Starry Eyed but Not Star Struck
Continuing our exploration of 2016, there’s another game I wish to discuss. Unlike Xcom 2, however, this title is a little more difficult. At least with Xcom 2 I could gush incoherently for two thousand words, recommend people pick it up then go back to making custom soldiers in the hopes of one day having a pool so large I wouldn’t require any randomly generated fools to show up in my fight against the aliens.
But while this one has aliens, murder, customization and a strong core design which it is attempting to refine, I can’t quite hold it to the same esteem. This game wasn’t going to win my Game of the Year accolade. In fact, I’d be surprised if it won anyone’s Game of the Year title. It’s a troubled little game, filled with good ideas and intentions but hampered by poor execution and mismanaged resources.
It’s made all the more pointed by the fact that the game was the in-house development for the company that published Stardew Valley. I am, of course, talking about Starbound – the Terraria (but not Terraria) science fiction game of exploration, resource gathering, dwelling building and boss killing by a Terraria designer (but not the Terraria designer).
I think it’s noteworthy that Stardew Valley is my Game of the Year and this is not. They share a number of similarities: 2D pixel graphics, retro game style, quirky aesthetic and casual gameplay. Unfortunately for Starbound, the game never really comes together like Stardew Valley does. And, alas, this is going to be a recurring theme throughout my review: not that Starbound isn’t as good as Stardew Valley but that Starbound is constantly compared to other games and routinely comes up short.
It’s impossible to discuss Starbound without mentioning Terraria. Least of which is because the lead designer Tiy honed his teeth on Terraria. However, I’ve played that game and actually loved it despite my hesitations. It was multiplayer so Derek dragged me into its murderous depths. Which was likely the only way I would pick up Terraria because it is not a pretty game by any measure. Its visuals are functional which is about the greatest compliment one can offer Terraria. So if there is one thing Starbound does better than its competitors, is that it really hits that visual charm.
However, Terraria really sucks you in through a very clever and well executed game mechanic loop. You’re initially thrown into a flat plain world with little direction save that you can go left, right or (as you soon discover) down. There’s a fun element of exploration as you are trying to figure out how to survive in Terraria’s strange little world that’s procedural generated so no two games are ever exactly the same. Once you figure out how to dig you begin to discover ores and with them recipes for crafting better tools, workstations and armour to protect yourself against the denizens of the world. As your base camp grows, so too does your ability to survive further afield. You’re soon learning that there are different biomes filled with their own hazards, monsters and rewards. In time, the player will discover certain boss monsters that will, invariably, murder them on first encounter. But then you learn the tactics to fight them, are elated at the great rewards you get for their murder and then start hunting for the next boss. In the meanwhile, you’re constantly looking to improve and expand your home with all the goodies and decorations you find and learn throughout your adventure.
It’s a fantastic loop where exploration leads to new challenge which requires the next tier of item improvements and advancement to overcome which rewards items that unlock the next step in exploration and the next challenge. Progress is clearly noted through the specific improvement in equipment and territory explored. You never once feel set back because even on death you know that you’re facing a more difficult adversary.
And it still includes the block building that made Minecraft popular. However, the building is but a single component of a greater cohesive whole. You want to build up your base because then you can attract different villagers who will provide you with new services or resources you wouldn’t have otherwise. And random events help to keep the players on their toes without resting too much on their success and shaking up predictability.
It’s very successful. It gives you the satisfaction of progression combined with the eagerness to see what’s next to come.
And it’s this simple feedback loop that Starbound entirely flubs.
I understand why Starbound staggers in his department. It didn’t want to be a Terraria clone but wanted to fly on its own merits. Sadly, its very introduction is going to make any Terraria veteran leery about that premise. Outside of a stock opening that does the bare minimum to introduce the player to the world and mechanics, Starbound mostly thrusts you into a procedural generated world where you can only explore left, right or down. You must collect enough ores in order to craft armour and weapons that allow you to beat the first boss that then gives you access to new biomes with new ores that you use to improve your items in order to fight harder bosses that open up new areas to explore.
