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Planet Alpha 31 is a stunning sci-fi game made without a programmer

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"My programming skills suck," says Adrian Lazar as I play his video game, a retro sci-fi romp with an appropriately matinee-friendly title, Planet Alpha 31.

Lazar, a professional game artist with experience at a AAA studio, began work on the indie side-project in 2013 using the Unity game engine, but his lack of programming experience led to an extended hiatus. Lazar only returned to the game when he learned of Unreal Engine 4 and its Blueprint Visual Scripting, which allows non-programmers to create games with a visual node-based work flow.

If that all sounds heady and technical, welcome to Lazar's experience designing games. The important bit is this: the new technology has allowed Lazar and teammate Tim Skafte to create a visually stunning project that, while straightforward in gameplay, still holds its own alongside its genre contemporaries with larger teams with more programming experience. The side-project is now their full-time job.

The claymation-like art style of Planet Alpha 31 is a mix of inspirations and limitations. Back in 2013, Lazar played adventure classic Another World on the iPad. He wanted to create something similar of his own. The game's alien planet is full of life that echoes that inspiration. Planet Alpha 31 is played on a 2D-plane, but 3D creatures as small as birds and as large and brontosaurus roam through the world. The soft, clayish style comes from a budgetary decision not to put textures on the environment or characters, giving them a doughy-look.

During the demo, I couldn't stop firing my blaster. The shooting itself is fun, but what I love most about the blaster is how its neon-green payload zips through the world, lighting up the forest and fauna. The art is so rich, dense, and relaxing, that it's surprising when the action ramps up, and hostile critters fill the screen.

The two artists are also working with a sound designer and animator, and they have money aside for hiring a programmer should an emergency strike. "But so far, so good," says Lazar.

Playing the game, I have to agree.

Planet Alpha 31 is scheduled for release in 2017 on PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.