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Starbound (PC) artwork

Starbound (PC) review

" seems to me Chucklefish asked and answered a lot of “what if” questions."

For the longest time I labored under the impression that Starbound was in Early Access, and even insisted that I wouldn’t review it while that was the case. Well, I was wrong, but it does concern me somewhat. Early Access and Beta releases have blurred the lines of our expectations, and I know I’m joining voices like Jimquisition and TotalBiscuit (do yourself a favor and look them up), but it flavors my perspective as I try to tell you just how much fun this game is to play.

It is, for want of a more clever comparison, the natural progression of lessons learned by the Chucklefish development team. I feel we don’t give enough credit to people who do a job well, and I insist that more than a paycheque is required. Not much more, but… here it is: Some gratitude. Terraria garnered industry attention, critical success and the relentless tides of player amusement and discontent.

Chucklefish pressed on and do what game developers do best: Entertain us with new, refined ideas. Refinement, a principle of this review, is what makes Starbound such a pleasure. The science fiction setting is entirely appropriate, because it seems to me Chucklefish asked and answered a lot of “what if” questions.

For instance: What if you were in the future and had a multi-tool that could transform and store matter? Meet the Matter Manipulator, your everytool answer. You can use it to chop down trees, break apart buildings, poke holes in the background walls of caves so light can shine through while spelunking. It’s also upgradable; liquid manipulation, electronics wiring and object coloring are part of its functions.

They also settled a lot of hashes (and hashtags) by jettisoning the setting into the far flung future. You assume the role of a lone surviving Protector and must find a way to survive a wide, pixel drawn universe. According to the Starbound Steam store page, “there’s no wrong way to play”, and it makes good on that promise.

At the start you’ll have chosen from one of seven available races; the medieval robot Glitches, western gas based Novakids; the nomadic – and carnivorous – plant Florans; the wingless Aztec Avians; the technologically advanced, ape-like Apex; the graceful aquatic East Asian Hyltol; and the ever present Humans. Choose your clothes, your appearance, and gender, and let the exploring begin.

Once you’ve acquired the necessary backstory and equipment, you’ll have to wrestle with the fact that you’re a lone survivor in space. Your damaged space ship could take you elsewhere, if its Faster Than Light drive wasn’t depleted of fuel and an important piece of hardware. S.A.I.L., your onboard AI, insists that hope lay on the planet around which you orbit. Nothing left to do but teleport on down and take your chances!

Truth be told, you’re left to your own devices once you’ve gotten all the basics of how the game works, and while we’re on the topic, Terraria put a special emphasis on transportation, and the tradition continues in this 'successor'. Chucklefish decided, since this is a science fiction based game and a platformer, that you might as well have access to the most iconic abilities of the genre.

Your jump and dash abilities can be augmented in one of three ways, after completing a short quest. In a daring – and perhaps obvious – move, you’re granted Samus’ morph ball. It too has three versions, but you’ll most likely want the spike version, since you can climb nearly any surface without aid. I found that augmenting the dash function can be thrown to the bottom of the “must haves” list, because there just isn’t a lot of flat ground to run across.

Tutorial mode concludes when you have gained access to Starbound's hub world, the Outpost and Ark and completed the first “real” mission to repair your ship’s FTL drive. Here you can buy what you need and begin the lore pursuing quests that will take you through the built-in storyline. Which, I hasten to add, has an appropriate orchestral range to support its epic reach.

The rest is literally up to you. Playing solo is fun, for a while, but the NPCs and story don’t mesh well enough to give you the ethos you need to play for very long. I highly recommend that you create, or join a multiplayer server and find some people to play with. If you just want to fly around the universe and collect upgrades for your Matter Manipulator and ship, that’s not a bad option.

In fact, if you want to gain a good understanding of just what’s going on, you might want to run a solo character in addition to your multiplayer games. That way you’ve got a little more time to ponder the things your friends don’t want to hang around to investigate. There is a deep lore, rich with contributions from Kickstarter backers and forum-goers. You might consider that book you picked up trash, but it’s recorded in your character’s record, and can make for some interesting reading.

The Environmental Protection Pack opens doors to some classic science fiction concept worlds. Like an abandoned penal colony under water, a swamp mired tribal village, robot populated castles in steampunk style and more. You needn’t be the violent type, either; quests will ask you to mine ores, deliver goods and grow food as often as they will ask you to protect a village or individual. There seems to be an equal balance of all these types.

Of course, you can also massacre every person who lives in that village, but don’t assume there will be no consequences. Larger villages have guards who can quickly send an inexperienced madman back to his respawn point. Depending on the difficulty setting, that can be a costly measure, as well, penalizing you anywhere from 10% of your “pixels”, to dropped items or permadeath.

In the pedigree of Chucklefish’s games, you can construct your own colony and be your own landlord. Of course, if you want to really get into space, then the mech may be your machine. You can navigate to small unexplored zones of space and collect valuable upgrade loot. Just keep an eye on the locals; you are an intruder, until you find that venerable security control panel, at least.

For as much a survival game this is, there are user-centric mechanics that elevate it from its tedious genre cousins. Teleportation is “always on”, and you can craft flags if you want to bookmark your location for future visits. Death is temporary, and if friends aren’t available, then crewmates are all to happy to join you on your “away” missions. You have five inventory bags, and you can craft enough to survive anything that comes long, if you’re cautious.

I didn't commit to playing this game until my nephew recommended it, and our multiplayer adventures have been absolutely stellar. However, the idea it was in Early Access made me apprehensive about its future. In fact, even in its current state, there are noticeable flaws with NPC quests, and they don’t always work as advertised. However, this is the single glitch I could discern in what is otherwise a very polished product.

Starbound is also extremely popular, and the fact that the developers take feedback so well makes this a valuable addition to your library, especially considering that Steam Workshop gives you access to mods that can expand its universe into something you can explore for hundreds of hours. At full price, it is a bargain. So, what will you do in your space adventure?

hastypixels's avatar
Community review by hastypixels (June 27, 2017)

At some point you stop justifying what you play and begin to realize what you're learning by playing.

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