Ever had the dream to wander aimlessly through uncharted territories in space, taking slow, careful steps through planets with awkward gravity and secrets? Ever wanted to atomize everything that isn’t nailed down and use them to make whatever you want to traverse alien planets to your heart’s content? Ever wanted to slide down a dark, dimly-lit alien cavern while screaming to yourself “this is what I’m going to do when I retire”? No? well, these must have been the design objectives of indie developer Data Realms when they were developing Planetoid Pioneers, the quasi-follow-up to their terrain destroyer sim Cortex Command.
Planetoid Pioneers is a 2D Physicsvania with local Co-Op combat and crafting being developed by Data Realms for Microsoft Windows and is coming out of Early Access February 8, 2018
Story & Narrative
If your’e looking for a crafting-survival game with a focus on storytelling and narrative, I’m afraid to say that you’ll be sorely disappointed. There is no notable story or cutscenes in this game, aside from the opening cinematic. You’re an astronaut whose ship crash lands in an alien planet called Primoid with the ultimate objective to build a spaceship to escape the said planet…and that’s about it. From the moment you gain control of your character, there is not walls of text or cutscenes that take you out of the experience and honestly, it doesn’t matter here as the entire point of the game is to have fun with the crazy physics and the huge sandbox planets. There is a subtle theme of rebirth that is hinted at through character deaths and respawns, but there are no philosophy or lore related to it to be found within. Expecting a fleshed out storyline from such a game would be nitpicking and it’s safe to say that the lack of a narrative doesn’t halt the game from doing what it does best; being a fun physicsvania.
Gameplay & Mechanics
Planetoid Pioneers mix and matches different mechanics from various genres to it’s benefit. At it’s core, Planetoid Pioneers is a physicsvania where you are free to explore a number of circular planets, solve puzzles, combat enemies and craft items using blueprints you discover. The game is powered using Crush 2D, physics engine 8 years in the making, at least according to the developer. Mostly everything in the game follows the rule of the engine.
In the default game mode, the player is introduced to circular alien planets with gravity-pull to the center of the circle. You start out with nothing but a rifle and an atomizer gun that forms the crux of the gameplay. you can gobble up objects with an atomizer, learn their respective blueprints and spawn new items with the same device. You traverse the circular planetoids by stocking up on material and using it to build a solution to whatever obstacle you’ve encountered. For example, you can build a sturdy log or a plank to cover gaps and holes and traverse them. Being pooped on by annoying parrots? Build a magic staff to liquify them or, a laser rifle to turn them into smoldering pile of ash. Tired of walking all the way? Craft a gravity defying jetpack and explore the planetoids in style. Basically all you have to do is to get from point A to B. But how you accomplish that task is entirely up to your choosing. This mechanic of recycle and re-use keeps the game fresh for a few hours at least.
There is no HUD indicator to show your character’s health. You have to determine that by looking at the current state of your actor. As you take more damage, the model becomes more and more bruised and damaged and even basic movement becomes a chore. If you die, you can come back as crash test dummies or skeletons. . You can place sealed containers with bodies around the map to inhabit after your death. It is a nice touch and watching the dummies lose limbs and turn to a pile of metallic garbage as they take fatal damage is great fun.
The planetoid Primoid (the default planet) is large and Metroidvania-like. There are multiple pathways to choose from and once you have the right equipment, you can go back and reach places you couldn’t before. Primoid itself constitutes caverns, frozen plains, labs, labyrinthian temples, subterranean caves etc with each having their own architecture, layout, puzzles, traps etc. There are hardly any cut and paste areas to be found. The gripes I have with the areas is that the puzzles are often very simple and doesn’t require much in the way of thinking and that the terrain is non-destructible. Primoid doesn’t hold much value in the long run as it’ss only fun for short periods of time and those periods flies by pretty fast.
The game emphasizes a lot on crafting and hence, there are a wide variety of objects available to craft and mess around with. You can craft anything ranging from a simple light bulb to flying saucers. Crafting like in any other games, requires raw materials and blueprints. Raw materials include metals, carbon, silicon, water and Aurium. These are easily available and in no point, does the game force use to farm or build an artificial difficulty wall where you are stuck in a place where there are no resources. Blueprints can be obtained by scanning and consuming objects with your atomizer gun and is available from the start of the game. The atomizer guns poops out excess resources once the quantity bar is full. So, there’s that.
