Starbound put to the test - freedom in pixel space

Author: Benjamin Danneberg
Date: 2016-08-01 15:24:00
After around three years in Early Access, the pixel sandbox adventure Starbound has finally been published. The test shows that it is more than just a terraria in space.

This time with history

Unlike Terraria, Starbound offers a typical RPG story from the start. We have chosen from the six selectable races for humans, and our character is about to attend a solemn ceremony on earth in order to be appointed protector when our home planet is suddenly destroyed by a gigantic tentacle creature.

Our flight to the stars ends for our abundantly demolished spaceship in the orbit of an unknown planet. There we meet Grand Protector Esther Bright, who tells us about two opposing forces in the universe: the cultivator, a force that stands for harmony and peace, and ruin, which - surprise! - Opposite. Our job now is to destroy Ruin completely, as he is apparently trying to break out of his prison. To do this, we need to find and unite six artifacts.

With the main story, Starbound offers a motivating guide that softens the classic aimlessness of a sandbox and arranges the free elements of the game to the right and left of the path. This also picks up all those players who prefer linear things. However, the search for the artifacts consists of simply scanning (clicking!) Objects in the hope that it will fill a progress bar. This is not an example of good quest design, a lot of potential has been wasted here. Fortunately, Starbound also offers a lot of activity outside of the story.

Playful freedom

The game comes up trumps with enormous freedom. We fly from planet to planet with our spaceship, explore and collect materials, build houses or even entire colonies, manage farms for food supply or look for crew members for our spaceship.

When exploring, we run sideways over procedurally generated planetary surfaces until we come back to our starting point at some point. In between there are different biomes, different monsters, diverse architectures and weather effects. It is worth exploring the many caves or digging your way down to discover underground lakes, bone temples or nasty poison monsters.

Boss monsters also want to be chastened, both in between and as part of quests. Sometimes we are allowed to paralyze nasty gadgets with the help of switches and technology, sometimes we can kill a giant spider in its construction with brute force of arms. Depending on our level of equipment, this can be very challenging. The enemy AI fluctuates depending on skills between challenging and stupid, sometimes enemies are placed in downright ridiculous places. In one dungeon, for example, we were able to sizzle away a number of ranged fighters without resistance with the flamethrower.

If we die in unscripted areas, we lose 30 percent of our pixel currency, drop all handicraft materials, food and consumer goods and have to restart from the spaceship. The roguelike concept fluctuates between tension, challenge and frustration, depending on the situation.

Versatile fight

We have a pretty arsenal of weapons at our disposal for crushing enemy brawls - from broadswords, ax and speed bows to assault rifles and flamethrowers, everything a controversial player's heart desires is included. Different weapons require different fighting styles: axes, for example, have to be charged with momentum, while we fire pistols until our energy bar is empty. Then we have to wait a moment for it to recharge in order to continue shooting.

The extra abilities of rare or legendary weapons are particularly cool . For example, we were allowed to carry out a wild onslaught over a certain distance with a sword, a special assault rifle let us fire electrifying volleys at enemy groups.

If we are rather unlucky when looking for prey, we can simply build better equipment ourselves. But for that we have to get our hands dirty.

Paradise for collectors and craftsmen

Those who like to collect will get their money's worth in Starbound. The »Matter Manipulator« is our multifunctional tool for dismantling and assembling of any kind. At first, we can slowly upgrade the part in the course of the game so that it dismantles more quickly or has a greater range. We then dig our way back and forth across the planets and get material for extensive crafting.

Handicraft works in the classic way as in Minecraft and Co. with small, workbench-independent recipes for healing ointments or with boards, which we in turn need for setting up crafting stations (forge, forge, workbench, etc.). For the latter, it makes sense to build their own and protected branch. Lots of recipes for weapons, armor and cosmetic knick-knacks turn us into little fighting machines and our functional craft shack into a cozy place that we can expand into a whole colony if necessary.

Colony & Crew

In order to settle NPCs, we place a colony certificate previously purchased from the dealer in the intended dwelling - whoosh, an NPC appears! Depending on the quality of the facility, the NPC pays different amounts of rent, either in the customary currency (pixels!) Or in kind. The fact that the NPCs just appear that way is slightly unsatisfactory. It would be much better if we could win NPCs for our colony on our travels across the planets.

Unfortunately, this only works for crew members who we can recruit for our spaceship and who give us passive bonuses. For example, the engineer increases the fuel capacity of the spaceship and we can take crew members with us as (sub-optimal) combat support. However, the crew feature is hardly worth it in its current state and looks pretty half-baked.

Steep wall for beginners

The game's biggest flaw is the fact that it explains almost nothing. For example, if we play in survival mode, we have to eat regularly to avoid scratching. But we only find out by trial and error that we need a forge, a spinning wheel and suitable materials for a simple agricultural hoe.

The implementation of the hunger mechanism is also questionable : We shovel loads of carrots, rice dishes and bread into us just to have a few minutes' rest from the hunger warning sound. We urgently need to improve the balance here.

However, we can easily invite other players via our Steam friends list and thus overcome the unnecessary hurdles of the game by trying things out together in co-op. Disadvantage of the game structure designed for multiplayer interaction: There is no pause function. If you have to go for little pixel monsters from time to time, you can only interrupt the growing hunger by leaving the game (which is saved automatically).

Mixed technology

The interface also urgently needs an update. We can assign a function or an object for the left and right mouse button to each hotkey, which is a brilliant idea. Instead, the rest of the functionality is ... well, limited would be nicely worded. Some items cannot be stacked, which means that, for example, we have to put food one at a time on the hotkeys in order to eat them.

Reward bags can also only be opened by placing them on a hotkey - only building materials can be used directly from the inventory. It is annoying that the inventory opens in the middle of the screen and above our character. If we move the window to the bottom of the screen, tooltips disappear from the screen. Deselecting items is sometimes done using a special key, sometimes using Escape, sometimes by closing the inventory. And we could list many more annoying little things.

Technically, however, the age-old pixel optics are convincing due to their clarity and contrast; the worlds are varied and lovingly designed. So the bottom line is that, despite the many small flaws, Starbound offers fans of the genre a well-rounded, if not entirely sophisticated overall package with an incredible amount of freedom.