The cinematic platformer is very much a dormant genre. The rise of 3D exploration and a rush towards procedurally generated worlds and roguelite or Metroidvania mechanics seemed to have consigned the narrative focused linear platformer to the history vaults. Planet Alpha is unashamedly a return to the 16-bit favourites of Another World or Flashback, whilst its bright and gorgeous aesthetic brings the genre bang up to date. After a recent diet of quality Metroidvanias, it was a pleasant change to sit down with a game that unashamedly pushed you ever forward with no need to remember shortcuts or complex routes back to small pockets of unexplored map.
Planet Alpha is a mysterious game. Very little is clearly explained and most storytelling is left to the environmental challenges to convey. You begin as a humanoid alien figure trudging slowly through an arid desert. The frustratingly pedestrian nature of your movement in this early stage forces you to look for meaning in the background and the slow walk lasts just long enough for you to wonder if something has gone wrong with the controls before your avatar collapses and is rescued by a shadowy figure.
Once you wake once more, you are left alone to run and jump your way through a large and varied world of bright colours and bizarre lifeforms. The lack of a clear motivation or backstory short of exploration itself leaves all the focus on the process of negotiating the beautiful world. In many ways Planet Alpha feels like a 2D take on the alien worlds of No Man’s Sky, and there are countless moments where you feel compelled to stop and take in the view. The glorious vistas are nicely contrasted with the scripted runner sections in which the game forces you to ignore the distractions of your surroundings in a rush to escape various threats.
The dangers in Planet Alpha range from rockfalls and predatory lifeforms to the main antagonists, an invading army of robotic colonisers that have a wonderfully retro-futuristic 1950s look. Determined to exterminate everything in their path with no real explanation, you are forced to flee and watch the verdant world burn around you. This battle between natural and mechanical forces gives the game an air of ecological criticism and metaphors for climate change and deforestation soon become powerful, but this all happens in the background and all you can do is watch it happen and run.
Your own engagement with the robot enemies takes the form of stealth or puzzle sections that require you to use the environment to your advantage, whether that be hiding behind movable rocks or tricking the robots into being crushed by giant beasts. I was impressed by how fresh a number of these environmental puzzles felt but an element of repetition crept in thanks to the limited interactions your character is capable of.
Aside from running and jumping you can drag various blocks and also manipulate the passage of time. Unlike the freedom of games such as the Prince of Persia, however, this timetravel ability is limited to particular areas marked by rune covered statues. Consequently, there is a definite feeling of setpiece to these puzzles, and as such they can break the immersion created by the more adrenaline-fuelled chase sequences.
Whilst the clearest standout aspect to Planet Alpha is the beauty of its backgrounds, this can become a negative in places. The stunning layered environments are a joy to look at, but there are too many times when the setting gets in the way of the platforming mechanics. Ledges are often indistinct or blocked by foreground details, and too many deaths come as a result of too busy a screen distracting you from the correct place to jump.
Fortunately, there is a generous checkpoint system in place so you only rarely have to repeat lengthy sections. This was particularly prevalent in the boss encounters and the surreal void levels in which hidden artefacts can be found. These latter sections have a radically different physics system with much reduced gravity effects. Adjusting to this change takes some time, but does allow for some interesting and enjoyable platforming puzzles where you must rely on momentum to make leaps that seem impossible at first glance.
Whilst an enjoyable and undoubtedly beautiful game, Planet Alpha never quite makes the leap into classic territory. There is an admirable sense of vision here and the commitment to a non-verbal narrative is striking, but Planet Alpha remains a functional game under the gorgeous aesthetic. The fusions of cinematic platformer and endless runner often feel at odds with one another as the game pushes you forward when you most want to stand back and enjoy the view. Life here comes at you fast; blink and you’ll be vaporised or crushed by a mile high leviathan.
PC version tested. Also available on PS4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch