Planet Alpha’s making its bid for the Most Beautiful Alien Planet award, unaware that that doesn’t exist.
A journey to another world – in more ways than one
The power to change day to night – or vice versa – is an immediately appealing one. Who hasn’t felt the sun streaming through their window in the middle of a glorious kip and wanted to make it bedtime again? But in this atmospheric platformer from a former Io Interactive alumnus, it’s got a rather more important use: creeping around in the darkness on a hostile planet might be the only way to prevent yourself becoming an alien snack. The idea for Planet Alpha has been rattling around Adrian Lazar’s brain for close to five years now. It all started at the end of 2013: during his Christmas holiday from work, Lazar found himself “bored to death”. So he started working on a project in his spare time. “I was working on Hitman at Io Interactive and I needed something that wasn’t about brutally murdering people,” he laughs. On a whim, he played Eric Chahi’s Another World and that set the creative wheels in motion. “I just loved its atmosphere,” he says.
For Planet Alpha’s visual style, Lazar took inspiration from somewhere very different. “I moved to Copenhagen nine years ago and I was so blown away by the long twilights that we have here,” he explains. “When the sun sets, it can last like an hour or more – it’s just amazing.” When he tried to replicate it in his game, Lazar was struck by how the adjustment in lighting changed everything. “Visually, in trying to recreate that as an artist, I saw it as an interesting challenge. And, of course, technically it’s really difficult because everything needs to look good at any time of day.”
A cunning planet
From what we’ve seen, Lazar has little to worry about on that front. This is a heart-stoppingly handsome side-scroller – in any one moment you’ll witness extraordinary sights, such as colossal spacecraft flying past extraterrestrial whales, swimming gracefully through purple skies. It’s a world that feels thrillingly alive; even without your intervention, it flourishes, following a natural day-night cycle that you can control. Deep within its dense jungles
“You’ll witness extraordinary sights, like spacecraft flying past extraterrestrial whales”
you’ll find large mushrooms that stretch upwards, seeking the sun’s rays. Alien structures, too, respond to light and dark.
Many of these changes aren’t merely cosmetic; they affect the way you progress through the game. Lazar won’t be drawn on details – though it doesn’t take a genius to imagine how you might use those mushrooms – but he confirms that new areas will only become accessible at certain times, and that your approach to any situation or threat will be similarly affected. If you need to sneak around, then nightfall should provide useful cover from enemies. “We’re trying to tie all of our gameplay pillars – the puzzles, the platforming, the stealth and the exploration – to the day-night cycle somehow,” Lazar says.
To maintain the organic feel, the game’s pacing will be dictated by the setting. For the most part, you’ll be taking it slowly, creeping around to avoid deadly creatures, or solving environmental brainteasers. But then you’ll find yourself sprinting at full tilt, sliding down slopes as shots from a background battle fragment platforms in the foreground. Lazar is keen not to overplay these moments, however: “We’re not just throwing something in to force it. Of course, we have our platforming moments where things have to collapse and you’re running and yeah, those are fun. But those should act as a surprise: we want to make them fit the environment and happen at the right time just to keep things fresh.”
As an artist, Lazar is obviously a fan of visual storytelling. So while Planet Alpha will have a narrative of sorts, don’t expect knotty lore spread across dozens of collectable documents or audio logs. “Sometimes, there will be things that are way bigger than you, and you can’t do anything but just watch and sometimes you can actually influence things. But I think it’s more interesting and more challenging to tell a story without forcing the player to read it. We have a very basic alien language with symbols representing alien words, and people that want to learn more could decipher those. But the story will be pretty easy to understand without having to do that.”
In other words, it’s Planet Alpha’s world that speaks loudest. It certainly captures the spirit of its biggest inspiration, evoking Another World’s blend of wonder and danger. “I wanted to imagine what it would be like to be there in real life,” he says. “You’d be worried about what’s going to eat you or maybe falling to your death, but you’d also have this feeling where you don’t know what’s dangerous and what’s not. Like if you see an interesting creature you can’t decide if you should run or approach it. It’s like a nature documentary somehow – I keep picturing David Attenborough looking at stuff. I think he would love this place.” Hey, if it gets Attenborough’s endorsement, that’s good enough for us.
Part of the reason the game has been so long in development is Lazar’s meticulous attention to pacing.
Sometimes you’ll pause for a moment just to take it all in. And sometimes because walking forward would mean getting crushed by an 80-foot dinosaur.
The game’s incredibly vibrant palette is a reaction against the “grey, desaturated, monochrome” games Lazar was playing during his final months at Io Interactive. Greys and browns are in short supply here – and the game looks all the better for that.
The flying whales remind us of artist Roger Dean’s ’70s prog rock album covers. Though we’re still not letting editor Robin play his Yes albums in the office.