The cinematic platformer is an interesting genre. It's morphed significantly in recent history, thanks to the efforts of companies like Playdead with hits like Limbo and Inside. But all the while, it's stayed true to its roots of a more grounded and stressful platforming experience.
To achieve that "cinematic" qualifier — separated from something less realistic like, say, a plumber jumping on stumpy creatures and eating mushrooms — games in the genre often rely on darker themes and dour settings to tell their stories.
But Planet of Lana manages a much lighter tone in its take on the cinematic platformer, and it stands out for it. It tells a heartwarming tale about the relationship between a girl and her loyal animal companion, and has easily become one of my favorites of the genre in a long while.
Just the Facts
Publisher: Thunderful Publishing
Platform(s): PC*, Xbox Series S and X *denotes platform reviewed on
Release Date: May 23, 2023
Review key provided by publisher.
Planet of Lana is the debut release from Swedish development studio Wishfully, a project nearly five years in the making that fully embodies their goals of "creating stunning art and deep storytelling." Their team of artists alone may have had all the tools needed to pull off this adventure, as Planet of Lana truly embodies the "every frame a painting" mantra, but they just had to recruit the talents of award-winning composer Takeshi Furukawa (The Last Guardian) to take the experience to the next level.
It's funny in a way, as Furukawa's previous experience with GenDesign (formerly Team Ico) makes for a perfect fit. Because in more ways than one, Planet of Lana feels like Team Ico and Playdead made a baby. And that's some incredible company to keep when making a piece of gaming art.
And it all starts with the story.
It follows Lana, a young girl from a fishing village on some far-off alien planet. She's on a journey to save her sister Ilo, who has been kidnapped by an invading force of spider-like robots. Ilo and Lana appear to be orphans and all that the other has left in the world. So, Lana is willing to go to the ends of the planet — and she does — to rescue her sister. Chasing after the machines and doing her best to not be kidnapped herself, Lana eventually stumbles upon a captured creature: a stout, lanky legged cat-like creature named Mui. The relationship shared between Lana and Mui quickly becomes the anchor of the entire story. After finding each other, the duo embarks on a perilous journey across the varied biomes of the planet. They explore ancient ruins that hint at the origins of both Lana's people and the robots that may have a deeper connection to the land than initially believed. All the while, they contend with both the invaders and the dangerous natural predators of the land.
I am no artist, but Planet of Lana may be one of the most stunning-looking games I've played in a long time. Definitely the best-looking game I played in 2023.
The language-limited connection between human and loyal animal companion is what makes the Team Ico comparison so apt. The bond that builds between the two is what makes this experience so powerful, and similar language hindrances stand at the epicenter of Team Ico games like The Last Guardian and Ico. While Planet of Lana's journey is not completely silent, like many of its counterparts in the genre are, Lana and Mui speak to each other in two separate but equally alien languages.
Their limited communication makes the small moments of genuine connection infinitely more powerful. Little giggles shared after a stressful escape, mutual wonder as they stumble on some ancient artifact, and whispered commands as they work through dangerous situations. It all contributes to a heartwarming bond, one powered by the feeling that Lana and Mui need the other to get through this situation.
Lana is an adventurous young girl, but she's not some capable warrior or athletic mastermind. She stumbles with each jump, and her size leaves her unable to tackle some of the barriers facing her. Mui is small and agile, able to reach heights Lana can't, but incapable of the more nuanced use of tech the two of them encounter on the way. Without Mui, Lana would have no chance of finding her sister. And without Lana, Mui would be just another robo-captive. They need each other, but it doesn't take long for them to love each other, too. While straightforward and mostly unsurprising, the narrative's simplicity works in its favor. There are some deeper messages to read into — with the robot invasion having things to say about environmentalism and their capture of the planet's native people smacking of colonialism — but those aren't the things that the game needs to succeed.
What makes this four to five hour journey work is its heart. The "I'd go to any lengths to bring you back to me" familial bond. The powerful, unconditional love shared with an animal that becomes your best friend. The quiet moments of calm, like Lana and Mui watching the sunrise together, staring out at the impossible task ahead of them. It captures a genuine sense of adventure and shares that through the eyes of a child. It's a simplicity that works.
For better or worse, that simplicity carries through into Planet of Lana's puzzle platforming gameplay too.
As stated before, the platforming half of Planet of Lana's puzzle-platformer experience is a purposefully clumsy one. Lana controls loosely, being carried by her momentum with stumbles after long jumps and a constant distrust (both from the character herself and the player) in her athletic capabilities. She needs a run-up to make long jumps. She takes a second to recover from falls or to climb up on ledges after precarious leaps.
It keeps the tension up all throughout, reflecting the usually dangerous feeling of the cinematic platformer, as you never quite know if you timed a jump just right or if Lana's momentum will push her into a dangerous fall or out of the safety of a hiding spot.
