Most apocalyptic alien invasion thrillers take place in major metropolises, and it makes sense: wipe out the power centers, wreak the most havoc, kill or harvest or anal probe (or whatever those rascally extraterrestrials do) the most people in the shortest amount of time in a scorched-earth attack. Wishfully’s Planet of Lana takes an entirely different approach. This beautifully designed and illustrated side-scrolling puzzle-platformer is more akin to having one’s dream vacation in the Bahamas cut short by mechanical intruders intent on disrupting the idyllic lives of the locals by snatching them away. It’s an interesting juxtaposition that doesn’t always work to the game’s benefit, but there’s more than enough engaging puzzling and stealth-based gameplay to keep you occupied while soaking in the gorgeous sights and sounds.
You’re not in the Bahamas, of course. Nor are you on the planet Lana, as I mistakenly assumed until some proper introductions occurred well into the adventure. This world is unnamed – or at least unidentified by the unintelligible language the few remaining residents speak – and its origins are only barely hinted at within a few select scenes over the course of your journey. Lana is actually the name of the young protagonist, a girl whose carefree existence playing with her older sister Elo in a shoreline stilt village is suddenly turned upside down when massive machines hurtle through the sky like falling meteors. It isn’t long before things go full War of the Worlds, and poor Lana can only look on in horror as Elo and all the rest of her townsfolk are captured and flown away to destinations unknown.
It’s a powerful opening, and yet it ultimately represents my biggest disappointment with the game, because for most of its five or so hours of playtime, the rescue attempt slips too far into the background. Unlike most games of this sort, where the focus is almost purely on exploration and discovery, in Planet of Lana there’s a personal urgent motivation to push on, and yet the pursuit of Elo becomes almost an afterthought for long stretches at a time. Then every once in a while, a short cutscene of flying ships in the background will remind you that there’s a reason for doing all this death-defying traveling to the right.
In fact, the far more relevant relationship fostered here isn’t between Lana and Elo, but rather Lana and the small creature she saves and befriends early on. I think he (or she, but I’ll use he for easier reference) is named Mui but I nicknamed him Blobby because he looks like a little dark blob with pointy ears, bright spots for eyes and four spindly legs as his only distinctive features. Blobby is cute and surprisingly cuddly, though, with an adorable little voice that makes sounds you might expect from a squeezable plush toy. You can even pet the little guy whenever you think he could use some affection, or when you’re the one in desperate need of a therapy animal – and there will be plenty of occasions when that’s the case.
The gameplay is based largely around overcoming physical obstacles and bypassing other flora or fauna – a few of them far less friendly – that are also curiously blob-like in substance, as if they all evolved by crawling out not from the primordial ooze, but from actual ooze. And then there are the drones and sentries left behind by your alien invaders to look for leftover stragglers like Lana, although they’re no longer taking prisoners and will terminate with impunity on sight.
You carry no weapons or tools to fight back, and as a child your strength and speed are pretty feeble, so you won’t be outrunning anyone. You can jog, jump, crouch, climb, pull movable objects, swim along the water’s surface, and you’re surprisingly resilient if you drop from heights you might think are fatal. (Not all heights, however, so don’t press your luck.) You can also pull yourself up and over ledges or other obstructions, but you’ll do so agonizingly slowly, so it’s best not to have any baddies nipping at your heels when you try.
Given these physical limitations, it pays to be sneaky. Stealth is usually one of my least favourite types of gameplay – and it is here too, relying a bit too much on time-consuming trial and error, but for the most part it’s cleverly tied together with puzzle solving. Yes, you’ll need to hide in long grass to remain out of sight, or duck into crawlspaces where sentries or rampaging animals can’t reach you, but rather than just being a matter of patience and patterns, here you’ll have to actually devise a plan to bypass obstacles in increasingly complex set pieces.
The mechanics are introduced early on in a danger-free tutorial section, and for the most part they’re fairly basic and work well. Yellow highlights indicate which things can be interacted with, which is good because it would be difficult to tell otherwise. A certain amount of dexterity is required as you progress, and timing is crucial to get past numerous hazards, but rarely is there much need for twitch reflexes. You can play with either keyboard or gamepad, though the game itself recommends the latter and it is indeed more comfortable that way. It’s not perfect, however. While precision controls aren’t often required, certain button combinations felt finicky to me, particularly when using your most important resource: Blobby himself.
Working in tandem with your bouncy little companion becomes a major gameplay component, but it’s a double-edged sword. Blobby can fit into smaller spaces you cannot, jump much higher, chew vines and wires, and eventually acquires some ability to control other blob creatures. But he’s also very vulnerable, terrified of water, and is entirely dependent on you for instructions. His safety is every bit as important as your own, too. Lose him and it’s game over – or at least, back to the nearest automatic checkpoint, which are generously placed so you’ll never have too much ground to repeat.
You can give Blobby commands to follow or stay, interact with hotspots, or move to particular areas in close proximity, and in some cases you can issue them from quite far away. That’s important, because as the challenges get more difficult, the more you’ll need to work collaboratively with Blobby to succeed. Whereas one of you could easily reach an exit on your own, getting both across takes a whole lot more planning. You may order Blobby to put himself in danger by distracting a patrolling drone while you creep by unnoticed, but then need to find a way to get him back to you unharmed.
