Has Starbound been improved by its updates?


Update Night is a fortnightly column in which Rich McCormick revisits games to find out whether they’ve been changed for better or worse.

I’ve got a robot chicken in the shed that parps out batteries. Do you want to have a look? No, seriously, she’s next to the electrical sheep, and she’s a proper money maker. Every day I teleport down to my little farm, collect all the wheat and cotton and kiwi fruits that have grown overnight, and fill my pockets with double-As.

The penguins at the spaceport pay loads for batteries, you see. They love electrical wool, too, but it’s the metal chicken that’s allowed me to give my bipedal mech a better drill arm, as well as giving me the funds to buy a few bars of tungsten and add another wing to my starship. A wing that I’m planning to fill with chickens, of course.

At launch, Starbound offered a huge web of possibilities, from humble farming to exploring the galaxy. In the two years since the 2D craft-’em-up’s official release – and a full five years after it first hit early access — developer Chucklefish has only added more, putting out three significant updates that have introduced beefy new features like the chance to terraform planets, to upgrade weapons, and — crucially — to go fishing.

The sheer amount of stuff you can do is staggering. It’s overwhelming at first, too.

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In other craft-heavy games, I tend to set a specific item as a target, and build toward it, saving cash and hoarding materials in order to get there. I tried that with Starbound, but my plans to overhaul my starter mech and launch my own space station (both features introduced in the most recent 1.3 update) felt impossibly far off. I didn’t have the money I’d need to buy the requisite deeds, so I needed to build up a basic farm to kickstart some cash flow. I didn’t have the ore I’d need for parts, either, so I’d have to go spelunking to dig out copper, iron, tungsten, and the rest. I didn’t even have the fuel I needed to get myself out of the star system and into one with a wider array of metals for the taking, forcing me to hop around on airless moons, picking up gooey FTL fuel while being chased by a beak-mouthed space ghost.

This space ghost is a unique opponent, but most of Starbound’s worlds are infested with monsters. Some of these will wander, flap, or burble by without incident, but the majority of these critters will go straight for the player, their fangs, claws, or tentacles bared. Their erratic combat patterns can make exploration frustrating: combing a new world, it’s never quite clear whether that blue bird dog thing or that ball of flying fluff is going to object to your presence, and if so, how much of your health bar they’re going to chunk off with one attack.

Being forced to act as intergalactic game warden was by far my least favourite part of Starbound, and I kept finding ways to avoid combat. On desert worlds, I’d end up leading a trail of ornery wildlife, while on ocean worlds, I started swimming under islands just to avoid the menagerie of creatures that waited above, even though the slow pace of underwater made my journey twice as long as it should’ve been.

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There’s a wide range of close-range weapons — from daggers, to broadswords, to two-handed hammers — but I found them all a bit finickity to use, especially when a lot of enemies close the distance between you with frightening speed. I had more luck with ranged weapons: Starbound’s pistols, rifles, and bows. I defaulted to using a legendary poison bow for much of my time in its pixellated galaxy, both for the fun in judging the arrow’s arc, and for the fact I could fire and forget, letting the green goop whittle down enemy health bars.

Space combat, introduced as part of the 1.3 update, is generally more enjoyable. Players can choose to investigate anomalies while flitting through solar systems, dumping their customisable mech out into zero-gravity and dodging Space Invader-y aliens and swarms of living rock blobs. At their most intense, these sessions make Starbound like a quasi-bullet hell shooter, both more manic and more predictable than its standard ground-based combat. The weapons are snazzier too, a combination of laser cannons, power drills, and mecha swords, meaning that I would seek out space-based fights way more often than other kinds of combat.

If you want to progress the story though, you’ll have to fight on the land: some of the better items and upgrades are tied to your quest progress. Starbound’s fiction is complex and incoherent, full of warlike plant people, wisecracking penguin mechanics, and bears who run shops, but its story is simple — Earth has been attacked by a load of tentacles. Its story missions are even simpler, tasking the player with scanning specific items on various flavours of planet (desert, ocean, etc.), before delving into ready-made caverns and beating a boss.

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Fortunately, there’s no real time pressure to actually save the Earth. It’s absolutely fine to sack off our homeworld and spend your life as an intergalactic trader, or devote yourself to building the perfect four-bed detached house out of skulls, or — my choice — start a new life as a literal battery farmer. There are so many items, so many ways to get ahead, so many avenues to pursue, and so many ways to play that minor frustrations can usually be forgotten.

Where Chucklefish hasn’t added more stuff, it’s smoothed off some of Starbound’s spikier edges. The act of traveling between worlds and stars is simplified: navigation is now done by clicking on 2D map, sending your ship to planets, moons, anomalies, and even other ships in “real” time. With the upgrade system, your favourite weapons can stay with you for longer, and with terraforming, your favourite planets can be made even better. The result is that there’s now so much to do in Starbound that new players will likely find themselves paralysed by choice, but there’s no need to cover all the bases. Instead, pick one general thing: set yourself a quest to start an intergalactic colony or kill a penguin crime boss. Allow yourself to be distracted along the way, and see how many hours later you come up for air.

