I was never a huge fan of Terraria, mainly because it seemed more tailored to people who could think up cool 2D house designs than those who wanted to kill random bosses in dungeons. It was certainly enjoyable, but I felt that after going up and down my mining tunnel that many times, the experience was becoming stagnant. Enter Starbound, Chucklefish’s spiritual successor to Terraria that’s so ambitious that simply making one procedurally generated world isn’t enough. It’s weird, it’s wonderful, and it’s also far from complete, so before I discuss the game too much, I just need to clarify that this is NOT a review.
The game was released an as early-access title, meaning that it’s still in beta stage ‘Indignant Koala’. Apart from being the best named build version ever conceived, this means that everything discussed in this article is viable to change. Character wipes and in-game crashes are to be expected at this stage of development, but (hopefully) the developers don’t want them in their final product, which could also be said of just about everything else in the game. While I might complain about something now, it could be changed within a few days, which means reviewing the game is both unfair and pointless. With that in mind, what’s Starbound all about?
You begin the game in your starship having just fled your homeworld, stuck in orbit around a random planet. From here, the game acts much like Terraria 2.0, having you collect resources, craft benches, and die to strange alien creatures (which will happen a lot) in a 2D procedurally generated world, with most of the mechanics and graphics being identical or improved upon. Although combat is still very basic, weapons now swing like weapons instead of smoothly falling in an arc in front of you, and one block high steps can simply be walked over, an improvement I welcome wholeheartedly. But where Starbound comes into it’s own is in it’s heavy emphasis on exploration over settling down.
Once you find enough fuel for your ship, you can start travelling around different sectors of the universe. You can travel to a nearby moon, a planet next to your own, or perhaps an entirely new star system, and trust me when I say there are a LOT of stars to explore. Planets are constructed from certain biomes, such as forest, snow, or desert, and each have unique terrain features. This removes the threat of becoming too familiar with your surroundings; Sick of your current home? Go make a new one somewhere else! This is by far Starbound’s greatest strength, but also it’s greatest weakness.
For a game all about boldly going where no one else has gone before, it takes a damn long time to do anything. Your first mining tool is your matter manipulator, a small tool that lets you mine a 2×2 square of blocks very, very slowly. Obviously, you can upgrade to a mining pick to dig 3×3 squares faster, but not at a rate I’d call expedient. It’s a legacy issue that plagues the progression of the game, since I want to go exploring things but I’m stuck mining out caverns for ores and coal. And if I go to a new planet, I have to start digging my way down all over again to reach anything good. It’s a frustrating mechanic, but the game isn’t exactly easy to begin with.
It’s very easy to die in Starbound. Four or five hits from an enemy and you’ll respawn in your ship, which can get very annoying when birds start wailing down on you from the heavens like Zeus himself laying vengeance upon your meekly constructed wooden shack. This can add to the infuriatingly slow progression since before you can finish mining that ore, a giant squirrel will puncture your ribcage for your sweet nougat centre. Not everything is trying to kill you though, but it’s impossible to tell without getting close enough to them that you’ll get hurt. The AI in general is a bit iffy right now, but that’s most likely because there are more important things to work on than pathing issues.
Thankfully, you retain all your items through death, instead losing a set amount of in-game currency called pixels that are required to build higher tier items. When you eventually get enough gear to start fighting back, the enemies become pretty easy to deal with, but can still overwhelm you quite quickly. The main issue with this system is when you start needing pixels to build items. The primary way of getting pixels is venturing beneath newly explored planets and exploring underground caverns, which flows nicely with the mentality of the game. Until you die. Which will happen. It’s certainly challenging, but it’s also a nicely kept feature from Terraria.
Just like it’s predecessor, almost everything you encounter in the game looks, sounds, or just straight up is weird. Trees with eyeballs, six-eyed sloth horses, and butterfly worms that shoot fireballs are pretty normal sights. The majority of these will try and kill you in some way, but others are content to roam the wilderness as you dig the ground underneath them and trap them in a makeshift gladiator’s pit. Chances are that you’ll fit right in too, whether you’re an atheist birdman or medieval robot. The game’s atmosphere is strange, exotic, and bizarre, and the pixellated graphics help fully capture the environment while leaving enough for the imagination to fill in.
Overall, my first impressions of Starbound have been pretty positive. There are still some legacy issues and initial progression stifling that can detract from the experience, but that’s just a matter of improvement through the beta. The shift in focus from home building to exploration is something I’m definitely happy with, and fills the procedurally generated void that Terraria couldn’t.
Starbound is currently available as an early access title on Steam. No release date has been announced.