Chucklefish's hotly anticipated indie sci-fi sandbox simulation Starbound, now playable in its Beta format, has been a long time coming. Though many of its planned features are still to come (and if you buy the game in Beta, you'll get all these updates and the full version as they come!) Perhaps unsurprisingly, Starbound plays a lot like Terraria, only in space, with a spaceship, and an infinite number of procedurally generated planets to visit. Initially, you play a character of your creation whose ship has narrowly avoided destruction and soon finds themselves adrift above an alien planet without fuel or hope of rescue. Much of your time is spent toddling around the planets you visit, harassing and being harassed by the local wildlife as you gather a variety of components to craft everything from your basic stone furnace, to bow and arrows, to mechs. Yes, that's right. Giant robotic suits of armor. But like everything else, you'll have to work for it.
You'll start out with a Matter Manipulator that can s-l-o-w-l-y chip away at everything from trees to ore to break them down into manageable chunks for you to pick up, but these tasks will go a lot faster when you craft the appropriate tools, like axes and picks. Using the materials you gather, you can begin to combine them to make more and more things at crafting tables, anvils, and furnaces, including weapons (both melee and ranged) and armor. The wider variety of items you find and craft, the more blueprints you'll unlock to make even more items with, or just get creative and build your own houses and structures. You can decorate and enhance your ship with new add-ons, but the ones it comes with, like the 3D Printer than can allow you to instantly recreate any printable item you scan with it, are pretty darned useful too.
Hostile aliens can come out at any time of day, but though they're in greater numbers at night, falling temperatures when the sun goes down can be just as deadly if you aren't dressed sufficiently or near a fire. In addition to alien beasts that can be hunted down for meat, provided they don't do the same to you first, you can also plant and farm crops to keep your character's belly full, an important part of surviving through the days and nights ahead. If you're sick of hunting down aliens, why not build a cooking table and create mouthwatering dishes out of things you've harvested from all over the universe?
Of course, you won't be staying on just one planet. Throw some coal into your ship to convert it into fuel to travel the stars, and that's where Starbound's unique appeal is. Each planet you visit is randomly generated, from its atmosphere to resources to its flora and fauna, and even how those creatures look and behave. A planet's threat level determines how difficult you'll find it to explore and fight on, with higher levels boasting stronger aliens and more hostile conditions in general. Moons, for example, tend to get colder quicker, especially at lower levels, but have a much higher concentration of valuable ore, especially at higher levels. Every little point of light on your ship's map represents its own little cluster of wildly different planets, and if you bring a friend or three along with you in multiplayer, the journey is even more fun. As the game updates, so will the amount of things you can do. What about capturing and training alien life forms? Colonizing a planet of your choice? Enhancing and customising your spaceship? And hey... whatever happened to those aliens who attacked your ship anyway?
Analysis: Starbound is one gorgeous, gorgeous little game, from its character design to its beautiful environmental art, and the soundtrack is nice and easy on the ears to boot. But how easy is it to play? Well, mechanically it's pretty simple, with the standard [WASD] default for movement and the mouse to interact, though there are so many hotkeys you might want to read the in-game codex (that's the little book icon on the right) rather than rely on the tutorial. It can't be overstated how tremendously useful the Matter Manipulation tool is. While it may stink at cutting down trees and other activities, being able to building enormous structures or simply "staircases" just by painting with your mouse, or zap a torch into position in a darkened area. Combat is a bit less easy-breezy, though mostly because the controls that are fine for hopping and wandering around the landscape don't necessarily feel as quick as they should to fight. Jumping has a slight, slow, dreamy quality to it that means you won't be leaping around your foes like Errol Flynn, and dealing with more than one enemy can be nightmarish as a result since they all want to charge and fling themselves at you at the same time.
Expect to be in this for the long haul, and do a lot of planet-hopping to track down everything you need. Unfortunately, there's no way to search for a specific type or threat level of planet, leaving you to click through endless identical-looking star clusters until you find what you want. This actually works to the game's benefit in a way by forcing you into the habit of planet-hopping more frequently to keep things fresh. It's always fun to see what new creatures you'll encounter, and occasionally be surprised by the structures you find. At the same time, however, a lot of the planetary and creature differences are just cosmetic. Aliens never really interact with each other or do anything beyond trundling back and forth whether they're hostile or not, and they all drop the same things unless they're rare minibosses... raw alien meat, leather, and pixels. I would love to see NPC and alien behaviour fleshed out a bit more, to see them interact more with different species and their environment, which would go a long way towards making planets feel more alive and unique rather than just differently-coloured ore containers.
Starbound does, however, feel a bit more grind-y than its genre counterparts. Many craftable items require a substantial amount of multiple resources to create, and when those resources are scattered around without rhyme or reason and take so tediously long to mine early on, especially when buried in anything other than dirt or sand, that it brings the organic flow of the game to a grinding halt. There is such a tremendous emphasis on mining for resources, which is a slow process, that it makes the act of collecting ore almost a job. The last thing you should ever think when looking at an integral part of a game is UGH, and yet that's what happened whenever I came across a vein of something I had to gather. Since I started playing and writing this review, the game has received it's first major patch that did tweak mining speed, but you still have to do so much of it that it's still frustrating. My kingdom for a mining robot! Maybe something automated with hitpoints?
That said, Starbound is still in Beta, so in addition to having bugs fixed and many more features coming down the pipeline, it's also getting a lot of its content tweaked based on community feedback. What this means is that while the Beta version lacks all the content right away, playing it gives you the chance to help shape the final product... though interested parties should be warned that the developers have cautioned not to get too attached to your characters, since they could be wiped with updates until the game is finished.
Starbound can at times in the beginning feel like it's struggling to find a balance between the space-faring adventures it wants to offer, and the slower nuts and bolts of resource management all that needs to run. And yet, there's definitely something more than a little compelling about it that keeps bringing me back to it. I would stumble across prison colonies on the moon overrun with angry inmates, cryptic messages scrawled in abandoned outposts deep within forests... This is not a game you can rush through, and players who slow down and work on thoroughly developing and enhancing their character through careful crafting and exploration will get the most out of it. With its infinite discovery and surprises thanks to its procedural generation, not to mention the ability to play with friends, Starbound is a game with enormous potential, and stands to only get better with time thanks to its talented, dedicated team.
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