Starbound and the problem with reviewing Early Access

I had a dozen things to say about Starbound, big and small. Some were tiny complaints like “for the love of god, can I get a randomly generated weapon that doesn’t suck?”. Others were general praise for the concept and execution. But then an update dropped like the bass in a skrillex song.

Now I’m back at square one. The minor grievance mentioned above has been ironed out, and now I can’t assume any of my complaints (or even my compliments) hold true any longer. Granted, this happened after roughly 20 hours of play, but can you imagine starting over after 50? 200? I weep for the people that were invested to that degree. It’s almost like starting a completely different game.

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So, from my new starting point, this is Starbound, by Chucklefish, an Early Access title that has been in progress since 2013. You choose one of the available races and are set down in the middle of nowhere with a crippled ship and some basic supplies. Thankfully, you can harvest resources from planets, like the one you are currently orbiting. These resources can be used to fix up your ship, and give your character powerful weapons and armor.

The weapons have a fair amount of variety to them. You can go with 2 handed weapons for maximum damage, or use a smaller weapon with a shield for a more balanced playstyle. My personal favorite so far are the hammers, which deal crushing amounts of damage but require you to get very close to your target and punish missed swings with a painfully slow attack speed. As I mentioned previously, there are also randomly generated weapons found on planets, and unlike earlier versions, they can hold their own too.

Once your ship is repaired, you are free to further explore the universe. There’s a number of planet types, each bringing different challenges, but the general rule is that the harder a planet is to survive, the more valuable resources it holds. And I’m not just taking hostile wildlife either. You can have planets that are unbearably hot/cold, completely lacking an atmosphere, or are bathed in radiation. You can heal wounds by eating or using bandages, it’s fast enough to keep you going in a fight, but not so fast you can counter adverse planet conditions, a good balance.

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The resources from these planets, besides the weapons and armor, also allow you to craft new tools and upgrade your existing ones. Pickaxes, sadly, are now more disposable than they were in earlier iterations, but the game counters this by giving you a Matter Manipulator, which while not working nearly as well as a proper pick, at least allows a player a way to tunnel back to the surface after a long mining excavation. Or you could just exit to the menu and reappear back on your ship, whatever.

There are also missions, offered at an outpost that can be accessed through the convenient gates located in every solar system. They range from “condescendingly basic” (make coffee) to “brutal” (fight your way through a place full of hostiles). The major ones also grant Tech that allows you to survive a wider variety of environments and explore even further.  The other nice thing about solar systems is that each has a moon that fuel can be harvested from. So, even if you find none of the planets in the system you visited are to your liking, you can at least scrape together enough fuel to try somewhere else. That said, you can examine planets before traveling to the system that contains them.

The constant climb through ore types reminds me of Terraria, and I’m guessing Starbound will have a similar “What do I do now?” problem for players that finally reach the top. That said, a nearly infinite universe full of planets to explore should do something to alleviate that feeling. That said, if you did enjoy Terraria, you might like this game too. If you prefer fantasy over sci-fi, maybe less so, but it’s still worth a look. Starbound is available on Steam for $15.

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