Peterborough, Jul 2019
Operation Dead Planet is a game I’ve been trying to play for a while; the 4 player minimum combined with Hour Escape Rooms’ location on the outskirts of Peterborough made it logistically difficult to schedule. The high minimum is due to the split start used, and a smaller team would in fact be fine if players don’t mind working solo for a stretch.
As the briefing area decor made clear, this is a sci-fi game; but don’t expect lots of gleaming starship interiors. This one takes place on the surface of a mysterious planet, which gives it a very different visual style to other space games. While that decor is built in quite a simple way at times, such as picture wallpaper to make an indoor room look like an outdoor environment, I found the overall effect quite impressive, though it could have done with some lighting or audio effects to really convey an alien world.
Split into two groups, players initially communicate using the trusty mechanism of shouting through thin walls. I don’t know whether that’s annoyingly audible from other rooms in the venue, but it worked perfectly well for us. As you might guess, communication and coordination are significant game elements. Story is also emphasised: your job is to work out what happened to the researchers who were previously resident on the planet, and there’s a good amount of narrative that unfolds. Since that was mostly delivered in the form of diary and journal entries, some of our team read everything and others ignored the plot entirely in favour of puzzles, and found it confusing as a result.
There was no shortage of ways to get confused, though. Games often suffer from not enough signposting, with the result that players have too many false trails to sort through to find the intended approach. Dead Planet actually had quite a bit of signposting – it was just that at several points we found the intended clues as misleading as helpful, due to unintended ambiguities. There were things that seemed very obviously part of a puzzle but which turned out to be not needed; there were fussy sensors; there were clues that I found just too cryptic to be useful. More than any of those we got confused by unintended similarities between different tasks, such that we thought we completed task A using object B, but object B was actually supposed to be used with task C later on, and the object that was actually intended for task A became a curious red herring.
Dead Planet has plenty of promise, from an original concept and clear story, effective decor and an imaginative design. It uses its split start well and doesn’t let it outstay its welcome. Even so, the gameplay flounders where it should flow. It’s not short of content, but the fact it’s rated as the venue’s hardest game strikes me as more to do with the many opportunities for confusion than anything else. Still, push through the points of friction and there’s an enjoyable game hiding somewhere underneath.