Wot I Think: Starbound

I’m a space cowboy made of stellar gas and I’ve spent the day farming. Starbound [official site] is a gargantuan galactic playground jam-packed with gunfights, planet-hopping adventures and tomb raiding, but I’ve probably spent just as much tending to my crops, decorating and going on shopping sprees. I’m utterly content.

Though it started out as a game largely focused on mining alien worlds, Starbound has grown into a sprawling, multi-limbed sandbox with diversions leaping into view at every turn. There’s a Pokemon-inspired pet system, colonies to manage, an endless supply of worlds to explore, farming, customisable spaceships, you can start a band – it sometimes feels a bit out of control.

A good story could tie it all together. Not Starbound’s actual story, mind, because it sort just lingers in the background like a terribly shy party guest. Earth’s been blown up, there’s an ancient evil coming, get a bunch of artefacts and put a stop to it. No rush, though. It doesn’t help with cohesion at all, but it does at least serve as the impetus to push on to increasingly more dangerous – and rewarding – worlds.

Back in 2013, when Starbound first launched on Early Access, it had a hypnotic rhythm. During the day: build higher and higher. During the night: dig deeper and deeper. There was a steady sense of progression accompanied by the sound of pickaxes. It’s harder to hear now.

I have a quest log overflowing with the same few tasks repeated, wheat to harvest, crops to water, an Apex (space monkeys) base to infiltrate, potential crewmates to recruit, and I’ve been pondering the possibility of adding another tower to my intimidating castle/holiday home. The rhythm is still there, though. That’s why a day might go by where I’m mostly indulging my green thumb. Starbound might be a bit scattershot, but it doesn’t force you to play that way.

Digging great big holes down to the centre of a planet and carving out underground bases or frontier homesteads remains my favourite pastime. I’m more likely to clear out a hostile stronghold so I can demolish it and use the parts to upgrade my home than save another bunch of feckless prisoners.

Spending a few hours hunting down a specific type of panel for my next building project is now what I consider a fun evening. Given that I’m actually redecorating my own home in real life, subjecting myself to that in a game just seems a wee bit sick. But Starbound has a bounty of themed architecture and furniture – craftable and available for nicking – that tickles the imagination. After visiting a few planets, you’ll look at your rubbish hut and think: nothing less than an underwater pagoda with a secret subterranean lab will sate me. That’s how it gets you.

The main quest and infinite supply of regurgitated side quests tend to fall by the wayside as I embark on my own personal adventures. Sure, the galaxy is in peril, and also some robotic knight needs me to tell another robotic knight that he likes him, but I’m kind of busy collecting tapestries for the new library. Being house proud is motivation enough to explore.

Maybe that’s what really ties Starbound together: the joy of acquiring more stuff for your home. Certainly, it’s the only reason I actually do anything. Fighting giant monsters? Looking for a new table. Breaking into catacombs built from bones? Foyer needed a statue. Surrounded by monsters in a pitch black cave? I wanted a new stetson because I was thinking of building a ranch. Greater purpose has been given to these building projects through the colony system, though. Legitimate excuses to keep making more towers, bunkers and luxury villas. Put together a functioning home, purchase a colony deed and slap it on the wall, and instantly a new colonist will pop into existence.

While NPCs have a tendency to get stuck or trapped by monsters, the system itself is considerably smarter. It’s the furniture that determines what type of colonist appears. One of my first buildings, a haphazard medieval tower, got snatched up by a Glitch knight, one of those aforementioned robots. He now spends his days running around outside, hitting adorable but ferocious monsters. His name is Windpike and we’ve become best friends. If I’d constructed a lab, my first colonist could have been a hairy Apex egghead instead. Thank goodness it wasn’t, though, because we really did have a monster problem before Windpike moved in.

Experimenting with different objects and themes can unlock anything from mechanical kings to frontier bar owners. It’s yet another rabbit hole. I’m planning even more colony expansions as I type this – I can’t believe I don’t have a saloon yet – but like the vast majority of Starbound, all of this is far from compulsory. Aside from the satisfaction gained from turning an empty plot of land into a sort-of-functioning town, colonists pay taxes, so they’re a good investment if you’re saving up for a new hoverbike or flamethrower.

Starbound tries its hand at so much that it’s not remotely surprising to see it dabbling in Metroidvania-style dungeons, as well. The procedural nature of Starbound’s worlds result in messy planets that are fun to explore but frustrating to fight on. There’s no level design directing the action or creating interesting arenas, and enemies constantly get stuck. Developer Chucklefish’s solution to this is a series of curated dungeons littered throughout the main quest, where you’re forced to use dexterity and special abilities – like turning into a ball, Samus-style – to navigate the rooms and corridors. You can’t mine your way through them, either.

It feels a bit like one addition too many, and these specific dungeons take away the one tool that you always use: the matter manipulator. It’s a McGuffin that cuts through rock, demolishes buildings, sucks up liquids and moves objects. It would render all those traps and challenges meaningless, though, so it stops working temporarily. It’s a concession for something that doesn’t really fit in with the rest of the game, diverse as it is.

The freedom to make the game your own, selecting the parts that hook you, whether that’s building gaudy mystical pyramids or becoming a gun-toting space mercenary, is fundamental to Starbound; it’s what makes the scattershot approach work, and those boss dungeons are the antithesis of that. They make up only a tiny part of the galactic adventure, thankfully, and can be ignored for as long as you care to – but they do unlock new features and tempt with fancy rewards.

I once carried around a giant eyeball that shot out death rays, originally looted off the corpse of a boss. Was it worth fighting that boss three times? I don’t know… it was a pretty big eyeball.

Weather! I’m only blurting it out because I’ve just come back from a mid-review jaunt through my colony, and I’ve been reminded of some things that I swore I’d write down in case I forgot, and then promptly forgot. There are worlds plagued by showers of acid, others are battered by sandstorms, and on some it just rains a lot, making it feel like home. The impact of a storm is more than cosmetic – acid rain can kill and meteor showers deposit minerals on the planet’s surface. It’s far from the most important of the systems that keeps Starbound’s universe turning, but it adds some interesting wrinkles and another layer of authenticity to these alien orbs.

I vividly recall building a base with a chum on this lovely little planet we’d discovered, back in the first days of Early Access. Lots of minerals near the surface, a perfect spot for some construction, all the resources we’d need. There were a few pools of acid, but we didn’t care. It’s great for exfoliating. We felt differently after the first night of rain. But we persevered. We started building into the side of a mountain, making tunnels everywhere so we could avoid the frequent skin-melting showers, forced by the weather to change our plans entirely. We could have found another world, but the hostile environment had become part of the planet’s charm.

“Wouldn’t it be cool if…” is how I imagine most pitches for Starbound’s systems began. So many ideas have been flung against the wall, I doubt you could even see it anymore. Luckily, a lot of these ideas have turned out to be pretty cool in practice as well as on the whiteboard. And there’s unexpected depth to be found in things that just seem like diversions. When I first messed around with the colony system, for instance, I wasn’t prepared for the Gotta Catch ‘Em All-ness of Pokemon or the potential for colonies as diverse as military bases and treetop villages, buzzing with NPC activity.

I find it difficult to picture the person who wouldn’t enjoy Starbound. Parts, sure, but the whole is this sincere, incredibly ambitious sandbox that’s as full of charm, and space-faring pirate penguins, as it is stuff to build and places to explore. And whatever you do, if you decide to add this digital galaxy to your collection, make sure to blackmail some friends into picking it up. Though Starbound multiplayer has been historically finicky to set up, it undoubtedly benefits from being played by an intrepid crew. And if you need a new drummer, you can make them join your band, too.

Starbound leaves Early Access tomorrow, and is available for Windows, Linux and Mac.

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  1. MrFinnishDude says:

    What the hell? The game actually releases tomorrow 6 pm gmt. That update will be huge! 1.0! Entire storyline and everything!
    Isn’t this article a bit premature?
    Not like I’m trying to tell RPS writers how to do their jobs, but if the game releases a great big update tomorrow why review it today?
    I’m just puzzled thats all.

    • Fraser Brown says:

      Allow me to alleviate your puzzlement! The 1.0 version is what I played for this review, which included the story and all the other fancy additions.

    • MegaAndy says:

      Perhaps the unstable branch already is feature complete for 1.0 ?

    • Jay Load says:

      I spent some time with it early this year. It’s utterly brilliant. The sense of progression is very nice, and it’s just RAMMED with secrets and things to discover.

      The first time I got my ship’s lightspeed engines working blew my mind a little.

      Having said that it’s been a while since I’ve been back. Repetition does set in after a while, a common snare in these kinds of games. But now the Quest is finally complete, who knows?

    • Ent says:

      Not a gaming journalist myself, but I presume gaming industry do have the “embargo” thing where you get to play the whole thing before everyone else but cannot publish what you think till certain time – which may or may not be earlier than the public release.

    • Dare_Wreck says:

      What an odd and crude comment to make – you’re exactly telling the RPS writers how to do their jobs. Are you not familiar with pre-release code for review sites? Publishing a review just ahead of the full release is not unusual at all, not even for RPS.

      • MrFinnishDude says:

        I was puzzled about their course of action, seeing it as illogical.
        I said they can do what they want, but I wanted to hear some rationalisation for their decision.
        Which I did. Thank you everyone, I understand now.

  2. Kregoth says:

    So this game feature stuffed itself to the gills, and actually pull it off? Most games would fail under the weight of stuffing this many features in. So good job chucklefish?

    • pepperfez says:

      Their devblog is regularly update, too. Their discipline is absolutely incredible.

  3. Kestrel says:

    Every time I came back to it the game just felt lifeless and unresponsive. Combat in particular was repetitive, joyless tedium. Has the actual feel of the game improved?

    That said, it is clearly a massive undertaking. I’m happy that they made it to 1.0.

    • Azurain says:

      I felt the same, until last week when I jumped back into the new Unstable build (basically 1.0 minus some last minute bugfixes). It now feels worth playing, with pretty decent/interesting combat and a ton more character overall.

