Swedish developer Wishfully’s puzzle action-adventure platformer Planet of Lana will look and feel instantly familiar if you’re a seasoned gamer who’s been playing for a console generation or more. It only takes a few seconds of looking at screenshots or promotional trailers for the game, or a few minutes of playing it, to trace the game’s DNA back to its many visual and gameplay inspirations.
Most notably, Playdead’s LIMBO and Inside, Team Ico’s The Last Guardian, as well as classics from bygone 2D gaming eras such as Abe’s Odyssey, Out Of This World (aka Another World) and Flashback. The question is, will Planet of Lana scratch the puzzle-platforming itch enough to warrant the attention of action-adventure fans in 2023?
Planet of Lana takes place in a fictional world inhabited by a thriving, peaceful and seemingly Indigenous tribe of humans whose oceanic hunter-gatherer culture resembles that of Pacific Islanders of the 18th Century (before Westernization). The game opens up by introducing us to Lana, a young teenage girl and her older sister, Ilo, who play a game of hide and seek on the way to visit their parent’s graves in a nearby forest.
Neither Ilo, Lana nor any of the other humans in the game speak English, but rather a fictional tongue featuring frequently repeated words and gestures, which grounds the tone of the game quite nicely and challenges players to follow the narrative by deciphering what those words and actions mean for themselves.
The pace quickly ratchets up, however, when a robotic alien race invades Lana and Ilo’s village under the guise of a meteor shower and quickly starts gathering up all the villagers in cages for transport back to their mother ship. Ilo is caught and spirited away along with all the other villagers, thus kickstarting Lana’s desperate journey to save her sister and her people.
“Planet of Lana clearly shoots for and achieves a Studio Ghibli “vibe” through its world, characters, and creature designs”
Thankfully Lana won’t have to go it alone; along the way, Lana soon rescues and befriends an adorable, cat-like companion named Mui, and while neither of them can use a weapon or fight, the pair naturally possess enough wits, dexterity, and guile between them to get around just about every obstacle or enemy standing in their way.
Much like the young child protagonists of LIMBO and Inside, Lana’s greatest weapon (apart from Mui of course) is her pluckiness. Lana is fragile, she’s far from the greatest climber or swimmer, and players will need to afford her more space to safely clear running jumps and more time to clamber up onto structures than they would a more traditional action-platforming hero or heroine.
But once players come to grips with how Lana moves and gain a full understanding of the extent of her reach, they’ll find that most basic climbing challenges in the game are surmountable without encountering too many deaths.
Lana has the perfect platforming partner, Mui, whose feline-like agility and other latent abilities often make up for Lana’s human limitations. For example, Mui can jump relatively high, at least three times the height that Lana can from a standing position, and can safely land on her feet from the same height or more without getting hurt. She can also see perfectly well in complete darkness and can interact with both natural and mechanical devices either through physical or telepathic means.
While players can’t control Mui directly, as Lana, they can issue simple commands to Mui, such as “stay” or “follow,” point to a nearby place and tell Mui to go there and sit, or have her interact with a nearby object. And, of course, players can kneel down and pet Mui whenever they want.
Meanwhile, as a human, Lana can interact with more complex environmental puzzles and interfaces, move heavy objects, and traverse certain terrain that Mui can’t. It goes without saying that the gameplay loop to most of the puzzles in Planet of Lana involves using Lana and Mui’s combined skills to clear the way for both characters to move on together. This optimistically hopeful, “no one gets left behind” dynamic sets the tone of this game apart from its much-celebrated spiritual predecessors from Playdead.
“It doesn’t get any more “no-brainer” than this.”
That being said, several of the puzzles of Planet of Lana feel very much like a “Baby’s first Inside,” in that most of them provide little in the way of challenge on a cerebral level. However, this is ultimately a good thing since the game’s target audience is ten years and up. In fact, aside from a handful of challenges that involve players having to interpret ancient symbols, it’s often possible to completely overthink some of the environmental puzzles and end up going down rabbit holes that can lead to literal dead ends if one remains overly stubborn.
The real challenge lies in how players execute their approach toward most puzzles, particularly in terms of timing their actions to narrowly outwit the deadly flora, fauna and alien machines that threaten to end Lana’s journey prematurely.
As suggested earlier, players who remain vigilantly observant of Lana and Mui’s surroundings take full advantage of enemy blind spots and, most importantly, master the art of when to issue a command to Mui (or when not to) versus just having her follow Lana are bound to have a good time, that is once they get accustomed to Lana’s somewhat clunky platforming skills. The enemy creatures of Planet of Lana are quick (even quicker than Mui), merciless and unforgiving. Still, the game’s checkpoint save system is also quite generous, usually respawning Lana and Mui back to the last correct action taken toward solving the current riddle.
In addition to the games I listed earlier as obvious visual and gameplay inspirations for Planet of Lana, the game clearly shoots for and achieves a Studio Ghibli “vibe” through its world, characters, and creature designs, which can best be described as a three-way split between cel-shaded, cutout and 3-D/2.5-D animation styles.
Co-founder, co-director and scriptwriter Klas Eriksson has confessed that the Wishfully team are all fans of the famous Japanese animation studio and that Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away was a huge influence, which absolutely shines through in Planet of Lana’s colourful, family-friendly presentation, especially when compared to the bleaker and more violent worlds of its aforementioned progenitors.
The orchestral soundtrack, which was composed by none other than Takeshi Furukawa of The Last Guardian fame and features vocals by Siobhan Wilson, is a masterstroke that elevates Planet of Lana to must-play status. Furukawa’s cinematic, award-worthy score not only punctuates the game’s epic action sequences and enriches the fleshed-out, lore-filled world that Wishfully has created but also frequently serves as a harbinger for confrontations with enemy creatures.
Players will know to put their thinking caps on whenever foreboding music rises in the audio mix and expect a potentially deadly encounter. Planet of Lana’s main theme even plays a key role in gameplay, which I’ll leave for you all to discover on your own.
To be brutally honest, there’s very little that I can fault with Planet of Lana. If I have to nitpick, the cutout aspects of the animation don’t always put the humans in the best light, who end up looking rather simplistic and overly cartoonish when compared to the far more detailed aliens. Lana keeps calling out to her sister in each and every biome, even though all signs point to her being trapped on the mothership. And strangely, there are frequent load times between gameplay and cutscenes that honestly should be seamless for a game like Planet of Lana on current-gen hardware.
All that notwithstanding, these small gripes are far outweighed by the positives, namely an epic, platforming action-adventure that is thoroughly enjoyable yet also respects your time; it can be completed in 4 ½ hours (5 ½ or longer if you plan on finding every single hidden shrine or attempt to complete a No-Fail run), all for under $20 (or “entirely free” on Xbox Game Pass).
Planet of Lana won’t necessarily be dethroning Inside or The Last Guardian from their lofty rankings on the GQ 100 Greatest Videogames Of All Time anytime soon, but all gamers with even a passing interest in the platforming genre owe it to themselves to experience this game, regardless of whether this is their first platformer or their fiftieth. It doesn’t get any more “no-brainer” than this.