It’s a fun dynamic, and you’d be surprised how quickly you become attached to your round friend. I felt a little burst of separation anxiety whenever I had to leave Blobby to scout ahead, an on-screen icon popping up as an ever-present reminder that I’d left him behind. And the obstacles only get harder the further you go. Early on you may simply need to slip past a rampaging blob-boar, weigh down pressure pads, or build some basic scaffolding to get to higher ground. Before long, however, you’ll be manipulating creatures to raise and lower water levels, operating heavy magnets or navigating mechanical lifts in motion, and eventually even remote-controlling drones to do your bidding.
Drone control represents one of the few entirely new types of gameplay introduced after the basics are established. I’d have preferred a bit more variety, but the pacing is good, the challenge level always fair, and there’s enough here to keep you entertained without ever wearing out its welcome. There are a few more conventional puzzles to solve as well, typically involving musical notes in a recurring theme sure to give you major Close Encounters of the Third Kind vibes. No finely attuned ear is required, however, as there are always visible clues to be found nearby. Chase sequences are few and far between – normally you’re dead within moments of being spotted – but they’re exciting when they occur. A few button-mashing Quick Time Events are sprinkled in as well, which I never failed but didn’t find any fun either, so you might want to shut them off in a welcome user-friendly accessibility menu option.
All these dangers feel at odds with the visual paradise in which they occur, at least at first: gorgeous beaches, turquoise waters, lush meadows with rocky outcroppings overlooking stunning valleys, all set against the sliver of a massive moon or spherical alien mother ship (think: Death Star) far away. Clear blue skies in the background give way to pinks, purples, blues and oranges as day becomes night and back again. Occasionally the camera zooms out to give you an even more splendid view of the scenery – not to mention the next puzzle set piece you’ll need to confront with a better sense of what lies ahead. The further you go, however, the less idyllic the settings and even the weather, as you must push through arid desert sand storms and a vibrant jungle dotted with gnarled giant trees, descend to darkened caves, and even venture into hulking mechanical structures before ending up in … well, that would be telling.
The animation is every bit the equal of the background art. Man, machine and nature alike move with graceful fluidity, with cutscenes rendered in the same style as the in-game presentation. I especially enjoyed watching Lana climb vines to higher levels, as the attention to detail is so spot-on it brought back nightmarish flashbacks of high school gym class. Parallax scrolling allows for some effective foreground silhouettes, while alien activity in the background is as polished as it is nerve-wracking, never more so than when Lana is forced to get up close and personal with the largest robotic walkers without being trampled underfoot.
Not to be outdone, the soundscape provides a flawless accompaniment to the action. There’s very little voice acting beyond Lana’s despondent calls for a sister that will never hear them, but the natural ambience will have you convinced you’re really splashing through shallows, bracing yourself against the gusts of an oversized fan, or wandering through landscapes filled with (mostly unseen) birds and other wildlife. Less welcome but no less impressive are the mechanical sounds of the invading robots. I came to dread the alarming sound of a sentry’s alert to signify I had only seconds left to live. Playing sporadically, music provides an appropriate aural backdrop as well, ranging from whimsically playful instrumentals to mournful vocals, from eerie sci-fi tonal thrums to pulse-pounding discordance whenever circumstances call for it. The desert section has its own unique sound with something of an Arabian (I’m guessing) flavour.
As good as everything looks and sounds, there’s surprisingly little to do besides stick to your scripted mission. No going off track for collectibles, and barely any environmental world-building to reveal more about Lana’s home or its alien invaders. The few times the game does offer glimpses into a distant past only serve to highlight just how little we know or have reason to care. The same holds true for Lana’s relationship with her sister. A brief scene early on reveals the reason they’re so close, but once Elo is gone, there’s nothing to reinforce the nature of their relationship or the depth of Lana’s loss in her absence. The focus instead becomes all about Blobby, a creature she’s only just met, and while I too am a sucker for loveable critters, it skews the balance here, even in the climactic scenes. I protected Blobby because I wanted to (and needed him); I kept pursuing Elo because I had to. There’s a difference, and this game never seems to fully realize that.
It may not land the emotional wallop it intended to, or have quite enough inventiveness to escape the shadow of the best games of its kind, but Planet of Lana is nevertheless a solid puzzle-platforming adventure that’s easy to recommend. Production value is stellar in every respect, with enough engaging gameplay with the cutest of sidekicks to warrant a trek across robot-infested terrain. Those without any action-oriented interest or ability will want to steer clear, but if titles like Limbo and Inside mean anything to you, a beautiful new world of side-scrolling challenge awaits.
Planet of Lana breaks no new ground, but it’s a beautiful and frequently captivating sci-fi puzzle-platforming experience.
- Gorgeous artwork and animation
- Immersive soundscape
- Adorable sidekick a significant part of tandem gameplay
- Engaging puzzles provide the right level of challenge
- Rescue premise all but forgotten for long stretches
- Very little environmental world-building
- Stealth sections can be a bit tedious
Jack played Planet of Lana on PC using a review code provided by the game’s publisher.