I've built all sorts of castles and underground bunkers in open-world survival crafting games, but The Planet Crafter offered me my first opportunity to build an entire ecosystem. I enthusiastically dove in to explore what it had to offer.
Terraforming games are a somewhat niche subgenre. I can think of exactly two games with terraforming as the primary subject off the top of my head: Per Aspera and Terraforming Mars. These are strategy games played from a top-down, planetwide perspective, though, and that's where The Planet Crafter diverges -- this experience developed by Miju Games lets you bring an entire planet to life from the first-person perspective of someone on the ground.
Home is Where the Oxygen Is
The opening moments of The Planet Crafter will be well familiar to fans of survival games. You start with some basic equipment, a handful of supplies, and a wide-open world to explore. The catch, however, is that your planet is a barren, lifeless rock -- and it's up to you to change that.
Terraforming the planet requires you to generate oxygen, heat, and pressure through the construction of specialized machines, all of which require you to set up power infrastructure. You're a squishy human, too, so you'll need to find sources of food and water. Your only options at first are melting ice and salvaging food from storage crates, but you'll soon be able to progress to producing food and water.
A threadbare tutorial walks you through the whole process, eventually advising you to advance to the next stage of terraformation. After that, you're effectively left to your own devices to continue terraforming -- but that will soon take a back seat to exploration.
The Planet Crafter does not have infinite resources on the surface. As you build more and more machines, you'll have to walk further afield and you'll inevitably encounter a crashed ship or a mysterious ladder poking out of the ground. These derelict ships, crashed satellites, and underground bunkers are the remnants of past terraforming efforts and are packed with valuable loot.
As with the ore on the surface, the ship's leftovers are finite -- once they're gone, they're gone.
Exploring these locations is a mild challenge at best. In fact, the most difficult problem might be figuring out how to take all of the loot out of there in as few trips as possible. There are no real puzzles or mysteries to uncover save for the occasional secret wall; walking around with your building tool in Deconstruct Mode will reveal them. It's sort of like exploring old-school Doom for the first time, clicking on every single wall to see if something happens. (Slightly more complex puzzles are introduced in later areas.)
As with the ore on the surface, the ship's leftovers are finite -- once they're gone, they're gone. This strict early-game economy is balanced out by the fact that you can recover 100% of the materials of anything you craft or build, but it felt a little too grindy from the perspective of a base-building nut who goes through iron ore like Serious Sam goes through bullets.
The Terraforming process is relatively straightforward at first. Building more oxygen machines increases the planet's oxygen faster, building more heaters increases the planet's heat faster, and so on. As you hit specific terraforming milestones, you'll unlock new buildings and can upgrade to superior equipment that works faster.
You'll have to run around to a half-dozen different locations to collect everything you need, and that takes time.
The machines are doing all of the work here -- you're just watching a number on a screen go up. And you might want that number to go up faster, so you'll get to work building more machines. Then, you'll suddenly find that you've run out of power, so you need to fix that, too. Progressing to higher levels of terraforming slowly adds more tasks for you to do.
This is exacerbated when you reach Tier 3 and Tier 4 of the terraforming machines. These high-end devices require rarer materials that can only be found in specific locations. Once the initial ore is gone, your only option is to build power-hungry Ore Extractors to automatically dig them up over time. You'll have to run around to a half-dozen different locations to collect everything you need, and that takes time. You can build teleporters in the later parts of the game, but it takes a lot to get there.
A big part of The Planet Crafter's challenge in the early hours is the difficulty in finding the resources you need in sufficient quantity. This eventually changes once you unlock automated mining machines, and it was right about here that I was presented with a different kind of problem -- a lack of information.
I had a major issue with a lack of overall guidance when the terraforming process started to slow down. It's difficult to tell if you need more of a particular Terraforming parameter (Oxygen, Heat, Pressure, or Biomass) and, more importantly, how much more of it you need. You can definitely overbuild. There needs to be more transparency in the requirements for the next terraforming stage.
Where Does The Planet Crafter Go From Here?
The early game of The Planet Crafter is fairly strong. It's engaging, progress moves rapidly, and there is a lot to discover. Post-launch additions keep you engaged with new machines to build and new mechanics to play with, too.
Beyond that, things get a bit tricky -- by the time plants and trees are growing, you've probably already explored most of the map or walked outside of it in the handful of areas where the map geometry has a hole. Based on the game's post-launch updates, I expect that this will improve with time.
The Planet Crafter loses some of its luster once you've exhausted the exploration and story content, and I don't think the survival and terraforming aspects alone are enough to carry the game on their own once you've reached the end of new content.
Granted, the terraformation process justifies the recycling of content. New plants and valuable ores like Zeolite will pop up in previously-explored areas, giving you a reason to go back and see what's new. Although this cosmetically changes some locations, it doesn't affect the various derelict ships and other manmade locations in the game. This felt like a missed opportunity to me -- it would have been cool to see a tree rip through a ship's hull and open up a new path of exploration or something along those lines.
The Planet Crafter fundamentally feels like an interesting take on the terraforming formula, blending in survival and exploration while the world is changing all around you. It loses some of its luster once you've exhausted the exploration and story content, and I don't think the survival and terraforming aspects alone are enough to carry the game on their own once you've reached the end of new content. This is definitely something that survival fans will want to check out, but bear in mind that you might have to wait a few months to progress once you finally run out of meaningful progression.
TechRaptor previewed The Planet Crafter on Steam Early Access with a key provided by the publisher.