I never got into Minecraft when it was all the rage, and I really am not sure why. Starbound builds upon the same concept at Minecraft, but works in 2D, allowing you to reshape worlds as you mine for resources, battle local wildlife or people, and travel the stars. I started playing thinking I’d stop after an hour or two, and ended up spending an entire day on it. I think it was designed for people like me, who can’t stop until everything is done.
But it’s never done.
That might be a problem.
Developed by Chucklefish Games, a small developer, Starbound is a 2D adventure game set in space, allowing the player to interact with their spacecraft in space, and millions of procedurally-generated planets below. It was released as a Beta title on Steam in early December, and has already become a hit among Minecraft/Terraria players, and fans of sandbox games in general. While the game has storyline elements and quests, the fact you can change every element of the planet you’re on makes it one massive random sandbox fit for anyone who just wants to build to their heart’s content.
As the game is not finished, I cannot offer an ultimate guide to the experience, but I can hit on all of the major points worth noting.
Starting Out in the Galaxy
From the start, you’ll notice that you have your choice of six playable races, with a seventh to be added soon as a reward from the Kickstarter campaign. While they all are mostly the same, different abilities and attributes will crop up during play as they acquire gear and items.
At the start, you are stranded on your ship, out of fuel, in a random solar system and planet. You can beam up and down the planet freely, but you cannot move the ship yet. Here, the first few quests are given to get you accustomed to the game and show off many of its features you’ll need to get back into space. From here you’re mission is to gather resources, and dodge enemies. With no armor and a feeble weapon, you will probably die a few times. Fortunately, you regenerate back on the ship, and start again. Future patches will add permadeath and drop-gear death options for players seeking the challenge, but in general, you can die with no penalty other than losing your spot on the planet, since the teleporter puts you in the same spot. This too could change in the future.
Crafting and Mining
The ultimate feature of Starbound is the crafting and mining systems. Like similar titles before it, you are given an item that allows you to mine anything on the planet and place it in your inventory for later use. So right away you’ll start using the device to mine dirt to get to ores buried in the earth, and cut trees down for fuel. But it’s a slow process, you need something faster. This is where crafting comes in. As you acquire raw materials, you can build workshops and tools to craft many of the items you need to advance. Once you have the material to make a pickaxe, you now have something that can mine dirt, rock, and ores faster, and cut down trees with ease. The stronger ores you find (copper, gold, platinum, etc.) you can craft a stronger pickaxe and cut through everything quickly. There are a seemingly large, endless number of options for crafting items to build a fort or castle, or create weapons, armor, robots, and more.
Air, Food, and Water: The Survival Guide
Don’t think you are just invincible while you are stuck on this planet. You have a number of gauges to worry about as you play, from how hungry you are, to how much air you have left as you dive under water, to poison-water, melting-from-lava, and more. One of the most important aspects is to keep an eye on your hunger. The more full you are, the more productive you are with mining and building. The more hungry you are, the slower you are. Don’t eat at all, and you die from hunger. Of course, you’ll just come back, but this isn’t really a viable strategy, especially if this mechanic changes in the final build. You need to eat. You come to the planet with some seeds to plant, which will get you some ingredients to cook with, but one of the easiest methods is to hunt monsters with a crossbow and kill them for their tasty alien meats. Cooking these over a campfire get you an instant meal that helps boost your hunger bar. Hunting with the bow can be tricky, as enemies can rush you and make combat tricky, but if you have the advantage by terrain or a well-built defense enclosure, you can mine for meat all day long and never go hungry. You can also find other seeds and food on the planet as you explore. At night, be careful of the temperature, without a fire around you, you can freeze to death. Not fun.
Weapons, Armor, and Monsters
Much like food, don’t think there aren’t things down here craving the flesh of a red shirt. Randomly generated monsters will attack you if you get close, often with poison attacks, lightning, or weapons. When you first start, you’re basically a fleshbag with a crappy weapon, so you want to put early priority on crafting a basic set of armor from copper or silver, and get a good weapon. Some enemies drop weapons, so keep an eye out for unique weapons you can try to obtain. Sets of armor can be crafted from the basic sets you make to improve defense and sometimes grant bonuses. At night, monsters are stronger, and more difficult types emerge, especially in underground tunnels. Each planet you visit will have a difficulty rating that shows you how difficult the monsters on that world are. If you’re just looking to explore and build, pick a place with easy monsters you can clear out with ease. If you want a challenge, head to a more difficult planet. The rewards with be greater. You can also encounter alien races, many whom are hostile and will try to attack you, but you’ll also encounter towns and villages with NPCs that sell items, often tied to their race, so if you’re Human and you stumble upon a Human settlement, you can obtain some great Human-specific gear from vendors using the game’s currency, pixels, which you get from dead monsters, random places on the game map, and some items.
