The game formerly known as Planets³ hit Steam this month after a while in the wilderness of alpha. The idea is simple enough: take Minecraft, add a dollop of story, and fold the world into a cube. Then populate the skies with other cube planets with rocky, watery, snowy, or deserty environments. That sounds like a sure thing (it certainly looks very pretty). But does it live up to its potential in our spherical world, which is already dangerously overpopulated by Minecraftbuts?
The answer is a solid “hhhmmmmmaaaayyybe”. At the moment, Stellar Overload has two modes – story and creative. Creative mode looses you on a planet of manageable size and stuffs your inventory with anything and everything you could possibly use. Building structures is as simple as having a block type selected on your hotbar, then clicking and dragging to make walls, floors, slopes and so on. Since this aims to be a little more complex than straight-up blocks, you can also hold down alt to cycle through different types of shapes, or different versions of the same item, like flowers. There are other tools that let you copy and paste larger structures, as well as "paint" batches of blocks to be whatever block type you want.
The blocks themselves are much smaller than the hefty chunks from many of it’s build-em-up cousins, feeling more like tiny bricks. This makes the world feel more detailed but it also makes building things feel a bit more fiddly. There’s also so much squashed into your inventory (all currently lacking any helpful description) that it takes some time to understand it all. I still do not know the difference between the various types of metal.
That’s where the story mode comes in useful. Partly, this is a means of tutoring the player in how to use crafting stations and where to find useful materials (underground, duh). But it’s also a traditional videogamey adventure. You start off in your home village, one of a group of human clones under the direction of a wise leader. We know he is wise because he has a beard and a Chinese name. You wake up to find your brother has gone missing and you soon discover that he has gone off to join the rebels, a group of humans fighting against an invasive robot force that is taking over the system’s planets. From there it’s a tutorialesque story of juice-making, village-leaving, cave-exploring, mineral-grabbing, rebel-joining, robot-killing and brother-rescuing.
It’s a short romp, taking only a few hours to do all the tasks assigned to you, but it also has that childlike quality of the classics – talking to everyone in your village to see what single line of dialogue they have, packing your bags and heading out into the world, getting caught up in a conflict that is bigger than yourself for personal reasons. I have always been in love with this style of game opening, even if it is a massive cliché. I found myself forgiving some of the game’s limitations along the way, but you might not be so merciful. Because the let-downs are clear.
The combat, for example, isn’t exactly Titanfall 2 – you fire a pistol or a rifle with marginally different types of ammo, mostly at dim robots whose only interesting behaviour is to randomly ‘whoosh’ from one side to another in a teleporting strafe move. But because their weapons are still quite painful to your newborn frame, you tend to just strafe yourself, popping in and out of corners taking potshots, cheesing almost every kill. When you die, the game is forgiving – you keep your gear and respawn at the last cloning tank you activated.
But there’s a reason for that: dying is easy. A single misstep into a room with a sentry turret or two can end your forward march, and the health-giving items (bandages, balm, blackberry juice, and so on) offer a healing effect so negligible you have to spam the healing buttons four or five times just to recover half your health. It’s often just as viable to run into a room, accepting death and starting again with a full heart, since the enemies don’t respawn and the corridors up until whatever point witnessed your death will remain clear. This coupled with the lacklustre combat makes me wonder why there’s such a focus on fighting at all. It was never Minecraft’s strong point and I would have hoped that lesson had been learned.
But even with the naff gunfights, the rebel missions aren’t without their charms. A later mission sees you enter a huge, impressive fortress built out of blocks called Arkuloids, little bricks that can come alive at any moment, detach themselves from the wall and start slowly harassing you like the little floodbabies from Halo. They’re adorable and mildly irritating. They would make a good household pet.
The fortress itself is a massive, labyrinthine 14-story monster with jail cells, cloning tanks, walkways, atriums, storerooms, reactors and mainframes. I blew a hole in the outside wall by planting explosive blocks and then shooting them, clambering in with my pistol blazing. There was an instant Death Star vibe to the place, not to mention a bulletspongey boss and a treasure trove of goodies at the end. When I had to escape, I jet-packed from the tallest external tower, landed on a vehicle platform, stole a robot’s hoverbike and flew off. It’s definitely the highlight of the story mode.
There can be other great moments that have nothing to do with fighting. I was underground looking for moonstones (don’t ask) when I first experienced how gravity works on these cuboid planets. Walking along the cavern floor, I suddenly lurched forward and the floor became a steep hill. I stepped back and forth and watched this odd transition a few more times, laughing. I had crossed the threshold where, on the surface, the ground drops away like the edge of the Discworld. Walk over this edge and you simply turn on your own axis, stepping lightly onto the other side. This leads to all sorts of strangeness, like daytime suddenly switching to night, cricket sound effects and all. There’s an option to create flat worlds when seeding your universe but I honestly don’t know why anyone would do that.
Unfortunately, once the fortress is conquered and the story with your brother complete, that’s it for the story. You’re free to do what you want from this point. For me, this is where Stellar Overload falls down. There’s something missing from the creative side of it. In similar games, building and survival go hand in hand, or you have to mine and build by daylight to prepare for the monsters of the night. But there are no waves of monsters here, and no food or thirst meters yet. While this will probably be a relief to some, I miss that impetus to get building. Punitive hunger bars like the one I remember from Ark: Survival Evolved have never been fun. But there has to be something to get me motivated. Some swarm scheduled to attack me in a few days, some patrolling mobs that might turn up on my doorstep.
As it stands, I built a three-sided wall of metal on a lake island in the creative mode and then cycled through my huge inventory looking for something interesting to put in my house. After considering a cloning tank, I just thought: “what’s the point?” Nothing was going to attack me here, there was no need for me to even have walls. Exploring and getting to the other planets might be a better use of my time. I realised that if I wanted to do this, I could build a spaceship using a power core and building around it. Or I could just hit F2 and enter ‘fly mode’. This is how I eventually got from one planet to another, finding it a mix of climates but experiencing the same feeling of purposelessness.
I know what the problem is: I can’t help comparing it to other games that promise the same thing. That might be slightly unfair, given that this is the newest kid on the block. But if building, surviving and travelling from planet to planet is what you’re after, I’d find it difficult to recommend the current build of Stellar Overload in a universe where Empyrion – Galactic Survival already exists. Currently, this freshest take on the blockbuilding formula is at its best when it provides you with a trail of narrative breadcrumbs to follow and interesting buildings or facilities to explore. But when it asks you to make those things yourself, there’s sadly no real motivation to do so.
These impressions are based on build 1415498. You can get Stellar Overload on Steam for £14.99/$19.99