The Planet Crafter Review – Imperfect World

Back in the dim days of my youth, I came across an essay in the sci-fi anthology magazine Analog which gave a (tongue-in-cheek) recipe for building a planet. Being a budding astronomy nerd, I enjoyed the piece, and it’s always kind of been in the back of my mind when it comes to sci-fi media. When The Planet Crafter came across our desk, I decided to give it a shot, that notion of building a world echoing in my head. I’m not entirely certain I did the right thing.

The Planet Crafter puts you in the role of an anonymous convict, sent to an unnamed world in lieu of prison at some point near the 32nd Century CE. Your job: operate from the small drop pod you landed in with a limited crafting pedestal, a storage box with some food and materials, and a message telling you to start terraforming the planet. The planet is barren, airless, cold, and unquestionably hostile. It’s not going to be easy, nor is it going to be quick. You need to make a bigger and more permanent shelter, you need to build an atmosphere, and you need to unlock the technologies which will ultimately lead you to your goal. Of course, there are a few other little hiccups…

“Five hundred light-years from the exercise yard, and I’m still getting shanked.”

Visually speaking, The Planet Crafter has a very rough feel to it, and not simply because of the stark landscapes. While the various components for bases have a typical aesthetic of smooth curves and shiny white paneling, the landscapes don’t quite have the right appearance you would expect. A good chunk of this can be chalked up to lighting, and all the ways that it’s not used correctly. The world (such as it is) is subdivided into certain areas with a prominent geological feature or theme, and all of which have wildly overdone fog and particle effects which make no sense in context. Combine that with random weather events like dust storms, meteor showers (which can ruin your day), and rain storms once you’ve got the rudiments of a hydrosphere going, and there’s a lot of visual “noise” that doesn’t necessarily need to be there. There are a number of collision detection issues where you’re going through chunks of geometry (usually cliff faces) at the weirdest times and in the weirdest spots.

Even more aggravating, going into various shipwrecks radically diminishes the available light, even from your flashlight, and ambient light at the entry point of the wreck doesn’t shine through like it should. Yeah, yeah, you can use fog effects to reduce draw distance, improving performance, I’ve heard the excuse before. As for the user interface, it’s excessively minimalist, particularly since you have to “build” functionalities like a compass or a “to-do” list. Frankly, the visuals come across as completely unpolished. That said, there are elements which are certainly striking, particularly after you’ve advanced your efforts to the point where lakes are a thing and the beginnings of an ecology is starting. The underwater bits are particularly colorful, especially after you’ve spent a dozen or more hours looking at a lot of brown landscape.

It’s very pretty. It’ll kill you stone dead, won’t destroy anything, and block off access in and out of any compartments, but it’s very pretty.

The audio in The Planet Crafter is kind of a mess too. On the one hand, you’ve got decent environmental audio with footsteps, blowing wind, flowing water, the hum of energy from high powered lasers drilling into the planet’s crust helping to reinforce the feeling you’re far into the future and you’re utterly alone on an alien world. Because you’re alone, there’s no worrying about dodgy voice actors because nobody’s talking (not even you). However, music proves to be the big stumbling block. There’s not really a soundtrack as such. Mostly just short sections of generic sounding synth pieces that start up and end abruptly for no obvious reason. It starts to grate at first, then disappears from your conscious perception until it basically smacks you in the face at inexplicable moments.

If the audio is a mess, the gameplay isn’t much better. Because this is primarily handled from a first-person perspective, there’s kind of a tendency to move like an FPS shooter, almost going for a vibe similar to No Man’s Sky. Unfortunately for players, this isn’t an FPS nor is it NMS. The Planet Crafter is closer to something like Skyrim, though even that kinship is pretty badly strained. Chief among the omissions: an auto-run function. Toggling a run is one thing, but with such a vast area of exploration, you should be able to start running, pull your fingers from the keyboard or away from the controller and just worry about navigation. No such luck here. It’s a wrist killer trying to move over long distances. And the distances get longer the more you terraform the planet. Remapping the controls doesn’t do much to alleviate the issue when you’re constantly holding down the buttons. Using a controller is somewhat better, but even there, certain functionalities are not as smoothly implemented as they could be. Worse, some of them are completely cut off entering certain areas of the map, no doubt in an effort to “increase narrative tension” or some equally silly reasoning.

