Perhaps the stand out game I played at EGX Rezzed a few months ago was this surprising title from Team 17. The visuals caught my eye immediately as I made my way through the Xbox demo room and I patiently waited for my chance to try the demo and was taken back when a tap on the shoulder revealed I had unknowingly lost 30 minutes to playing the preview. It just grabbed me and I straight away entered into my phone’s calendar its release date with a simple reminder: Planet Alpha, BUY THIS GAME!
Planet Alpha marks the 100th game published by TEAM 17 which is a remarkable thing indeed. As someone who really cut their gaming teeth on the AMIGA, games from TEAM 17 became the foundation of why I fell in love with gaming so now in 2018 to see them still able to blow my mind and refresh that love of gaming says so much about them. Planet Alpha is so very much everything that I have come to expect and enjoy about TEAM 17 and the games they bring out. 25 Years and TEAM 17 still have that magic.
Planet Alpha is one of those very interesting games that simply allows the visuals and the gameplay to bring the player into its world but does so without any spoken dialogue or text on screen to provide any narrative to what or why things are happening to the player. It allows players to discover and react to the game world itself without any distractions or hand holding and things may not make any sense to begin with, the player will naturally start to pick things up and learn how they can interact with that world with little details that the more observant players will see.
The game starts off with the player discovering themselves on a strange alien planet, waking up in their spacesuit but without a space ship nor weapon. As you slowly take control of this astronaut it is clear that he is injured, slowly walking with a limp as you slowly move him off screen to the right. The first ten minutes are just moving this game in a prologue with the only text being the names of the developers appearing on screen as you slowly move through the screens, taking in the changing environments before the astronaut collapses near some caves that look as though they have been sculptured by some lifeform as they appear to look like human faces. Falling to the ground the last thing the player sees is the last cave suddenly filling with light.
Returning to the game and now the Astronaut has suddenly been healed and is able to run, jump and climb but still not text or spoken dialogue to explain anything, just the natural player instinct to go exploring and as you do the ever-changing environments come to life showing amazing wildlife in the background with some bird like creatures being disturbed by your movement. Planet Alpha is all about the player exploring the world before them to look for clues about where they are, why they are there and what happened to them and like a story, the further you progress the more the game opens up for you.
Visually this is just one beautiful and stunning treats for the eyes with bright vibrant colours and fantastical creatures and locations and complimented by an outstanding musical score which just wraps itself around the player’s senses. The developers clearly understood and wanted players to stop and take everything in around them as they added a wonderful little mechanic which is triggered whenever the player stops moving and the camera will start to pull itself back to reveal more of the world around the Astronaut before zooming back in the moment the player begins to move again. This will happen quite often as the player moves into an area filled with fantastical animals all doing their own thing and the instinct to just stop to take in all in will happen many times as you make your way through the game.
Gameplay wise this very much reminds me of titles such as Limbo, where all you can do is simply traverse through the world, making discoveries and solving the puzzles. There is a lot of trial and error involved as reacting to environmental moments such as platforms collapsing and timing your jumps to reach the next platform can sometimes catch you off guard when the pace of the action picks up resulting in a few cheap deaths before having to try again. The jumping here can be frustrating at times with an almost light than air feel to the jumping which makes precise jumps difficult as you may at times have to rely on the momentum of that section to carry you across such as sliding down a collapsing rock pile to give you the speed needed to make the distance to reach the next platform. Jump too soon and you won’t make it just as jumping too late will make you crash into the platform and die. This issue also happens further into the game as the environmental puzzles become more complicated with precise jumping the only way to navigate it so prepare to die quite a bit but thankfully the checkpoint system is rather kind.
Planet Alpha features no direct combat but this does not mean it lacks enemies who are only interested in killing you. The prologue introduces an evil robot species who crash land on the planet just as the players makes their first big discovery of advanced technology on the planet that appears to have been there for hundreds of years in the ruins of a civilisation now lost. These robots will shoot on sight forcing the player to enter the stealth mode which I found to be a little hit and miss. By crouching you can remain fairly unseen so hiding in the vegetation or behind rocks can block the direct line of sight of enemies however if they do see you either by patrolling and catching the player as they move or just the player making a mistake leading to them being shot. The environment can be used to hide behind but it can also be used to deal with enemy threats such as purposefully getting the attention of a robot guard so they investigate your position and should there be dangerous wildlife there, it may attack the robots and taking them out of your way. It can feel a little finicky to start with but after you do this a few times it becomes more instinctive but sometimes until you can see that solution, constantly being wiped out by enemies is a little disheartening at times.
Planet Alpha is a really wonderful indie title that does borrow mechanics from similar game however it does do its own thing. Mechanics such as the ability to control the day and night cycle of the planet to change the environment such as using it to make plants blossom so they can be used as platforms or places to hide. It can also be used on the alien technology as well to solve puzzles by changing the time on the planet to activate devices. What I will say is that the puzzles are never too taxing, and often just a case of either holding down the left or right trigger till the time of day is correct so can be very simple but this is really to keep the progress and movement through the game fluid and flowing.
I really enjoyed this game and what it offers in gameplay and visual treat which had me stopping just to take in the scenery whilst the almost ethereal musical score just washed over me. Though some sections could be frustrating when precise jumping was called on, the wonder of discovering surprises and secrets kept me hooked. It is very easy to become immersed in this world and the puzzles which never really become difficult, make it an interesting experience enough that when all the factors and elements come together make Planet Alpha a great must have indie title for your collection.