    • MajorLag says:

      Sounds a lot like what Terraria became for me after the… 3rd? update. There’s only so much endless tedious grinding for low percentage random drops that one can take before they realize they’ve wasted their life and cry themselves to sleep, you know?

    • Kitsunin says:

      There was a big combat overhaul iirc about a year ago, which has indeed made the combat feel, at the very least, far better than the combat in Terraria.

      • Kitsunin says:

        Where before the update, it was most certainly less satisfying even than the rather basic combat in Terraria. Can’t remember too well though as I only dipped in for a bit to check on the progress a year ago, and for another day am back to waiting for the full release.

        • LexW1 says:

          A lot of that overhaul got un-overhauled though, turning it rather frustrating and mindless again. Be interesting to see if they improved it again for 1.0.

  4. Atog says:

    “I’m more likely to clear out a hostile stronghold so I can demolish it and use the parts to upgrade my home than save another bunch of feckless prisoners.”

    Or tax your colonist and use the pixel printer to build what you scanned instead of pillaging like a typical colonist Brit :D

    • DailyFrankPeter says:

      What about the storyline missions (the few ones you do to progress) – the difficulty was a bit off last time I played. Having restarted the Mooonbase mission something like 7 times (there were no checkpoints) and being unable to use all the crafting to actually craft myself gear to make it easy, I gave up on the game (again).

      • DailyFrankPeter says:

        RPS could you please do something about improving your comment system. My comments end up in wrong places because the reply-to-index is hardcoded in URL, but the text box is titled says generically “Comment on this story”. After being navigated away for logging, I’m bound to forget where I was. -Thanks

  5. Gothnak says:

    I enjoyed the 30 or so hours I put into Starbound around 2 years ago, but fundamentally was completely uninterested in building a base, I found it was a complete waste of time. Ive never wanted to build a house in Minecraft or spend hours penetrating the outer layer of Dwarf Fortess rather than play a normal rogue like.

    Therefore I’m really excited to get my hands on this new version of quests, goals and reasons to go exploring. If you don’t care about tapestries or Stetsons then Starbound got a little dull after the penguin spaceship, I expect to go back for a lot longer this time.

  6. Premium User Badge

    AutonomyLost says:

    I will be purchasing this. Thanks for the review!

  7. Premium User Badge

    InfamousPotato says:

    Congrats to the devs for making it to the big 1.0! I’m glad it turned out so well.

  8. mashkeyboardgetusername says:

    One question (semi-related to what DailyFrankPeter was asking above) do you still need to do the first dungeon & boss in order to unlock the rest of the galaxy? I found said dungeon pretty obnoxious when I played in early access, but being limited to a single sector of like 10 planets until I’d completed the dungeon was a right kick in the teeth.

    • Kitsunin says:

      I can’t remember well at all, but it seems like the early game has been more potentially varied since a good while ago. At the least I remember visiting a civilized shop-filled world before dealing with any bosses.

    • Gaminggumper says:

      No. They have even removed the need to burrow to the center of the starting planet. The starter planet has a predefined mine that has enough crate boxes with molten ore to start up the StarGate to the Outpost. From there you can travel as you please.

  9. Aztek says:

    “So many ideas have been flung against the wall, I doubt you could even see it anymore.”

    In other words, throw enough sh** and some of it is bound to stick.

  10. Unsheep says:

    I really liked Terraria at first but realized I needed some kind of tangible “game goal” to aim for, because the game got quite boring after a while, especially since there’s so much repetitive gameplay. Thus I’ll Pass on Starbound.

    So I disagree with the OP, Fraser Brown, in that it’s actually quite easy to picture the person who would NOT enjoy Starbound:
    1) a person who needs a proper end-goal to work towards
    2) someone who doesn’t get bored by repetitive gameplay

    • Ludux says:

      Fortunately, Starbound has plenty of tangible game goals, from main quest, myriad side quests, NPC quests and so on, and isn’t repetitive in the slightest what with the dozens of game mechanic systems to explore now.

      Your comment appears to stem from a fundamental lack of understanding of what this game is, and offers.

    • pullthewires says:

      Have to agree with the other poster – if you didn’t like Terraria because it was too open-ended and basically did nothing to suggest what you should do next – then Starbound very much rectifies that with structured quests and goals.

      Also, for other people like me who got into Starbound during early access and bounced off it, having just played the release version, I’m comfortable in saying it really has come a long way and is a lot richer.

      However, if, also like me, you’ve been playing quite a bit of the newer updates for Terraria and gotten used to a lot of the ease-of-use features (for example, holding shift to make your cursor select a context-sensitive item to place), you might find Starbound somewhat irritating in some regards – the interface doesn’t feel nearly as intuitive or polished and makes everything take just a little bit too long to do. While I did enjoy the game, I’m going to sit out for a while in the hope that it will see some of these things brought in on a future update.

  11. Premium User Badge

    JiminyJickers says:

    Woohoo, I purchased it ages ago during a sale but only played it minimally. Looking forward to giving it a proper crack.

  12. Napalm Sushi says:

    Are those hand-crafted plot missions still mandatory for making actual progress through the game? Because they put me right off last time I played. Hard as nails and a total failure to play to the game’s strengths.