This is the ninety-seventh entry in the Scratching That Itch series, wherein I randomly select and write about one of the 1741 games and game-related things included in the Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality. The Bundle raised $8,149,829.66 split evenly between the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and Community Bail Fund, but don’t worry if you missed it. There are plenty of ways you can help support the vital cause of racial justice; try here for a start. This particular entry is also an honorary member of the Keeping Score series, about games and their soundtracks. Lastly, as always, you may click on images to view larger versions.

Another random selection from the Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality is diving in! This time, it’s Planet Diver, by Fabraz. Its tagline in the bundle reads:

Planet Diver is about an adventurous daredevil tackling her newest obsessio…

I’m pretty sure that was supposed to say “obsession”, which means I must ask, Fabraz: who do you want me to be, to make you dive with me?

It was not until I started writing this post and inserted the obligatory link to Fabraz’s site that I realized they are the developers of Demon Turf, an upcoming 3D platformer with 2D sprite characters that has been getting some positive press recently. Planet Diver, however, is an earlier title from the studio, released in 2015 as their third major game. The page includes versions for Windows, Mac and Linux, but there may have been versions for iOS and Android released as well (although I cannot find it in the Google Play Store at the moment). As the title suggests, it is a game about diving through planets. The unnamed protagonist, referred to only as “diver”, is a thrill seeker who has taken to donning a wingsuit and finding the most epic chasms in the galaxy to dive into, with the help of her robot buddy, Buddy. Players are able to guide her through 75 daring dives across three planets, with three distinct biomes each. At least, that’s the story mode. There’s also an arcade option for those who simply want to get higher scores, and options to build custom dives tailored to specific tastes.

From the description and screenshots, I was expecting a fast-paced action game with fluid movement that rewarded quick reflexes. So I was somewhat disappointed to discover that movement is not smooth, but has the diver switch between discrete “lanes” as she plummets down alien chasms. If there are some rocks ahead, she might shift two lanes to the right, conveniently lining her up with a trail of collectible starstuff, before shifting left several times again to avoid that nasty bat. Or maybe she’ll dash downwards at the bat, which serves as an attack if timed correctly, and also increases her overall speed. If there’s too much going on she might decide to brake, slowing her speed again and letting her temporarily dodge any obstacles in her way, even if she would have otherwise passed right through them. All this does still require quick reflexes, but feels a bit slower and more methodical than I had anticipated.

Each dive is brief, just a few minutes. But each has its own objectives, told via short dialogues between the diver and her robot sidekick Buddy before the dive begins. Sometimes she simply must reach a certain distance without “dying” (taking too much damage from hitting enemies or obstacles triggers her emergency teleporter, bringing her back to the planet surface), other times she must defeat a certain number of enemies, or chain attacks together, or perform some other heroic feat while still reaching the end of the stage. Often she will make bets with Buddy, daring herself to hug the walls for a certain amount of time, or complete the entire dive at high speed. Whatever the goal, there are three grades for performance, so players can get by with the minimum bronze rating if they just want to see the next part of the story, or can perfect their dives to nab a gold star every time. While the individual stages appear to simply be parts of the same epic dive, players return to the surface in between, and can spend the starstuff they collected on various purchases. Some are simple cosmetic upgrades, changing the diver’s suit into an homage to another game, but some change the mechanics of the dives themselves. Presented as mods for Buddy, one might remove the ability to attack via dashing but cause buddy to fire a projectile at enemies below when braking, while another removes the slowest diving speed and adds a new, tier four top speed for the truly adventurous.

Brilliantly, some of the story mode stages are shop promotions, which grant the player one of these mods to let them test drive (or should I say, test dive?) it to see how they like it. These stages are designed to highlight the mod in question, however, which can give an unrealistic impression. In other words, a perfect simulation of a sales pitch. One mod that I got to try in a promotion made it so that the diver was doing her dash move all the time, so I no longer needed to actively attack enemies and could simply fly through them. The downside was a smaller health bar and the inability to brake, which meant no dodging and no slowing down. I had to dive at the highest speed all the time. During the promo, there were a lot of extra enemies, so I could chain attacks through them to recover lost health, and it was awesome. Buying the mod and trying it later, however, I found that with the typical amount of enemies it was much harder to stay alive, especially when dodging became more important in later stages. But my main complaint with these mods is that they are so expensive. After completing the entire story mode, I’d only managed to afford a few of them, far less than half of the total offer. I guess it’s nice that players who want to keep playing in arcade mode still have things to save up for, but the high prices made me feel that I was barely making any progress towards purchases, and meant that I didn’t get to try out very many.

