What is it? A 2D exploration, survival, and building game in the vein of Minecraft and Terraria.
Expect to pay: $15/£12
Multiplayer: Online co-op, dedicated servers
Link: Steam page
I’m traveling through the galaxy in a spaceship with a pig, a couple of aliens, and two heavily armed mercenary penguins. I myself am a robot—named Robot Baratheon—and I’m playing Für Elise on an electric guitar I stole from a massive library I found at the bottom of an ocean as we travel to a forest planet to find cotton so I can craft a teddy bear to give to an actual bear.
None of the above is particularly unusual in Starbound, the 2D space-based exploration and crafting sandbox from developer Chucklefish. What begins as a quest to save the universe from an ancient evil quickly devolves into a fun and charming rabbit hole of tasks and to-do lists, some official but many more personal. Yes, you need to upgrade your armor so you can defeat a quest boss who bombards you from a flying saucer, but if you tire of digging for titanium ore you can instead spend hours carefully decorating your starship with furniture and wall-hangings you stole from a bipedal alien frog’s swamp-house. It’s up to you how to spend your time, and Starbound is very easy to spend lots of time in.
Like Minecraft or Terraria, the pixelated sandbox of Starbound involves plenty of mining, gathering of resources, inventory management, buying, selling, farming, stealing, and crafting. There’s a massive and sprawling universe out there filled with planets to visit: some green and leafy, some arid and sandy, some mostly covered in ocean, some radioactive, swimming in lava, or covered in ice. There’s plenty to discover: colonies of friendly aliens living on the surface, forgotten civilizations hidden underground, flying pirate ships, indestructible ghosts, even tiny neighborhoods of gnomes guarded by patrolling robots. Not every planet is interesting, but enough of them are to make exploration worthwhile and fun, and occasionally surprising.
As you travel, explore, and gather, you begin to upgrade just about everything in the game. Craft better armor, improve your mining tool’s range and power, unlock new tech that allows you to double-jump or turn yourself into a spiked rolling ball, and create protective suit modules that let you visit planets cloaked in radiation and deadly temperatures, which give you access to new resources you can use to build and upgrade even more. Even your crafting tables themselves can be upgraded to allow you access to newer and better gear. Very little of this progression is explained in-game, so if it’s your first time playing you’ll probably be visiting wikis and forums as regularly as you visit new planets.
There’s a main storyline that will send you hunting through the galaxy, searching for hidden civilizations and ancient relics, and battling through some visually interesting levels and difficult, powerful bosses. Side quests are mostly of the forgettable, radiant variety: fetch me this, deliver me that, craft me X amount of Y, find my idiot friend who has the ability to teleport yet somehow can’t escape from a shallow puddle of water without your help—but they’re typically easy and result in winning the favor of NPCs who can be recruited as your crew. As your crew grows, you can begin expanding your starter ship, though unlike the houses you can craft from scratch, most of the customization of your ship is limited to cosmetic decorations.
Starbound has three modes: casual (dying is barely an inconvenience), survival (you drop items upon death and need to eat), and permadeath. There’s also co-op, so you can play alongside friends either on a dedicated server or simply by joining their game through your Steam list. I tried a bit with Tyler through Steam. It was good fun, it worked very well, and I hope to play more.
There’s a pleasing variety of weapons including swords, axes, guns, grenade launchers, darts, bows, rocket launchers, and bombs. Some weapons even have special powers, such as my current favorite, a two-handed broadsword which has a blink explosion ability. If an enemy gets in my face, I blip away leaving only a big boom in my place. It’s an adorable yet deadly finishing move.
Thing is, with the exception of boss fights in quest missions, there just aren't many interesting things to do with these neat weapons, and combat is both the most common activity and the weakest element in Starbound. Most planets are crowded with alien creatures, and while exploring and mining you constantly come into contact with them—and nearly all of them attack on sight. While most aren’t hard to handle, you still have to stop what you’re doing and deal with them in a very simple and repetitive hack-and-slash (or point-and-shoot) fashion. Combat is rarely much fun or even challenging, it’s just a series of tiresome interruptions, especially if you actually have some specific goals in mind and aren’t just aimlessly exploring.
Though the combat is lacking, and I’d wish for more ship customization options and fewer wiki trips, Starbound is otherwise a great pleasure, full of verve and laden with seemingly endless diversions and self-directed projects that you can lose yourself in for hours or days at a time.