It’s Terraria but its done a whole lot worse. For one, while Terraria gives the illusion of freedom, you are pretty assured to progress down a very similar route as other players simply due to the structure of the game and the availability of certain resources. Starbound attempted to eschew this directed progression and expand further on a small element of Terraria: exploration. Once you’ve repaired your ship, the universe is yours to command. Unfortunately, true freedom in movement would ruin any sense of progression so areas are “scaled” and “locked” behind certain item requirements. Specific planet types are classified based on an unspecified “threat level” that gives an indication of how deadly its surface is. This accounts for the monster level and the environment effects. And while Starbound really wanted to give the illusion of a vast and special universe, it somehow manages to come across as more bland and generic than Terraria despite having way more locales to explore.
Part of this is through the poorly implemented procedural generation. Monsters are randomly generated for a number of planets but they mostly recycle the same small collection of body parts. It’s a cute idea that – in theory – would create a staggering amount of variation. In practice, you’ll see a lot of very familiar creatures that are the exact same as two star systems over, they might just have an eyeball on their tail instead. Furthermore, there are a number of pre-generated monsters that possess more complex behaviour and attack patterns (in an attempt to reach a more complex combat mechanic that’s closer to Terraria). However, there’s no real restriction on these pre-made monster spawn locations. Visit one garden planet and you’ll have essentially visited them all – not to mention have seen probably half or more of what a jungle, bog or Eden planet has to offer. The variety between planets isn’t as important as the variety between planet types so you’re basically better off exploring one of each than visiting multiple of a similar kind. This drastically reduces the sense of wonder and exploration of the universe as you’re mostly scouring through a small niche of different stars now, looking specifically for the one or two planet types you haven’t seen yet then setting down at any place that sounds interesting. And this isn’t even touching the random dungeons and points of interest which are equally recycled. I’ve lost count of the number of underground greenhouses I’ve discovered growing plastic plants and nothing of interest.
So, instead of needing a vast universe of cookie cutter planets, you could have simply had a single solar system with the six or so different planet types present in a row that you could hop across. In this way, you’d certainly feel a greater sense of progress as you moved from the interior of the system to the exterior (or vice versa). As Starbound is now, you don’t really feel any sense of progress. You’re simply coasting from one system to another, searching for different planet types and passing over all the ones you’ve already seen hours before. You might stumble across a planet that’s well out of your league early on then, depending on the direction you take, you might end up in a whole cluster of low level star systems. There’s nothing engaging about the slow crawl through the universe map and – least of all – any sense of accomplishment for pushing its boundaries out further and further.
I feel like the developers realized at some point that they were creating too much of a sandbox without enough direction to focus the game within it. To combat this, there is the Ark. This operates as a central hub, accessed through your ship’s teleporter or any ancient gateway you find on starter planets. This location is the same for every game, filled with the necessary merchants to see certain game elements can function. Unfortunately, there isn’t anywhere near the engagement with the Ark as there is with your home in Terraria. You don’t really accumulate important NPCs at the Ark like you do in Terraria. There are characters you pick up as the game progresses but they aren’t vital as the ones who already start there and mostly offer tangential tasks barely indistinguishable from those offered by the quest system. Furthermore, the Ark is a “protected” area which means you’re unable to affect the blocks there. This was, of course, designed so players couldn’t accidentally destroy a vital shop or something. It also means that they can’t add on to it either.
This isn’t to mean that the base building component is absent from the game. But it’s so incredibly incidental to the actual game play itself. In Starbound, you can form colonies by purchasing multiple colony deeds at one of the vendors in the Ark. When these are posted in a legal “dwelling” then a tenant will teleport in and take up residence. This individual will offer you rent (often in the form of useless items but every now and then they’ll remember to pay you in actual cash) and different tenants can provide different services. They are even tied into the procedural quest generation system. However, these quests are as simple as you would imagine. Typically, they’ll direct you to the nearest spawned point of interest and require that you either escort a randomly generated NPC back to them or that you trade with a randomly generated merchant for some boring knickknack. Complete enough quests for a tenant and they may offer to join your crew. Likewise, you can come across randomly generated villages and complete quests for those residences to get crew members.
And more than anything, this is the strongest sense of progression in the game. The more crew you have join with you, the larger your ship will grow. Unfortunately, to expand your ship you also need to find enough upgrade modules which are simple loot spawned randomly in random dungeons. So even if you don’t want to, you’ll find yourself beaming down to boring planets you’ve already seen to search through dungeons you’ve already explored hoping that crates you’ve already opened will spawn modules you’ve already collected.
