One thing about writing video game reviews that sometimes perplexes me is how hard it is to not compare games to one another. When writing about a book or film it is easier to talk about it as a standalone product, but there’s something about the functionality of a game that begs the mind to dash to memories of other titles we’ve played. I thoroughly enjoyed the three hours I spent playing the indie platformer Planet Alpha, and I know this is about the most loaded statement I could possibly make, but I couldn’t help draw similarities to the indie darling Inside.
Both Inside and Planet Alpha start unceremoniously with a silent, side-scrolling protagonist escaping duress on the screen. Both games tell a minimal story with no dialogue, centering the isolated playable character among a vast backdrop evoking loneliness in a strange place. However, where Planet Alpha differs vastly from Inside is in tone: the success of Inside relied on its stifling, constricted tone, but the tone of the alien landscape of Planet Alpha is vast and awesome.
Planet Alpha begins with an injured space pilot limping across an empty, ochre desert, as ambient tones twinkle from the speakers. Within minutes of walking the environment turns to plush green grass, the swollen purple roots of alien trees with yellow leaves, and strange creatures grazing on the blue flowers in the distance. Throughout the game the environment shifts from icy caves, to boiling molten rock, to mechanistic environments with robots going berserk. On several occasions automatons zapped me because I was caught staring at the vibrant colors on the screen.
While the background changes dramatically in jaw-dropping ways, from wide-open to enclosed settings, the playable character runs along at a steady space, evoking a zen-like quality that is far different than the stressful, persecuted feelings of playing Inside. While Planet Alpha succeeds as a fun game, I appreciate it more as a moving piece of art. Sometimes I relaxed and turned up the volume to hear the minimalistic score, and other times I turned the music down and listened to an audiobook. Either way, Planet Alpha is a tranquilizing experience whose flow is hardly every interrupted by the halt of a tricky puzzle.
My only real criticism of the Planet Alpha is that some of the stealth-based puzzles seemed unbalanced. There are times I’d get stuck among killer robots or flying alien insects patrolling an area, only to pass by incidentally because the AI entered a different walk cycle than it had before. There were other times that I felt challenged by a puzzle, then I realized I had already incidentally solved it without realizing it. However, these are tiny gripes that only slightly hindered my time while playing a simply-presented yet emotionally complex game.