Pictured: the relocation process of my initial base, because the distinction between “airtight” and “watertight” doesn’t exist.

The systems involved with the terraforming process do not feel like they’re particularly organic. In fact, they feel pretty damned arbitrary. On the surface, they sound pretty simple, at least at the start. Heat, oxygen (we’ll quibble about atmospheric composition another time), and pressure all interact to create an aggregate value known as the “Terraformation Index.” However, the exact mechanisms about how these values interrelate is kind of a black box. You might be plodding along, adding new bits of construction here and there, then suddenly your TI value is skyrocketing. There is literally no assistance. You have information, but trying to divine where you’re coming up short or where you’re turbocharged (and how you got there) doesn’t lead to enlightenment. Compounding this, new technologies are locked behind certain thresholds of heat, oxygen, pressure, or TI. The aggravation from this system comes from the fact that the new tech often require materials which you don’t have access to because you haven’t met a different threshold. This leads to a lot of “hurry up and wait.” Sort of like cooking a Thanksgiving dinner, only without the mild entertainment of a matchup between the Cowboys and the Lions to distract you.

The progress through the tech tree and its relationship to your terraforming efforts also directly impacts your ability to explore new areas. From expanded oxygen tanks to barriers of ice that won’t melt till the heat component or the overall TI value reaches a certain threshold, you’re spending a lot of time either establishing huts where you can recharge your oxygen in safety while trying to move around or seeing how many oxygen bottles it takes to explore a given zone or a crashed ship. Speaking of which, one of The Planet Crafter‘s bullet points from Miju Games’ website seems to be…not entirely accurate. The developers mentioned “procedurally generated shipwrecks,” a point which does not thankfully appear on their Steam page. Still, it’s the thought (or lack thereof) that counts. The wrecks themselves don’t appear to be procedurally generated, but the contents of storage lockers and containers in the wrecks and other places look to be randomized. As such, your particular experience may be easier or more difficult depending on what you find and which item blueprints outside of the tech tree you can unlock.

In theory, the contents of containers in shipwrecks and out in the world can regenerate, as well as raw materials. In practice, the degree of regeneration is another black box to deal with. Could be an hour, could be never. And since techs you might need are dependent on certain materials being available and accessible, you might be waiting a very long time before you can build something.

Why, yes. That biodome is hanging over a fission pile. Hope those structural supports are sound.

There is the rough outline of a narrative in The Planet Crafter. It seems to veer between a punitive spin on the premise of Andy Weir’s The Martian and constant guest appearances from Giorgio Tsoukalos. Notionally, this particular planet is unsurveyed, unexplored, and has never ever been inhabited. Yet as you unlock more sections of the planet, you’ll come to realize that none of those facts are true. Unfortunately, the environmental storytelling Miju Games attempted to implement doesn’t really hit very hard. There’s some light puzzle solving involving the terrible coordinate system in the UI. And using the map is an exercise in frustration due to it moving insanely slow the more zoomed in you are. Which, for reasons unknown, you start out at maximum zoom and have to send rockets into orbit in order to be able to pull back and get the full picture. Put it all together, and you’ve got all the narrative tension of a wet noodle. I can understand wanting to avoid implementing dangerous creatures and combat elements, but even so, this just isn’t cutting the mustard.

“Apparently, these aliens were…British?”

I can appreciate that Miju Games is an indie outfit with a small headcount. But even so, there’s a lot of rough edges in The Planet Crafter. Far too many to state it’s ready for prime time. The desire to create a “chill” and relaxed experience completely conflicts with the inherent tension of a survival premise, much less the daunting task of trying to terraform an entire planet. Too many opaque systems, too little logic about how to obtain resources, and half-baked narrative elements bog this title down below an acceptable threshold of enjoyment. The real kick in the teeth is that there’s interesting ideas to be found, but they’re so badly executed, it kills the fun. And all of this is after an Early Access period. Those of you searching for an enjoyable mix of big idea sci-fi chocolate and survival peanut butter need to find another sector of the sky.

Axel based this review off a Steam code from the publisher.  At the time of review, the version listed in the screenshots was the most recent version prior to the game’s 1.0 release.

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