiable from the other fodder, by adding some fairly brutal challenges.
I won’t say that they failed outright, but there are certain sections in gameplay where you might feel like this was a cobbled-together part of the game, that wasn’t part of the original vision. Certain stealth parts and timing puzzles get absolutely buggered by the camera angles, and it’s frustrating trying to figure the exact nanometre of space you’re supposed to occupy.
Stealth is what fails this game the most. In Oddworld or INSIDE, there’s a clairvoyance to it all, and showcased ways you can dispose of hazards, or escape the danger. Here though, it’s a coin toss as to whether you’re going to be able to walk through this section scot-free, or if you’re going to get blasted by ray guns because you didn’t notice the puzzle materials just off-camera.
Nevertheless, gameplay does stay varied. The Gimmick of The Day involves you rotating the planet whichever way you want in order to move obstacles, add terrain to the environment, or figure out match-the-shape puzzles. There’s a surprising amount of usage coming out of it, with all of it feeling fresh, exciting, tense, and other words that can’t describe my day-to-day life.
The level design is also surprisingly more open than the usual affair. Some of the paths in this world can be sprawling, with a bunch of small tidbits available for you to find. Storytelling and visual cues, clues that help you with what you’re trying to figure out, the devs do attempt to give the explorers a neat reward for their searching, and the payoff is frequently worth it.
If there’s one thing that might split people on the strength of it, it’s the previously mentioned visual storytelling. It’s easy to make an interpretation out of it, but with that comes a minefield of arguments like “Well, if that’s the case, then why did X happen?”, or “Well how did Y do Z with X then?”. The one interpretation that seems concrete in what Planet Alpha were trying to convey with Planet Alpha, is advocacy for stronger environmentalist laws.
I mean, it’s a pretty concrete theory! Think about it, we’re the mean ol’ fat robots, coming to this planet to wreck everyone’s shit, destructive, malevolent and unforgiving, while the species just want to live. Meanwhile, there are a few people in the background, attempting to make the world a better place by simply trying. Aye, it’s stupid, but hey, with a story like this, there’s not a lot you can go on.
That being said, it’s understandable if you find the narrative frustrating, or even hard to follow. Planet Alpha is a fairly slow burn throughout its six-to-eight hour runtime, and I would agree if you find the payoffs not worth the hassle. Due to the visual variety of the world, there are multiple moments where you’ll think “Ah, good, I’m near the end now” before you’re thrown into another whirlwind of war.
Truth be told, there is a lot of frustration and anger that lies within the gameplay and story of Planet Alpha. Multiple moments were had where I rage-quit the game due to me not figuring the exact microsecond of the puzzle being executed, and the frequently-unforgiving checkpoints held me back for another ten minutes. Stick through it however, and you’ll be ravelled in a world of beauty, horror, despair, and wonder.
Planet Alpha looks like an bog-standard 2-D arty platformer, but it does more to differentiate from the crowd, and it might just be the best thing to happen to the genre since Inside. That might not sound like much, but think of what this game has over other games in the same vein. It’s Shape of The World with gameplay. It’s Planet of The Eyes with a bigger budget, it’s Black The Fall without being so in-your-face, it’s all these things and more, and the risks and results garnered from this title were a solid victory.
In the end, this game is a visual masterpiece of almost unequalled proportion, with the only fumbles being visible in gameplay. You’ve got a game worthy of the price tag that usually puts some people off in this type of game, you’ve got some involving gameplay that makes uncommon fumbles, and a narrative that’s easier to understand than the usual slew.
Congratulations to Planet Alpha Team for their five years of hard work, and here’s to the future of Team17. 100 games and hopefully many more.
This review of Planet Alpha is based on the Xbox One version of the game.
It's Captain Planet meets Inside. You can't go wrong with a combination like that, surely.
Owner of the largest collection of indie games in the Western Hemisphere, and TimeSplitters’ biggest fanboy.