Five years ago, London-based developer Chucklefish (Stardew Valley and Risk of Rain et. al) envisioned a game that would throw players into a vast, procedurally generated galaxy to survive, explore, build and conquer as they desired. Well, it’s been a hell of a long time but the first completed iteration of that star-chasing simulator was finally released late last month and having just completed the campaign I can say that it’s well worth your time, however you choose to spend it.
I need to be clear on one thing: I haven’t had a chance to explore every shred of content, old or new. I plan to, but I figured it should wait until after I gave you the run-down on what to expect. Part of the appeal is the sheer vastness of content; not just of the worlds themselves but also the micro-biomes you can encounter on-world. I have yet to fall catastrophically into a gnome biome, crushing their city infrastructure, nor have I found whatever dungeon or village is built out of neon blocks, which is super frustrating because my plans for a planetary metropolis rely on me discovering the recipe. I haven’t tended livestock, nor built any mannequins to display my many trophy armour sets, nor made anything resembling a base beyond a buttload of ship-side storage and some shielded crops on a world I have earmarked for construction.
What I have done is save the God-damn universe. Which I guess is kind of a big deal.
The most critical element of Starbound’s complete release is the inclusion of a single-player campaign. It’s fairly content light, but the thing I tend to find in sandbox titles is that I reliably lose momentum (350 hours clocked in on Skyrim despite having completed the main campaign only once, for example) chasing side-content so I personally consider this a blessing.
There are seven races to choose from – star people, robot people, fish people, plant people, monkey people, bird people, and people people – and there’s no mechanical difference between them. What does make them unique is the incredibly vast range of social interactions and cosmetic variations that you encounter during your exploration.
I’m a big fan of the way difference races not only draw comically on different thematic settings, but also on how their biology and psychology affects how they interact with other species and the world around them. Most races have their own cuisine and crops, their own architecture, their own armour sets and their own massive, massive range of furniture which you can either learn to make yourself or steal right out from under them.
Races I find especially interesting are the Novakids – whose incredible intelligence paired with a short attention span means that they have no actual civilisation as such because they can’t concentrate on the task of forming a society long enough and as such are generally gunslinging vagabond super-geniuses – and the Floran: a race of incredibly tough, sentient plants whose violent warfare with other races was largely because they could not conceive of meat that could think.
Anyway, once you’ve sorted out your character’s favourite pizza topping you can still choose to skip the intro, but I strongly recommend playing through it just once. The scenery is really pretty, and I spent more than a few minutes just looking at how much love was poured into making sure a player’s first impressions of the campaign was a good one.
There’s much more control over progression in the current release, with previous iterations allowing players to almost immediately fly out to the most difficult worlds and surreptitiously mine the strongest ores and make the best stuff straight from the get-go if they wanted to. Progression is much more than just a case of digging stuff up and melting it into the right shape: recipes critical to your progression to the endgame are reliant on first crafting early game items, and even crafting stations themselves start out as primitive tools and must be upgraded to spacetech level before they can make spacetech gear (please excuse the large numbers of crates in the image on the right, my bird lady has neither the room nor the resources to organise her extensive wardrobe).
At present it’s compulsory to complete at least the first dungeon before you can travel between planets, and the second one before you can upgrade your ship. Frankly, it would be nice if there was an option to turn off the campaign entirely and allow players to free-roam from the start because as someone who compulsively creates multiple characters, the prospect of being forced to complete the same handful of missions over and over is a little irritating while being forced to perform the same core fragment and scanning quests is very discouraging.
Having said that, the dungeons themselves are very well made, quick to navigate once you know the ropes and visually very impressive. Starbound capitalises on the platformer perspective and simple nature of its graphics to deliver some truly rich environments for you to explore. I don’t trust myself to say whether bosses are underpowered or not, given my tendency to overprepare before taking a swing at a given dungeon. The first dungeon’s boss is specifically only vulnerable to a set piece built into the environment for the sake of those players who don’t adequately arm themselves beforehand, but I’ve found that a combination of giant swords, magic wands, rocket launches, flamethrowers and a swarm of explosive knives generally serve me well enough.
Beyond that, what can I say? I’ve explored hundreds of planets, discovered thousands of settlements, met interesting people and – more often than not – killed them and/or taken their stuff. And even after over 200 hours of play since the game’s first iteration was released, I still haven’t seen everything. I’ve got crates and crates of codices I have yet to read, biomes and dungeons I have yet to encounter, plans and resources I have yet to acquire and a entire planetary city that – at this point – is merely a hydroponics station so that I don’t run out of food.
There’s so much that I still want to talk about like the fate of poisoned planets, the vast array of NPC races, the possibility of future developments regarding Kluex and the Great Ape and the reliably fantastic talent of fan artist renditions of characters and worlds but the sad fact of the matter is that every second I spend typing this up is a second I’m not spending in the game so I’m just going to stop here.
SUMMARY: Starbound is a game specifically built for people with the itch to explore vast and varied worlds, terraform the wilderness, build magnificent constructs and populate those constructs with fantastical races from across the cosmos and it scratches that itch phenomenally well.