It’s a game of repetition and its excitement loses its lustre really quick.
Once again, I feel the developers realized the problem they were facing and thus the Ark provides the final core pillar of game play – a main quest. Terraria doesn’t possess a story of any kind. I mean, there might be lore if you cared but really the only impetus to move forward is the player’s own innate curiosity and desire to see the next step in the game. Starbound, however, introduces the player to the most uninspired and cliched plot a human could possibly devise in 2016 – there is some tentacled eldritch monster thing that’s broken out of prison and is trying to eat the universe and it’s up to you as the sole survivor of a special Earth task force to stop it. If this doesn’t sound familiar then you haven’t played: Mass Effect, Borderlands, Half-life, Halo, Crono Cross, Xcom, Starcraft, Metroid, Spore, Prototype, Day of the Tentacle, Alien Swarm, Doom, Dead Space… I mean just pick up a science fiction story and you’ve got a good chance that the core idea was already covered and done so in a manner far more compelling than Starbound.
Granted, I should a make a full disclosure here: I haven’t actually beaten Starbound yet. Instead, I’ve run into a rather game breaking bug that prevents me from loading my save. Because – more full disclosure – I’m running a massive overhaul mod for the game. Anyway, I’ve sunk around 130 hours into the game so I feel qualified enough to review it despite having not finished the main quest. And, get this, the main quest is about six missions long. That’s how disengaging it is. I’ve spent 130 hours actively avoiding the main quest because of how dry and dull this element was. Which, ironically, should have been the strongest element of the game.
You see, main missions are run in separated instances of the game world. They take place on “protected” maps which mean the player can’t place or remove blocks. It’s entirely based on the game play elements outside of the base building. Unfortunately, despite the variability in options, the combat and movement portions of the game are both incredibly shallow and really poorly done. This is the starkest contrast between Terraria and Starbound. I actually enjoyed fighting bosses in Terraria. I wanted to see what the next challenge was. I wanted to explore the newest biome.
Starbound’s bosses are really easy. Especially if you’ve accidentally crafted more advanced armour than the level of the boss. Which is incredibly easy to do since, in order to unlock the boss, Chucklefish have developed the most boneheaded mission type. Since the levels are removed from the universe, they can only be loaded by a specific panel on your ship once you’ve found the coordinates for the mission. In order to learn the mission’s coordinates, you have to find an unspecified number of alien artefacts related to one of the major races in the Starbound universe.
This translates into scouring random planets hoping for a random but specific village spawn. I happened to run into a lot of Apex and Avian villages at the start of the game so ended up exploring and progressing down the planet difficulties long before I stumbled across the required Floran village that I needed (and wasn’t even on the recommended planet type either) to unlock the second mission. I mean, I understood that certain stars are more likely to spawn certain villages but it’s not a guarantee. And after getting bored on three gentle stars that are all basically the same, I wanted to see something else. I’ve done four main missions now and have breezed through them all (barring the first which is actually properly paced entirely because it preceded the stupid scanning requirements). Even worse, despite these missions being hand crafted, the levels aren’t even that interesting. I’ve seen random dungeons that are more engaging that these mission levels. And this isn’t even touching the fact that most of the platforming in these levels is almost entirely negated by the tech upgrades you can pick up.
And tech upgrades are available once you’ve randomly looted enough tech chips that spawn in random chests like upgrade modules but far more frequently so you’ll have the best tech well before you’re anywhere close to having a full size ship. So the levels aren’t challenging, the bosses aren’t challenging and the story connecting them together is about as threadbare and banal as one could possibly imagine.
I could go into great detail about how the plot and themes of Starbound could easily be addressed or how they should have put more focus into their story elements instead of having them seemingly slapped on. But then it would feel like I was putting in more effort than Chucklefish on the matter and it’s simply not worth it. Suffice to say, for a game called Starbound, they should have given players motivation to bound towards the stars instead of having a main quest and game play which actively discourages it.
So, this is a lot of bad but what about the good?
