Atomp (p)Reviews: Starbound [Chucklefish]

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Tom Hooper aka Atomp

Starbound has been an interesting project to follow, seeming to have garnered an almost unprecedented amount of faith among pre-order customers. The pre-order system is certainly of interest in this particular case as it has been structure with tiers and stretch goals much like those in Kickstarter campaigns. The total as it stands right now (11-12-13) is 159,358 backers and a total of $3,316,289… an astronomical amount of money. This is probably not including any revenue from the Steam side of the sales, so in all likelihood by this point that amount will have risen significantly as the game has topped the top sellers page for a week or so now. This is hardly surprising though, the overall approach to handling community interaction has been very professional from the start and the inclusion of things like the detailed and attractive Development Roadmap only work to reinforce the perception of a very slick organisation. I’m not going to even attempt to approach this without referring to the inevitable and somewhat fair comparison: Terraria. The truth is that Starbound shares a great deal with Terraria.  They are very different games yet very similar and in all honesty being even remotely similar to the overwhelming success of Terraria can only be a good thing. I will repeat, though, that no matter what might be said of the similarities, Starbound is most definitely its own game.

I have said it before, and in this case I will absolutely say it again, this is a preview of an indev project and as such the end product may differ dramatically from my comments here. I emphasize this more so than usual because of the sheer pace at which the beta is progressing.  Patches have been astonishingly quick and in the week since the beta opened up there have been numerous patches fixing a variety of issues, adding more content and even overhauling the entire leveling system. The speed at which development is progressing and the manner in which it is being handled is something that has amazed me.  I’ve gotten so used to the slow burn of early access that this sudden explosion of patches and improvements seems like whole months worth of game update fun stuffed into a few days.

The gameplay on a general control level is much like Terraria, but with some nice little tweaks that add to the playability a little.  These include touches like holding ‘crtl’ in order to pan the view around the character and a variety of other little tweaks. Combat is much like Terraria as well, with the general platformer style of jumping, dodging, slashing and shooting proving as entertaining as ever. The combat is still being rebalanced.  For example, the first time I played against the first boss was a significant struggle that required some tactical hole digging and hiding.  Having played the same boss again after a patch and with a new character it was rather too easy. On the whole, though, the combat is satisfying and the development team appears to be well on their way to creating a balanced system where creatures are appropriately dangerous but not too much so. This has to do with the general leveling system and the necessity to balance it with regards to the large degree of procedurally generated content.  They’ll get there eventually and the response to community feedback has been positive. The current system as it stands places planets upon a scale of 1-10 in difficulty, providing different level loot and creatures. This was once (a few days ago) scaled between 1-100 with an entirely different armour system.  Now it has been simplified and streamlined. I’d say in its current form the leveling system is underdeveloped, especially compared to what it replaced. With the current rate of development,however, it could well be fixed up very soon.

The wider element of the gameplay is very much developed and quite astonishing. The ability to travel between moons, planets and stars provides an awesome level of exploration, coupled with appropriately occurring biomes and constructions of types similar to those in Terraria. Imagine the exploration potential of a single Terraria world gen, and then multiply that by a significant figure and you have the exploration potential of Starbound. So really you are given an almost unlimited supply of planets and differing environments, along with the tools for mining, building, farming, trading, taming pets, playing instruments and countless other activities. This list is only going to grow as the game development continues.  There is so much potential for more, and judging from Starbound’s great pre-order figures and its continued dominance of the top sellers list on Steam, I’d say there’s the money for more.

On top of this is the multiplayer functionality, with a cross platform dedicated server application providing the foundations. So far, the multiplayer has been impressive and whilst party management and the like is still being developed, it is perfectly functional right now. While not absolutely necessary, multiplayer is a fantastic way to experience the game, much like Minecraft and Terraria.

Aesthetically, the fundamentals of the art style are not so different from Terraria, hardly surprising considering the games share an artist. The look is fantastic, distinct and they’ve managed to create huge variety yet striking consistency throughout the game world. The different styles of the different races are brilliantly realized and really distinguish them culturally. Although much of the game is procedurally generated, the art most certainly isn’t and I have to give a huge hand to the artists on the sheer quantity of high quality assets they’ve produce for this game.  Much like the rest of the game, they feel handcrafted with great care and attention to detail. Little touches to the aesthetic also really help the game in cementing its visual style: leaves coming from fallen trees, embers jumping from torches and furnaces, small touches like blinking in character animations and so many more. I cannot praise the visual style enough.

Then we come to the sound, which is really something special. The soundtrack is fantastic, opting for a classical style rather than a retro or chiptune style (not that there’s anything wrong with these). The ambient music is gorgeous, the battle music is great and at no stage is there ever a time when a track feels out of place. The general soundscape and sound design matches this, with some of the best and most atmospheric ambient soundscapes that I’ve ever heard. At this moment of writing I have the game on my second monitor, listening to the slow and relaxing piano music mingled with the slight insect buzz, pitter-patter of rain and atmospheric ambiance of my home world. It’s a really, really nice place to be, capturing that sense of place in a manner similar to Proteus and *that* is an immense achievement.

I cannot possibly begin to give Starbound all of the praise it deserves without vastly exceeding any reasonable word limit, so take what I’ve written and possibly look at some Youtube footage of gameplay.  The chances are that your favourite Youtuber has a video of it up right now. For a game in beta, I have rarely been so impressed. Likewise with how slick the entire beta release, patching and community feedback process has been.

Starbound is available in beta on Windows, Mac and Linux with system requirements that are rather variable due to indev optimisation. Overall, my performance has been fine, but my system is above average so that could be purely anecdotal. Current early access price through my recommended purchasing method, their website and the integrated Humble widget, is $14.99 (approx £9.14). This is the lowest tier of pre-order with higher tiers providing their own incentives.  Each tier provides beta access, a Steam key and, at the moment, the sound track. The game is also available directly from Steam Early Access for $21.28 (approx £12.99), although once again I’d recommend the Humble widget as the better option.

Starbound Website:

Starbound Store:

Brilliant Development Roadmap:

Starbound on Steam:

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