Getting off the Rock
Once you’ve fueled up the ship, you can start to explore the Alpha galaxy in all of its glory. Every planet is randomly generated, so you aren’t really going to be looking for anywhere in specific. But, like everything else, your fuel isn’t infinite. You consume fuel depending on the distance traveled. If you just hop to a planet’s orbiting moon, you consume very little fuel, but if you jump to another planet in that system, slightly more. If you jump to the next system, even more, and to a system far away on the other side of the galaxy, potentially all of it. So you should be fairly careful where you are traveling, and wherever you stop, always look out for minable coal, and chop some trees down as you go to keep the ship fueled. Coal powers the ship’s FTL drive, but I imagine there will be more fuel sources already in the game or soon to be added. There is also talk of ship upgrades down-the-road, so I won’t rule out an upgrade that gives you a nuclear engine or something crazy that eliminates your need for fuel.
Servers and Multiplayer
It wouldn’t be a game without other people playing it, and fortunately that is the case, be it on official servers, or private servers. Each copy of the game can launch its own server, so you can either host your friends, join someone else’s, or if you are savvy enough and have the resources, host your own. Multiplayer allows you to interact with your friends and co-op mining a planet and building whatever you fancy. Also, if you go into a server with an existing character, you keep the items in your inventory and what is on your ship, but you are taken to a new planet, so if you had items on your original planet. you cannot access them until you play on your own local instance. But you can grab them all, beam up, save, and go back to the server with all of those items intact.
Gameplay mechanics aside, let’s drill down into why I am enjoying this game so much.
It’s Fucking Space
I don’t think I need to really dwell on this. I love space. I love science fiction. Starbound is like the unholy combination of various tabletop and console RPGs, Minecraft, and GTA-style sandbox play, all rolled into this one neat package with great pixelated art. If Gearbox is known for Borderlands, a game that also hinges on procedurally-generated content to keep it fresh, Chucklefish is exceeding this by not just randomly-generating the items, they’re randomly-generating the world. You can’t play the same world twice. How cool is that?
It’s Made For OCD Perfectionists Like Myself
I love sandboxes. Actual sandboxes. Like, actual sand. I used to play with my trucks in them as a kid, or when we went camping, design intricate dirt camping grounds for all my matchbox cars and trucks. I know, camp site within a camp site. INCEPTION SOUND HERE. With Starbound, I am realizing all of my horrible nightmares as I spend hours mining all these networks of tunnels in a neat, straight line, building small fortresses to sleep in at night, tearing everything down and rebuilding it to move it one pixel. Some of you know what I’m talking about, and the fucking thing never ends, it keeps on going, and there are thousands of planets out there, and I have to terraform them all.
From character creation, to armor types, weapons, decorative items, even HATS, this game has everything you want to feed into the aforementioned OCD and possible USI if you’re playing multiplayer. But the customization comes in the fact that you’re in a huge randomly-generated sandbox, you can do almost anything, and that alone should entice anyone to experiment away, or, at minimum, build a large phallus-shaped object to show everyone they are actually twelve.
However, there are some drawbacks, mainly due to the fact that it is still in development.
For the duration of the beta, get used to being warned your character will probably be wiped. Most updates don’t do this, but as devs make changes to the core of the game, they inform players that wipes occur when they change major elements of the game that tie back to characters, versus changing worlds or items independent of character information. So it’s best not to spend too much invested in one character right now and instead mix and match, play the different races, and just sort of explore what there is. Once the final wipe goes through and no further need to wipe is announced, then start working on that ultimate character.
Bugs, Crashes, and Memory Leaks
It’s software, so this is going to happen. It actually happens very seldom, normally after prolonged sessions of playing. Flash is used for some components, so that tends to be the major culprit. If you run a private server, you’ll see that leaks will slow down server performance over time. In either case, the best solution is to close and re-open the client/server to keep things flowing. The next patch, and future patches, will address these issues as the devs encounter it.
Lack of Controller Support
One of the things I was disappointed to find out was that it was not controller-compatible in Steam, though if you have the ability to map keyboard keys to one, you could fashion partial support. I’m not very adapt to side-scrollers with keyboards, but I manage fairly well for this game and get it done, but I’m hoping that this is considered for the final release, because it’d be much easier to manage running around with a controller.
There are loads of ideas they have in past blog posts they want to add to the game, many which I think will be properly awesome, such as ship versus ship battles, being able to beam to nearby planets without moving, and much more. But I imagine the focus is to get the core game out, but I am hoping the mod community and others help push this game into something that could rival SimCity in Space, essentially.
The bottom line, is that this is a game worth playing for the fan of sandbox-style games, and those who enjoy customizable content and space-themed fun. If you prefer to wait for the final release, that’s fine too, but the early-beta on Steam is a helluva lot of fun, and worth getting into as we wait for what is to come.