As I mentioned prior, Starbound allows modding. I specifically loaded up three mods: one to correct the Avian so they have scaled hands (feathered hands make no damn sense); one to make the death animation of characters a bit more dynamic than just a disco flash of light; and one to actually correct this horrible progression issue in the game.
Specifically I run Frackin Universe which has expanded the content in the game astronomically. I know I wouldn’t have put in nearly as much time if I hadn’t used FU. FU tries to gateway some of the content behind equipment requirements by making higher level planets too dangerous to explore due to environmental effects if you haven’t built the proper protections for them. These protections are crafted from ores found on the prior tier planet so you have a logical focus of working your way through planet types in order to open up more worlds. And you want to progress into the more dangerous worlds because the resources you can find allow you to craft unique items and equipment. Now, the progression isn’t perfect since it’s still working in Starbound’s haphazard universe generation but it does make it more forceful in how you can proceed. Also, the amount of content makes discovery better since you’re apt to run into new things even sixty or seventy hours into playing.
Finally, we’re going to touch on Starbound’s greatest strength and the reason why I believe it has what popularity it has: aesthetic. There’s no denying that the artistic direction of the game is fantastic. It’s easily the best of the pixel 2D graphic games I’ve played. And the work the artists have done is actually awe-inspiring. The amount of different biomes and alien worlds, not to mention how weird some of them truly get, is a joy. You can wander amongst enormous plants or crunch across planets formed of eyeballs. Even better, the backgrounds change depending on the biome and solar system you are in. If there are different planets and stars in the system, you’ll see them rise in the horizon. This extends down into the blocks you can collect and the decorations you can build to place in your houses.
The building portion is, hands down, the most fun you’ll have with the game. You will explore solely to find new recipes and items that you can craft back home. You’ll find planets that you’ll want to establish weird farms or colonies upon. Upgrading and decorating your ship has been easily the most time consuming and most rewarding portion of the game. Here you can see through the accumulation of unique discoveries, expanding spaces and lively crew the fruits of your playing of the game.
The visual charm does all it can to excuse the horrible writing. And I’m not even being unnecessarily critical here. You’ll find grammar errors within the first ten minutes of the game. I can’t be bothered to read the lore snippets for how insipid their little tales are and for the number of mistakes contained within them. However, I’m willing to suspend my disbelief towards gasbag cowboys, cannibalistic space ork plants, medieval robots and Japanese fish people because they’re brought to life by the art department so well. Their villages and decorations bring a unity of design that the writing team absolutely fails to deliver and provides a better canvas for you to re-imagine a world with all its charm and quirk while ignoring the one Chucklefish cobbled together.
And, of course, there’s the music. I absolutely adore the soundtrack in the game. I rarely notice background music but when a favourite tune starts playing, I’m apt to stop exploring just to enjoy the medley. I’ve recently discovered (read: stolen) a music box from an Apex village and have enjoyed flicking through the tunes available on it when I placed it on the bar on my ship. The soundtrack is perhaps the only thing that has assuaged my guilt over pre-ordering the game because otherwise I would have been very angry with myself given the issues with its release and development.
Finally, Chucklefish have shown some much appreciated post launch love. It’s received a couple of content updates. Now, none of these have addressed my main concern. One was a fishing update (and I only recently learned how to fish at that!) and the other added post game content that – at this rate – I may never actually see because I really, really, really hate going through their main quest. But the more content they add, the more they can delay the boredom of repetitive content when slogging through their core game.
In the end, there’s some real talent in the Chucklefish house that’s hamstrung by incredibly awful decisions. The art and music side of Chucklefish is certainly propping up the game design side but, unfortunately, they can only carry them so far. I feel like Starbound was a game whose scope quickly blinded Chucklefish to what’s important to their vision. They seemingly learned no lessons in their predecessor’s success, charging headlong to address shortcomings in Terraria’s design but unaware that they were careening straight into pitfalls that the prior game was designed to circumvent. In the end, Starbound creates a game that is largely not worth playing. But if you dig through the mud far enough, you’ll find diamonds hidden beneath the surface. Its pull is in elements that should have supplemented a far more engaging core instead of accidentally copying engaging elements without even realizing why they were good in the first place. But if you like building, there’s some fun to be had here which is relaxing and bite-sized so you can pick away at your creations a little here and there before discovering just how much time has flown by.