The other half, though — the puzzles — are probably the game's weakness. They're not poorly designed, but they're not very surprising either. They keep a fairly stagnant sameness from beginning to end. Puzzles are primarily about getting Lana and Mui across a dangerous stretch, where one could easily make it through alone but getting their companion through becomes the real puzzle. Whether having to make obstacles climbable for Lana or to get Mui across a stretch of water that they don't dare step foot in, you'll be asked to do very little to get them through. Push a switch here, move a box there. It's never all that complicated.
You can ask Mui to do a few things: mostly either serving as bait for robots so that Lana can slide past unawares or just reaching far away things for Lana. Eventually, Mui will unlock some latent abilities that add some tiny wrinkles of interest to the puzzles, but nothing mind-bendingly new.
In fact, whenever Planet of Lana tries something different with its puzzle design, it remains straightforward enough that you won't be working your brain too hard. I only really felt taxed toward the end of the game, when it was more about executing precise jumps or hitting exact timing windows while dodging the game's ramped-up endgame dangers. And that was mainly an issue of checkpointing above all else.
On the whole, playing Planet of Lana is simple and effective. The way the narrative and gameplay come together gives way for Planet of Lana's best bits to take the limelight.
It lets the dazzling artwork of Wishfully's artists and the soaring tracks of Furukawa's soundtrack shine. By removing the usual barriers of difficulty and complicated puzzle work, Planet of Lana lets itself be exactly what it is — a beautiful rollercoaster ride with a heartwarming story at its core.
Planet of Lana employs this "so beautiful I can't explain it" painterly art style, where the swaying vegetation dotting the edges of one of the planet's varied overgrown environments feels freshly splotched on by some artist's brush. Where an environment's color scheme tints everything, like the blue-green swamps with their emerald-colored lakes, or the yellowed deserts with clouds of sand obscuring anything to be seen for miles in the background. Lana and Mui stand in simple contrast to the detailed backgrounds, portrayed with simple blocks of color that feel like they reflect the relative innocence and youth of these two heroes against a world aged and tested against time.
I said before that Planet of Lana is a testament to the "every frame a painting" ideal and staring at these screenshots while I write makes it even truer. These moments from the game, frozen in time — moments I know I played — feel like the enchanting pieces of concept art you find hidden in an artbook after you've finished a game. But... that's just the game. I am no artist, but Planet of Lana may be one of the most stunning-looking games I've played in a long time. Definitely the best-looking game I played in 2023.
And it's not just these static moments. In motion, Planet of Lana sings. Lana's animations are smooth and help to sell that baby deer-like clumsiness in her movements. Mui's movements are almost entirely adorable, helping convince you that the creature is one to protect and care for. From the shimmying prep of a particularly large jump to the way Mui's gaze follows Lana while she wanders around a space to solve its puzzles, Mui's simultaneously familiar and alien design and movements are a delight to watch. Mui is friend shaped and thus, Mui is friend.
Like other games in the genre, Planet of Lana attempts the seamless "one-shot" experience. Scenes bleed into one another, biomes naturally unfold into each other, and you feel as if Lana and Mui have just been heading right endlessly to wind up at their final point. But where other games pull this off seamlessly, creating an immersive play experience, Planet of Lana stumbles. It regularly fades in and out of black with each new cutscene and big gameplay chunk, presumably to hide loading in new assets. It's understandable, but a little disappointing when the game is clearly going for that end-to-end no loads, one camera shot experience; it sticks out like a sore thumb.
You know what else sticks out about Planet of Lana? But less in the sore thumb way and more in a "holy shit, this is really amazing" kind of way? Takeshi Furukawa's incredible score.
Furukawa's fully orchestrated score is old-school cool, feeling like it could accompany a big Hollywood blockbuster. It gives this intimate sci-fi adventure a bigger-than-its-britches kind of feel. It soars with sweeping strings, bellowing horns, and deep percussion as Lana and Mui find themselves in dangerous chases or watching an otherworldly scene unfold around them. But it knows how to be carefully stripped back, too, paring down to simple keys and plucked strings to highlight the moments of worry as Lana chases after her lost sister.
Music turns out to play a fairly important role in the story as well. A certain string of notes seems to follow Lana, serving as a guiding tone through her adventure and a constant refrain across the game's various tracks. Whether it's these few simple notes or a whole flurry of musicians descending on a scene, Furukawa's work is transcendent here.
Wishfully's sound design deserves a shout too. Between the grandiose moments and the alien pattering of Lana and Mui (whose patterns of speech are easy to pick up on and enjoy as well), the only sounds that accompany you are the sounds of the world around you. The ambient noise of nature, wind pushing through the trees or dusting up clouds of sand, alien creatures calling out from some far-off place. It's all juxtaposed against the harsh mechanical clicking of a robot whirring up its camera lens eye and the pin-point steps of their spider-like legs. It's a beautiful harmony.
When the whole package comes together, Wishfully's debut release truly sings. A straightforward narrative and relatively simple gameplay loop simply feel bigger than they are, made even more engaging when accompanied by an audiovisual experience as strong as Planet of Lana's.
Planet of Lana is the epitome of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. Every piece taken separately may not seem like something extraordinary, but when Wishfully has each piece of its experience clicked together, it made for one of our favorite experiences of the year.