It also served to highlight the limitations of the dives themselves. They are procedurally generated, but within such tight constraints that they soon felt repetitive, and I was only really persevering to see the next bit of the story mode. Some dives are quite tough too, and I didn’t relish repeating the same challenge several times when the dives were already getting stale. Here’s where shop mods could have offered some much needed variety, but of course I wasn’t able to afford any until I’d nearly completed the first planet. And the first planet is by far the least interesting. It starts with a simple rocky ravine infested with bats, before moving into a magma zone, and culminating in deep caves full of spiders and their webs. It’s like a series of the most generic videogame environments, an uninspired take on what an alien chasm might contain. Thankfully, the second planet is a big improvement, stylized as tropical paradise in which the diver plummets into an ocean trench full of fish and other sea creatures. I had a lot more fun with these dives, which even feature physics-defying patches of water along the descent that automatically slow her fall.

The third planet isn’t a planet at all, but an asteroid entering the solar system. This wasn’t as fun as the second planet, but has some cool ideas, and an all-too-brief section in which the diver finds herself plummeting down a disused space elevator. I wish more of the game was as creative as this section, which was so much brighter and visually distinct from the rest, and made the best use of my widescreen monitor with its planetary horizon stretching across the background (the narrow chasms seem designed for mobile screens in portrait mode, rather than a standard desktop display). Sadly, the robot enemies in this section were very clearly reskins of creatures I’d encountered before, even using the same bestial sound effects. I would have loved to see the space elevator made into its own full planet dive, and would happily have traded the first planet for it if necessary.

So I did have some fun during the dives, even if I was starting to lose interest before the end of the story. I liked a lot of other things about Planet Diver, though. I love the surfaces of the planets, which show the diver’s landing pod and equipment, set up near the chasm. These are presented like footage from a camera, complete with a scanline effect, similar to the view during the actual dives (the diver is, naturally, filming her dives to post to social media and earn tons of views). These vistas act as the game’s menu, where players can access the shop, game settings, and choose their next dive, but they’re so much more interesting to look at than they need to be. Creatures will occasionally wander past, or perhaps an insect will start crawling on the camera lens. Various bits of scenery can be clicked on for a small visual and audio reaction. Buddy is there and offers quips. Speaking of which, the back and forth between the diver and Buddy is also quite nice. The diver’s enthusiasm for her stunts is infectious, winning me over and even, eventually, Buddy himself, who loses his initial pragmatism and embraces the danger. Between planets there are some cool comic-style segments that pop in frame by frame, showing the diver choosing her next destination. All of this gives the game a great sense of style. I just wish more of that came through in the dives themselves.

Planet Diver is the kind of game that’s best played in short spurts, I think. While I had some trouble motivating myself to continue through to the end, your diving depth may vary, and I freely admit that things got more interesting later on. Lower shop prices would help a lot, letting players try out more things as they go through the story. As is, I never even touched any of the purely cosmetic purchases, because that would just siphon away my limited budget for actual mods. Still, Planet Diver is worth a look if some daredevil diving sounds like fun to you. If you missed it in the bundle, it’s sold for a minimum price of $3.99, including verisons for Windows, Mac and Linux, and some extras in the form of a digital art book (which shows some unused art for extra planets!) and a digital soundtrack. Which reminds me…

The Score:

The Planet Diver soundtrack is very brief: just three tracks, which play during the dives on each of the three planets. Each is designed to be looped after a short intro, and none are longer than two minutes, for an overall runtime of just 4:19. This is a bit disappointing, since there the game also features ambient music that plays while hanging out on the planet surfaces, and it would have been nice if those pieces were included too. But when the music is offered for free along with the game, it’s hard to complain.

There is no information about the composer of the music, so I don’t know if it was written for the game or licensed from elsewhere. It falls under the electro swing genre, which is relatively new to me, but its name is accurate. The tracks fuse a thumping, house beat and synthesizer lines with traditional swing jazz, full of bouncy horn lines, string melodies and jaunty rhythms. It’s not what I expected for a game about diving through planets, but it works, and the idea of a big band providing the soundtrack for an extreme sports video is inherently amusing. During the game, having these short tracks play for dive after dive only reinforces the feeling of repetition, but on their own they’re a satisfying listen and a good way to remember game’s strong style.

That’s 97 down, and only 1644 to go!