Starbound so far: spelunking, eyeball trees, and moons of doom

A few days ago, a stranger on Twitter half-jokingly informed me I should add "Starbound PR" to my list of credentials. I protested, of course, but the truth of the matter is that I've probably spent more time evangelizing Chucklefish's procedurally generated, sci-fi sandbox exploratory thing than I have championing Dota 2. Which is a little worrying because DotA is the game I spent a decade playing.

But there's a reason as to why I keep pouring friends the Starbound Kool-Aid. The game is absorbing. On the surface, Terraria in space; a natural follow-up to that other great side-scrolling sandbox. Both games pivot around the same motifs: exploration, survival and bloody stupid ways to die. Both also have a thing about lulling players into a false sense of security with their pageantries of cute. Outside these fundamental qualities, however, Starbound is a very much its own beast.

You invariably start the game as a refugee. A pop-up box will perfunctorily inform you of the circumstances of your flight and ask you to locate the Matter Manipulator on your ship. From there, it's your responsibility to beam onto terra firma and begin coercing a living from whatever hostile environment you find yourself in. My first playthrough included pools of green acid, my second trees made out of eyeballs and the third a bountiful rose garden. It could go any way to Sunday.

Lately, my first hour with a new character is almost always accompanied with death. Almost everything wants to kill you and those that don't usually look like they do. Some of the friendliest critters I encountered were tentacular nightmares, studded with eyeballs and lined with spines. And the cutest? Often the apex predators of their world.

Weirdly, perhaps, that's a big part of Starbound's appeal. Google's borrowed omniscience makes it hard to be fully surprised by anything these days. Yet, Starbound manages. Because everything is procedurally generated, each trip to a new planet still feels like an adventure, like a reason to indulge in a frisson of dread. Sure, that fresh suit of armor might be spiffy but will it do any good while I'm spelunking on a Threat Level 20 moon?

Starbound, especially in its current state, isn't without its problems. Patches, machine-gunned at the players with almost dizzying frequency, break the game as much as they fix it. Balance is always in flux here. One day, crafted weapons might be dealing thousands of unreasonable damage points. The next, they might be as well butter knives against the onslaught of one-shot-kill-all birds. Wipes seem to happen on a weekly basis, making every bit of progress a possible precursor to a nihilistic breakdown. It's a beautiful, maddening mess and I love it.

There's a lot to like about Starbound. The potential for endless adventure makes it easy to want to return time and time again. One of the latest updates introduced a primitive, pseudo-Pokémon system and grappling hooks: two things no gamer in the right mind can say no to. It might eventually go pear-shaped but for now I'm happy traversing the universe in my koi-shaped spaceship. Just me and my intergalactic produce.