Planet Alpha has been chosen by Team17 as their 100th release. It will take less than five minutes into the game to see they chose well, but it may take a titchy bit longer – perhaps the whole game – to realise they picked an absolute stunner with a subtle hidden depth that may pass less observant players by.
The game begins on an alien planet. You are a passive humanoid alien with a clear bubble helmet, no weapons and the ability to change day to night and night to day. It becomes quickly apparent that you are not the planet’s only visitor. An evil robot race is rapidly invading, landing their rocket ships and deploying laser-wielding robots, tripods and giant floating death traps. All this metal beep-beep boop-boop shzzzzzz is a stark contrast to the natural beauty and serenity of the planet. If Lost in Space and No Man’s Sky had a 2D lovechild it would be Planet Alpha. B-movie robots hide in the long grasses while sky whales, huge alien dinosaurs and insects big enough to fill the whole screen do their own thing while you jump and climb by.
The graphics are stunning, and you can see some of that in the screenshots here, but there’s also an ambience that pictures can’t possibly show. While you’re dodging lasers, figuring out environmental puzzles and toppling off ledges, the planet feels alive. The foliage moves in the breeze and the creatures go about their day. As the game progresses the planet’s wildlife comes into conflict with the invaders. Sometimes this will be in the background as you play and sometimes it will be a direct result of something you’ve done. Those beautiful creatures can be your allies if you figure out how, but when you see them die at the hands of the robots it feels desperately sad and sometimes desperately devastating.
Planet Alpha is at heart a platformer. Your main task is to traverse the environments, jumping, sliding, pushing blocks, climbing, hiding, creeping and generally trying to outwit the robot scum. The game is beautifully paced, at times feeling unhurried and tranquil, but at other times tension and anxiety take over and shatter the serenity. It’s a lovely contrast that fits the game’s core atmosphere so well. The platforming mechanics are generally very good and support the game’s faster and more critical moments. Your character isn’t a superhero and he has his limits so finding the way the game wants you to play is key. If you can’t quite reach that ledge it’s because either you’re not meant to or you’re meant to approach in a different way. Timing is very important at times, especially when you find the areas of low gravity. Your skinny alien man will feel like he’s flying and there’s no better feeling when you launch yourself from a moving slab and soar across several screens.
Also helping you to progress is your ability to switch between day and night. It’s beautiful to watch how everything changes as the stars come out or the sun rises. The wildlife and in particular the plant life will often react and change according to the time of day. This may provide you with cover for a stealthy approach, a way to distract deadly insects or produce a platform to cross over. The day and night cycle is often critical in defeating some of the bigger robots.
Because I’m completely useless I forgot to time how long the game took to complete. I’ll shrug and say six hours but honestly it could have been more because I did stop to take a thousand screenshots like a demented tourist in Kew Gardens with a brand new camera. However, even though I got to the end and the credits rolled I was left with a sick and unhappy feeling that I’d failed. Something wasn’t right. The planet holds a mystery and I believe it’s connected to the artefacts. I finished the game with two out of the four, and considering the little hints the game drops all the way through (I won’t spoilt) and what happens at the end (still not going to spoil) it’s made me suspect that all four artefacts need to be collected. Hey I could be wrong, but I love this game enough to use the chapter select to help me hunt down the remaining two and test the theory.
Planet Alpha is as mysterious as it is beautiful. It’s a solid platformer with stunning environments and a subtle story that’s hidden amongst the game’s cryptic discoveries. Beautiful.
S J Hollis Rating – 8/10
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