When I say Planetoid Pioneers is a physics based game, don’t mistake it for something like Human: Fall Flat or Limbo. The best way to describe is by saying that it’s ragdoll on LSD. Your player character can barely hold himself together while walking. Limbs flail around like a clothesline on a windy day and stumbling to the ground often. Your body is completely controlled by gravity of this world. That means that the controls needs some time to get used to, or can even seem clunky and outlandish to some players. But the intentional unpredictability of the controls bring some comic relief to the game and it’s fun to watch your character slip and fall from a 15 foot platform to a group of unsuspecting skeletons and incapacitate them by accident. The controls itself are fairly simple, although both keyboard and gamepad controls could use an overhaul in the fluidity department.
Mods are one of the saving graces of this game. There are now two editions of the game: game only edition and the contributor edition. Game only edition lets you download mods from Steam workshop and use them in your game, while contributor edition ships with an editor and apparently it’s great fun. But game only edition users will also get to use the editor once the game is out of early access. You can vote for mods in the workshop that you want to see in the game too. Mods range from your average weapon mods to custom characters, vehicles and scenes. I’m pretty sure I saw a drone flying around with Donald Trump’s face and dropping some pink materials that makes uncomfortable just thinking about it. Even if the original game contents fail to please you, you can always turn to the workshop.
Now, here is where I think Data Realms really dropped the ball. For starters, there is no online multiplayer, but the addition of local co-op is appreciated. The game has plenty of game modes. The game would have benefited much with the addition of some sort of online death match or co-op. There is the default game mode of planetoid exploration and crafting, then there is a racing mode, where you try to get from point A to B in a specific time. There is a generic horde mode, a local PvP and a few other random modes that are fun to try once and not again as these are still in prototype/early beta stages. Each mode has it’s own planetoid. So, that’s nice at least. The developer should have spent the time they took to design these modes on the default mode itself, as the game is getting out from early access and Primoid is still a mixed bag and lacks content other than your average run-of-the-mill platforming and puzzle sections.
Visuals, Performance and Sound
Visually, the game looks good. The characters and environment are nicely detailed. The lighting and smoke effects are nice to look at. There are minor things that can be improved, like adding more visual effects, making flashlight light more vivid and alive. But overall, the presentation is solid. The only thing clearly lacking is a graphics setting option. Which leads to the bad part; i.e, the performance.
I would describe the performance of Planetoid Pioneers in one word; ‘inconsistent’. From the second you set foot on Primoid, the fps counter goes completely crazy. One second it’s as low as single digits and the next, is more than 70. The game is not at all optimized for low end rigs. I’m pretty sure it’s not because the game is demanding, as you can find plenty of people on the forums saying that the game runs poorly even on a GTX 1060. Oddly enough, on some planets, the fps never dips below 75, even when zooming all out. Primoid is poorly coded and the starting area giving this kind of performance might turn off potential buyers. Then there is the long initial loading time which got progressively worse for me and lasted up to near 5 minutes. The game failed to start at the firs, and while a reinstall fixed it, there still was the occasional crashing. So it’s in the developer’s best interests to fix all that problems up in the upcoming big update.
The sound design, on the other hand, if generally well done. It’s space-y enough. You genuinely get the feeling of being alone in a vast alien galaxy from the moment you start up the game. The sound design is not afraid to jump up high in the beats department though, and it often does, without disrupting the flow of the game. Simply said, the music suits each and every occasion in the game. The devs definitely should think about releasing the soundtrack with the game.
Planetoid Pioneers is indeed a game with a lot of potential. The amazing modding community contributes to it a lot. The current price tag is justifies the content available and can provide you with up to 20 hrs of gameplay excluding mods. It’ll be interesting to say where the devs take this title now that it’s getting out of early access. A big content update is supposedly coming soon and it might be just the thing the game needs to excel. For now, it’s a relaxing game that you play for an hour o after a stressful day at work.