Like Heart of Darkness but with less darkness and more heart.
Planet Alpha is a side-scrolling puzzle platformer in the vein of classics like Heart of Darkness, or more recent titles such as Little Nightmares, Limbo, or Inside. Like those aforementioned titles, it sets out to tell a story through dynamic, artistically satisfying environments. What sets it apart is its flagrant disregard for what has become the genre’s obligatory dark aethstetic, replaced instead by a vibrant, living world that stretches far into the horizon.
After a brief opening in which you slowly trudge across a barren planet, you awaken in a dark cave with no real context for your journey. As you emerge from the cave you’re greeted with a beautiful flourishing vista. Apatosaurus-like creatures dot the landscape, and giant flying whales loom overhead. To be honest the whales kinda creeped me out (where my fellow megalohydrothalassophobiacs at?), but the vista is otherwise idyllic. But where there is Eden, there is a race of super robots hell bent on messing it up.
Planet Alpha’s gameplay is built around explorative platforming along a linear path. Occasional hidden areas, stealth segments, and puzzle solving are sprinkled throughout the adventure to add variety. At its core the gameplay is extremely simple, amounting to little more than running, jumping, and sliding blocks. A little ways in you’ll also gain the ability to manipulate the day/night cycle, which can affect the terrain around you. Despite the simplicity, Planet Alpha leverages these mechanics in constantly changing ways. Rarely is any one mechanic overused, with perhaps the exception of stealth. These segments in which you had to hide in tall grass or make yourself otherwise obscured in order to sneak past enemies was by far my least favorite part of the journey. I had trouble determining when the enemies could see me and how far they could see. This resulted in many of these encounters coming down to trial and error. I won’t go into specifics, but multiple playthroughs are encouraged in order to find everything. These stealth segments are the only portions of the experience that I was never excited to revisit.
On the visual front, Planet Alpha is an odd beast. While artistically it is absolutely astounding, the Switch’s capacity to present that art is somewhat underwhelming. Whether playing docked or undocked, the game runs at a pretty low resolution. Granted it is a bit better playing on the TV but not by much. In an effort to mitigate the issue, an aggressive pass of temporal anti-aliasing in is place. While it does smooth out the edges, what results is a somewhat goopy looking image akin to some of the worst moments of Xenoblade Chronicles 2 or Wolfenstein 2. It also leads to some of the worst ghosting artifacts I’ve seen yet on a Switch title. It doesn’t really hinder gameplay, but it did leave me curious to play the game on more powerful hardware, where the art could be given its due glory. However, in the grand scheme of things this sacrifice makes sense. The payoff is a reasonably steady frame rate despite remarkably lush environment. The atmospheric synth-heavy soundtrack only adds to the presentation and makes for some truly awesome moments.
Planet Alpha shines some much needed light on a very dark genre. It stands in stark presentational contrast with its contemporaries in the best way possible. Stealth segments do drag down the experience somewhat but are the exception not the rule in otherwise compelling gameplay. From a technical standpoint, the Switch may not be the best way to play, but the core experience shines through. Planet Alpha was the refreshing breath of air that I never realized the genre needed.