The Plane Effect (Xbox Series S) Review

Tripping through space and time.
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The Plane Effect – developed by Innovina and StudioKiku, published by PQube – is a surreal, audio-visual experience that plays like a streamlined point-and-click adventure. There’s no direct storytelling, but the succession of increasingly weird encounters and cutscenes make for a compelling experience. The problem is the basic gameplay feels clunky and the puzzles – much like the classic genre they emulate – are inflexible, often illogical, and force plenty of backtracking.

After a long day in the office, lost in the glow of his monitor, the protagonist gets up from his desk to find the place deserted. There’s an ominous-looking maelstrom in the sky outside, and the office door is locked. After a brief puzzle that requires tossing a seemingly insignificant paper plane, he emerges into a sci-fi cityscape to begin the journey home. This intriguing setup is all you get before a mundane trip – which starts with puzzles revolving around recovering a ticket for the metro and summoning a taxi – takes a turn for the weird, goes off the rails, and the rest of the story is left open for interpretation.

The protagonist is clearly a family man, desperate to get home to his wife and child, but several encounters with ghostly apparitions, panning shots of clearly artificial locations, and increasingly surreal sequences will leave you wondering if anything he experiences is real, symbolic of his fears, or some lucid dream while he’s passed out in front of his PC. Befitting the dystopian sci-fi themes, you work towards a finale that is a mix of closure and despair, so don’t go in expecting a coherent narrative or conclusive ending.

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It’s going to be a rough night…

The core gameplay is – mechanically speaking – simple. You move the protagonist around from an isometric perspective (with minimal camera control), keep an eye out for collectable and interactive objects, then puzzle your way past obstacles in your path. The game progresses linearly, moving from scene to scene, most named after scientific concepts or cosmic phenomena. There’s no inventory to manage, no cluttered journal full of details, and – if you pick the default “normal” setting – very little guidance outside of some smartly designed audio and visual cues.

There are, of course, action-oriented diversions but these are all too often frustrating rather than fun. There’s imprecise platforming that can lead to repeated climbs, sequences that require you to dodge fast-moving hazards while fighting the sluggish movement, and twitchy sections that have you driving a vehicle, dinghy, or minecart. However, the bulk of the experience revolves around puzzles that boil down to finding the right item, to use on the right object, in the correct order (and sometimes with the correct timing).

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The use of lighting and colour, interaction icons, a few notes, and environmental clues will all guide you forward. Unfortunately, many of the more surreal interactions feel arbitrary and, as a result, are often solved through trial and error.

Given the interaction icons are vague and the distant perspective makes identifying objects difficult, it’s often hard to figure out what you’ve picked up and what it could be used for (and many interactions make little sense anyway). Given the streamlined design, you often can’t pick up other key items prematurely, adding a considerable amount of backtracking in larger areas. This results in an experience that feels both inflexible in design and padded out, and The Plane Effect was one of the rare games that I walked away from sure that I had played it for twice as long as the stats revealed.

Make no mistake, there are times the visuals and audio create an enjoyable blend of exploration, puzzling, and progression. These are the moments The Plane Effect shines, as you move briskly from one creative scene to the next, never sure of what you’ll see next. Other times, it feels like scenes drag on, as you repeat the same basic puzzle or avoid the same hazards (a section inside a giant worm and another navigating maze-like dock were the biggest offenders). At its worst, The Plane Effect combines large environments with arbitrary puzzles, devolving into immersion-destroying trial and error gameplay.

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From the midway point, the size of the environments and the number of puzzle steps needed to progress increase. It didn’t take long before I decided to start using the assist modes to avoid wasting time.

Thankfully, The Plane Effect offers two assist modes. The “Narrative Hint” mode is a great option to enable from the get-go, allowing you to hold a button and see a small icon that hints at the next step you need to take. This could suggest you need to pick up an object or it might be a visual representation of something you need to interact with. The “Guided” mode is the next step up and, while sometimes useful, is a little too on-the-rails. It provides a visible trail leading to the next interaction and even highlights the correct order to solve some puzzles, removing the need to find notes or recognise environmental clues.

My advice would be to make use of these assists when you need them. The Plane Effect is all about the journey and audio-visual presentation so, whenever you find the pace grinds to a halt and you’re left methodically searching environments and trying to use every object, it can drag you out of the experience. Unfortunately, there’s no way to avoid or skip the clunky action-based sequences.

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The platforming is not great and, little did I know at the time, there was far more to come.

I’ve used the term “audio-visual experience” several times now and for good reason. The Plane Effect, despite its limited isometric viewpoint and geometrically simple models, offers incredibly stylized designs, an unsettling ambience, and an incredible soundtrack to generate atmosphere. It helps, of course, that the premise allows for frequent shifts in location. The harsh and angular world feels distinctly cold and unfriendly. Deep shadows and detailed reflections add depth. Most areas are desaturated, but harsh lighting and rare displays of colour are used to highlight puzzle items or guide you through more open areas. Both the background ambience and jazz-infused electronic music sound great but are also deliberately distorted at times, adding to the unsettling and surreal vibes.

All things considered, The Plane Effect offers a compelling and surreal journey, with impactful visuals and a beautiful soundscape, but the gameplay often feels clunky and obtuse puzzles can kill the pacing. Sure, you can enable assists to help with puzzles and navigating the larger environments, but streamlined item management still means lots of backtracking, and the action-based sequences are unavoidable. If the premise and presentation have caught your eye, give The Plane Effect a chance, just never feel bad about using assist modes to keep moving forward.

A review code for The Plane Effect was provided to gameblur by the publisher.

The Plane Effect (Xbox Series S) Review

The Plane Effect (Xbox Series S) Review
7 10 0 1
7/10
Total Score
  • Story
    8/10 Very Good
    There's no direct storytelling but the escalating weirdness of the experience and stylish cutscenes are compelling.
  • Gameplay
    5/10 Neutral
    Streamlined but obtuse puzzles are coupled with too much backtracking and clunky action-based sequences. The assist modes can help but only for the puzzles.
  • Visuals
    8/10 Very Good
    Stylish, angular, harsh, and cold - they perfectly capture the sci-fi dystopian setting.
  • Audio
    8/10 Very Good
    The ambiance and soundtrack work in tandem to create an unsettling and surreal atmosphere.

The Good

  • A progressively weirder and surreal journey
  • Stylish visuals coupled with a fantastic soundtrack
  • Assist modes for when you find yourself stuck on a puzzle

The Bad

  • Inflexible and illogical puzzles frustrate and ruin the pacing
  • Clunky platforming and timing-based sections
  • Several sequences drag on too long
Total
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