When it comes to Steam's Early Access program, your first thought is likely of the countless open-world survival games rotting there, doomed to never be completed. Every game tries to give the subgenre its own spin, but many just end up in the annals of mediocrity. Planet Explorers has lots going for it to make it stand out amongst the rest, but there are some critical flaws that make us worry it's doomed for the scrap-heap.
At its core, Planet Explorers is a third-person survival adventure game; it puts the player in the shoes of a colonist, crash landed on a mysterious planet full of threats and wonders. It was initially Kickstarted over three years ago, and was released through Steam Greenlight a year later, being updated regularly ever since. The developers were hoping to get the game out of Early Access by mid-2016, and they just missed this estimate, releasing in early November.
In our first impressions of the game, we acknowledged that if the game saw some polish then it could easily stand out as one of the better open-world survival games on Steam, alongside the likes of Rust or Ark: Survival Evolved. Now that the game has been released, we can't help but feel like it's missed this opportunity. Sure, some things were ironed out, but the game still feels clunky. You could feel the improvement to the game after every weekly patch, and although dozens of bugs have been fixed since we first played, not much of great note was added or improved.
There are three single-player modes for you to choose from; Story, Adventure, and Build. The bulk of this review will talk about the story mode, which is the bulk of the game, but we'll touch on Adventure and Build as well.
The defining point of Planet Explorers is its simple but effective setting; in the year 2287, a group of humans are met with disaster trying to colonise a planet, forcing them to set up shop on an unknown and hostile planet with limited technology. This setting means that players, from the very beginning, are working with wooden tools, before quickly moving up the tech tree and getting more advanced tools and machinery.
Many design choices do a good job of reminding you that the Earth-like planet you're exploring in the story mode is unwelcoming. The soundtrack, for a start, is extremely well done, and wouldn't be amiss in a big-budget title. It serves to add tremendously to the sense of wonder that the huge world can give you, and whilst some areas are just huge flat expanses, much of it has been created in such a way that you can explore for quite a while without getting bored.
The game itself has the look and feel of an MMO, despite being a mostly single-player experience. The UI, quests, NPC interactions, and even movement have been inspired by popular MMOs and, while it works, it sometimes feels like a waste of time. MMO quests have been designed so that many players can complete them at the same time, so you find yourself wondering why in a single-player game are you killing the same monsters over and over for a measly reward. It's a bonus that you can skip over all the side-quests completely in the story mode and still progress somewhat easily. According to the store page on Steam, you can even avoid questing entirely and still reach the ending, which is certainly interesting if true.
The crafting system is one of the biggest aspects of Planet Explorers, and uses the replicator; an in-game menu that lets you craft items at the click of a button, provided you have the materials and recipe. Recipes get more complicated the further along you get, and the best items require crafting multiple expensive components first. As previously mentioned, you can quickly move up the crafting tree and end up creating things like jetpacks, a wide array of weaponry, and even vehicle components. Most recipes are given to you as quest rewards, but if you'd like to avoid quests as much as possible you can purchase them too for sizeable amounts of the game's currency, meat.
Mining and gathering in Planet Explorers is essential to the game, though there are ways to avoid doing so if monotonous collecting isn't your cup of tea. The system is simple enough; once you've got the correct tool you can find the means to collect resources all over the world. You need an axe to collect wood from trees, and a shovel or pickaxe to harvest items from ground. In order to find the right place to mine you've got your trusty scanner, which tells you where to look if you want to find all kinds of different minerals. We've got no real complaints about this system; it serves its purpose well enough and can get you a nice amount of resources if you look in the right places.
Last time, one of our main complaints about Planet Explorers was to do with the combat system. Before, Melee was very clunky and barely responsive, and you could barely hit the target you were going for. Ranged combat has always been fine as it brings the camera in, a style reminiscent of third-person shooters. Since the preview build we played, though, melee combat has improved significantly. The animations are much more fluid and you can chain attacks much more consistently, making it much less frustrating when taking on enemies. It still doesn't work very well against the smaller or oversized enemies, but it's certainly a step in the right direction.
The design of most enemies and creatures you'll encounter is incredibly well done. There is a seemingly endless amount of variety in the enemies you encounter, but none look out of place in the world. This serves well to further remind you that the planet you've found yourself on is unforgiving and alien, which is easily one of the game's best points. What's sad is that despite this brilliant design, the AI of the creatures is extremely poor. They tend to just sprint at you and perform one of a few choreographed attacks that are hard to dodge and frustrating. It's really a shame because you can tell that Pathea put a lot of effort into the design and attacks of the creatures, just for it to all fall flat thanks to the AI.
In our preview we also criticised the game's building because it felt too restricted and, like many other parts of the game, clunky. Looking back, this judgement was a little harsh and it's due to our own incompetence that the build-mode felt bad. The building functionality is, in fact, very well put together. Pressing 'B' puts you in build mode and lets you place the resources you've collected back into the world as voxels. It allows you to be creative, giving you a wide array of blocks to choose from to achieve your purpose. We're not creative enough to have made anything spectacular, but people online have come up with some amazing builds. If you're only interested in building, there is a mode separate from the main game in which you get infinite resources so you can exercise your creative muscles at your own pace.
Should you get tired of the story mode for whatever reason, you've also got adventure mode. This mode is similar to the main game but lets you generate a brand new world based on a seed, which is then populated with villages and dungeons all over the map. Think of it as a 'story mode-lite;' it's essentially the base game without any overarching narrative. The villages in adventure mode serve as hubs, where you are given generic side-quests in return for varying rewards. Dungeons are unique to adventure mode, generating an instance filled with enemies, granting some worthwhile loot to collect upon completion.
In adventure mode, like in the story mode, you can build your own colony and populate it, but adventure mode lets you do so straight away instead of labouring through quests for hours. The world settings are extremely customisable, letting you change between world size, height, and more, but you end up seeing many of the same problems that Minecraft suffered from with its world generation. Sometimes you'll end up finding villages half submerged in an ocean, or maybe even end up with entire maps with very little variety.
While it isn't perfect, Planet Explorers is still a unique sandbox crafting game with a few RPG elements, but when compared to the bigger games in the genre, like Ark or Rust, its faults are even more pronounced. That being said, the excellent building mode along with the well designed world help it stand up on its own. However, many elements feel so unpolished that it may as well still be in Early Access, but we're hopeful that post-release Pathea will keep iterating on their game as they have done in the last year or so. As of right now, we still can't easily recommend it given the state that it's in, but it's certainly moving in the right direction and worth keeping an eye on to see if a few of the more glaring faults can be remedied in the near future.