Wednesday, 26 April 2017

PLANET'S EDGE: THE POINT OF NO RETURN


Released in 1991 by New World Computing, the folks behind the Might & Magic franchise, Planet's Edge: The Point of No Return was certainly a unique game for its time. With its non-linear gameplay, free space exploration and an epic RPG storyline, one could even consider it to be the Mass Effect of its day. And with the huge number of planets to explore accross the universe, it certainly rivals it in scale.

The year is 2045 AD and Earth is in a panic over the arrival of an unknown space vessel orbiting the planet. Being the warmongering race that we are, the military order a pre-emptive strike against the mysterious ship. In what appears to be retaliation, it lets out a violent burst of electromagnetic energy before crash landing on our moon near a man-operated Lunar outpost.

That blast of energy was not benign. It has trapped our world in a cosmic wormhole, hidden and isolated from the rest of the universe leaving the moon with nothing to orbit. Scientists residing on the stranded Lunar base have used the wreckage to discover that it was not a reactionary attack. This was a planned experiment testing a piece of alien technology known as the Centauri Device - and we were the guinea pigs.

You command a group of four crew-members tasked with searching the eight sectors of deep space to find parts needed to re-create the device, reverse the wormhole and bring back the Earth. Your crew is not as memorable as my modern-day comparison. Each is given a name and occupation, but their disappointly lacking in any personality. They do have randomly generated stats for a number of different attributes, but they'll never change throughout the adventure - an unusual choice for an RPG. Their deaths are almost meaningless as well. If one or all of them die, you can simply clone them from the Moonbase's crew quarters. Hell, if you're not keen on the stats given to them, clone them again anyway to see if anything better comes up.

The Moonbase is where you'll start the game. As well as cloning, you can also grab some equipment from the warehouse, do some research and build up your space ship (the basic save/load/quit options are here too, though you can do this any time with Ctrl-S, Ctrl-l and Ctrl-Q respectively). These are the sections where the real strategic depth of the game is. Items can be bought and traded, new blueprints can be found and researched whch will lead to inter-galactic trasure hunts and upgrades can be added to your ship. In fact, your ship has more of a progression arch than your crew. It can be upgraded to quite a degree, though pay attention to its size. Too big and you won't be able to land on some planets. Too small and hostile encounters will be tougher. You can change any component at the base whenever you want, so nothing is permanent.

Planet's Edge's universe is HUGE. This Starmap does nothing to covey the actual scope.

When you launch into space, you'll be taken to the exploration portion of the game. The four crew members each have a specific role on the ship: a navigator, a weapons officer, a science officer and a ship's engineer. The Navigator naturally deals with steering your ship. The menu-based options aren't always what you'd expect. For example, when another ship is nearby, you can enter pursuit mode which will chase him down. You may think it's only good when going in for the attack but it's also a useful and necessary trick to discover inhabited planets. Follow them without engaging and you will go direct to a planet you know you can visit. They can be easily missed in the vast expanse of space otherwise. Auto-pilot is also an option, but you'll need to know where you're going first, and the only way to do that is by going there.

Other than the obvious ability to view the map (which contains around 100 star systems with a plethora of planets in each), the Navigator provides the ability to enter or leave a planet's orbit. You can't land or beam down on a planet unless you enter its orbit first, nor can you freely explore space before leaving it. For a section that's filled with endless expanses of nothingness, this does feel lke an uneccesary mechanic.

The Weapons Officer does more than just engage in combat. He's the primary communicator with other space craft. Sometimes the other ship is friendly and will perhaps offer up some advice or trade, but when they're not you can attack. If you do, the ship's screen will switch to combat mode. The fighting here is simplistic, with an option for auto or manual fire. There'll be times when one would be more beneficial over the other, but I tended to focus on manual attacks. Whatever you do, be careful with the self-destruct button. Only use it in emergencies so that Moonbase technology stays out of the enemies' hands. You're travelling with clones, so the crew's expendable anyway.

The Ship's Engineer will be able to check the status of your ship and control any cargo you're carrying. Useful when trading or dumping unwanted loads. The Science Officer is the Scotty of the crew. She actions any scans to nearby ships and planets and allows you to beam the crew down to the surface. And she's a decent medic as well. How decent she or any of the crew are at their jobs depends on their stats, which do make a difference. They change everytime you call upon a replacement clone so if you come up with a good one, try your damnded to keep them.

When you do find a planet to land on, you'll enter the best sections of the game. Surface exploration takes a top-down perspective similar to Ultima VI which was current at the time (ironic considering Planet's Edge is from the same developer as its rival Might & Magic). Here you can navigate maze-like compounds, avoid traps, solve puzzles and, as always, fight. The bulk of the overarching story is played out here, with the odd side story thrown in. Some planets are inhabitable and therefore unexplorable while others play host to a detailed and intricate civilization, filled with people who all somehow speak English. Out of all the different types of gameplay features in the game, these are by far the most entertaining.

With such a huge space map, a massive reliance on menu-driven interactions, the game can be a chore to get into. Those excellent surface sections come after a decent amount of time spent organising on the Moonbase and fumbling in deep space. The non-linear story progression is should be applauded, but it also exacerbates the directionless meandering that takes up a large part of the game, especially early on. The amount of options available to you and the little in-game information given about them is certainly overwhelming at first. My advice: study the 'Quick Reference Guide'. It contains all the useful information in it's 20 pages that the manual spends many a paragraph waffling on about, if at all. I'd also suggest to play with the keyboard instead of the mouse. Options applied to keys are easier to perform, while landing on the Moonbase will also yield some valuable information that is somehow skipped over when using the mouse.

Planet's Edge is an early RPG that surprising holds up very well to this day. I would bet that if a modern day remake came to pass, it would stand toe-to-toe with BioWare's epic space opera. Even in its current form, the size, scope and ambition matches it. If you can get over the tedious bump that is the first hour or so, you'll be rewarded with quite an epic adventure. Highly recommended.


To download the game, follow the link below. This custom installer exclusive to The Collection Chamber uses DOSBox to bring the game to modern systems. Manual Included. Tested on Windows 10.

File Size: 10 Mb.  Install Size: 13 Mb.  Need help? Consult the Collection Chamber FAQ

Download


Planet's Edge: The Point of No Return is © New World Computing
Review, Cover Design and Installer created by me

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