Or you can just choose to do nothing. Make the call to just pootle around in space and on the surfaces of new worlds and the game’s perfectly happy to accommodate that decision, even on survival mode, its delightful presentation and cute touches making the procedurally generated worlds feel lived in and loved. There’s a cargo freighter’s worth of stuff in Starbound, but it’s all to be enjoyed — or ignored — at your leisure, making a return visit recommended.


  1. FordTruck says:

    you should see kenshi latest update – JAMES FRANCO SO GOOD FACE – Kenshi is something else nothing else like it on the market, I hope once it’s fully released it explodes into success.

    • DarkFenix says:

      If memory serves Kenshi’s development rate had it looking like it’d release sometime in the mid 22nd century.

      • poliovaccine says:

        I don’t know when it’ll be “done,” but I’ll heartily agree that it’s “good” right now.

  2. falcon2001 says:

    Just beat Starbound for the first time a few months ago, after buying it WAY back in Early Access, I’m a big fan.

    Combat is pretty decent and the tiering system worked out pretty well in practice. I think there’s definitely stuff missing and some parts feel more empty than others, but mods can certainly fill that in quite handily, and ones like Frackin’ Universe totally fill up the world with stuff.

  3. Blad the impaler says:

    Trying to set up a multiplayer host game with friends is also an excellent way to review how to port forward your router! Maybe it’s changed in the last year or so but, yeah.

    • JB says:

      Works for me with no forwarding nowadays. I just send an invite to game via Steam, and off we go.

  4. DeadlyAccurate says:

    This is a game I always want to like more than I do. I love exploring and decorating and Starbound has tons of that, but for some reason I get bored easily.

    • level12boss says:

      Definitely. I think Terraria works where Starbound doesn’t because you get completely invested in very gradually transforming the world in Terraria. Essentially, with Terraria, the entire world itself is the RPG character that you are evolving. This doesn’t happen in Starbound because there are infinite planets and the planets themselves are tiered, so you basically get forced to wander the galaxy or develop a “hub and spoke” model that isn’t really satisfying. You do sort of get invested in building up the ship you travel in, but that’s a far cry from setting up a cross-world rail system or teleporter stations like you do in Terraria. And in any event, your ship is mostly pointless — everything important like boss battles and the hub station is are all teleport instances. All this means that the player never gets invested in building and refining a physical space like they do in Terraria. In Starbound all that building and crafting is really just window dressing on a bunch of instances pieces, whereas in Terraria it matters and makes your world easier to navigate and manage. I think Starbound would capture the magic if the resource tiering was tied to planet depth, like it is in Terraria. In other words any planet would have everything you need (and would be gradually unlocked as your tech evolved) so you can settle there and make the planet your own. That would allow all the other planets to become places where you go to meet the other species, find stuff, locate bosses, and fight space pirates. It would all just come together better that way.

      • Rainshine says:

        I enjoy exploration too, but I’ve never been able to get into Minecraft or Terraria or Starbound. The combat system has always felt really clunky to me, and while I enjoy digging around for stuff, some general direction about what I’m looking for and how the game works without having to be tabbing out to a wiki would be nice.

  5. mitrovarr says:

    I played through Starboard recently, and I thought it was ok, but not great. The obvious tier system is artificial and video-gamey, and I don’t like it. Systems like that always feel like a cop-out by a developer who can’t make difficulty scale naturally during the game. It also doesn’t feel as lively or interesting as Terraria, nor is the progression as good (particularly with regard to movement). Start to end, the thing most likely to kill you is falling damage. The space combat is fun but the progression is absolutely glacial there – I won the main story before I had even a mid-tier mech, or any weapon other than the starters.

    • Evan_ says:

      All those tiered ores and planets made sense when the game was EA and there weren’t much to do. It was forgivable. That kinda’ passed now that the game has more content besides grinding high-tier tech.

      But one can always just join a server, and kindly ask the regulars for a set of high-tier protective equipment and a serviceable gun.

      • mitrovarr says:

        I don’t really mind that there are ores better than other ores, or even that they’re on more dangerous planets. I don’t like how there’s no attempt to make the world feel natural or conceal the tiering at all. That just feels so lazy.

  6. muki0 says:

    It’s a game a played a bunch (30-40h) right after early-access release, and sort of want to play again but get a little bored every time I fire up a new character every 10 months or so. It’s weird.

    I have the same concerns for it as I did NMS. That every planet is inhabited, lively and choc-full of, well, everything. No new frontiers, just vising planets that had already been discovered by some fictional species or sentient beings. To quote a great superhero villan: “I’ll make everyone super! And if everyone’s super…. then no one is“.

  7. qualiyah says:

    Anyone who liked Starbound in principle but then got bored should try the Frackin’ Universe mod and some of the most popular and high-quality race mods. Mods are what made Starbound the kind of game I *wanted* it to be, or thought it was supposed to be: it turned the universe into a gigantic, genuinely varied and overwhelmingly complex place, with so much variety that I could visit 40 different planets and still be regularly seeing things I’d never seen before. It solves the NMS problem–once you add in tons and tons of original player-made content, the universe becomes *actually* richly varied, rather than merely varied in the sense of having different random-number-generated combinations of the same elements you’ve already seen numerous times before.

  8. Balance of Power says:

    “parp” and “pootle” — you gotta love British informal words and expressions.

  9. OmNomNom says:

    Kind of. But it is waaaay better with Frackin Universe and a few difficulty increasing mods