I’m a sucker for companions in games with interesting mechanical twists. I like when I have to protect them, like Ashley Graham in Resident Evil 4, especially when I can tell her to hide in a dumpster while I clear out an area of Ganados. I love how the monster in Papo & Yo oscillates between helpful protector and terrifying beast, echoing the game’s themes of parental abuse. And even though it frustrated me to no end when it wouldn’t obey, I loved Trico in The Last Guardian, who mimics the playful unpredictability of a pet better than maybe any creature in video game history.
In Planet of Lana, a game that feels like what would happen if someone tossed an entire box of crayons at Limbo, your companion is a little black alien puffball reminiscent of the soot sprites from My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away. It seems like I’d somehow landed on this strange new planet, and it’s clear that the two of us didn’t speak the same language. But throughout the first 20 minutes or so of the Planet of Lana Steam Next Fest demo, I felt my bond with this creature grow wordlessly as we crossed simple platforming challenges and solved rudimentary puzzles using our own inherent abilities. I was strong enough to remove wooden boards that blocked the path and pull various carts and boxes that we could use to climb on and reach higher ledges, while I could direct my soot pal to hold down pressure-sensitive switches and slice cables and vines that needed a good slicing.
Neither one of us could’ve made it forward without the other, and in those opening minutes, I felt our connection fusing with every obstacle we overcame. And this foundation became important near the end of the demo, because once we came upon the alien invaders that wouldn’t hesitate to kill both of us at a moment’s notice, Planet of Lana already had me caring about our survival in a deep and palpable way.
The aliens resemble a mix of the tripods from War of the Worlds crossed with the squid-like machines from The Matrix. Their binary patrol routes, whirring mechanical noises, and pulsating lights that hummed to different colors and tones like something straight out of Close Encounters of the Third Kind stood in stark contrast to the whimsical color and beauty of the world around us.
One particular puzzle near the end of the demo perfectly encapsulated what I loved about Planet of Lana. One of the aforementioned alien machines patrolled the ground, and if my soot pal or I got spotted, it would make a beeline and instantly kill us. At first we hid out of sight under the cover of tall grass, but eventually we couldn’t make our way past the mechanical menace. However, I could direct my puffball to stand above a hole in the ground, gain the attention of the machine, then quickly dive underground and pop out of another hole while the beast ran towards it. This allowed me to press on a bit farther, but I still needed to have my companion sever a rope that would drop a pallet of wood we could use to climb to safety.
While I felt like I had solved the puzzle, I couldn’t seem to get the timing right, and the machine would chase us down before we could escape the area. That’s when I realized that I needed to flip the script — where before I used my puffy little friend as bait, this time I had to face the danger head on. With the right placement and timing, I had the machine charge straight at me, only to direct my companion to drop the payload at the last second and smash the enemy to bits, allowing us to escape to safety. Once again, neither of us could’ve gotten through this without the other, which is what makes the best companions in games truly stand out.
Planet of Lana’s concept intrigued me when we first covered it back in 2019, its gorgeous trailer wowed me back in 2021, and I knew it would be a day-one download for me when news dropped last year that it would be coming to PC, Xbox, and Game Pass. But now that I’ve actually had a chance to play the thing, it’s vaulted to one of my most anticipated games of spring 2023.