Starbound Preview: The joys of being lost in space
I knew I was going to like Starbound before I ever set foot off my ship. The game felt relentlessly charming even when I didn't take the pixel art into account. Maybe it was the cheerful way my codex informed me that my entire crew was dead, or the adorable way my character moved her mouth when I typed dumb stuff into the chatbox. Whatever it was, the game had completely won me over long before I teleported onto my first planet.
Since then, I've started many games of Starbound, and I've never felt like I was playing the same thing twice. Every new character goes through the same round of introductory quests, but the procedurally generated planets ensure that the experience will be completely different. With my first character, things felt pretty simple. I was able to find the materials I needed for the first few quests without much trouble, and didn't encounter any big surprises. Starting the game with a new character quickly proved that wouldn't always be the case.
One character had to fight her way through a top secret government research facility in order to gain access to valuable materials. Another had to swim through a vast, dark cave, carefully lighting torches along the way. On some planets, trees are decorated with flowers, while on others, they're covered in eyeballs. Even when I was teleporting back onto a familiar planet, I'd occasionally encounter the unexpected. Sometimes I'd see strange fish in a body of water that had once been empty. Sometimes I'd accidentally stumble onto something completely unexpected, like an underground military base. Every planet is full of secrets, and completely worthy of exploration.
On its surface, Starbound seems incredibly similar to games like Terraria or Asteria. You explore a procedurally generated world, gather materials, craft tools, gather more materials, and keep on crafting bigger and better things. Still, there's something about the game that feels very unique. For a game that's often silly, Starbound's lore is surprisingly deep. Each new planet gives you glimpses of a complex and fascinating story. Sometimes, NPC dialogue is ridiculous, but at other times, it feels like something straight out of an epic RPG. The music is absolutely incredible, and the gorgeous pixel art does a lot to enhance the overall experience.
You can choose from a total of six different species, including humans, robots, and plant creatures, but the differences between the races is purely aesthetic. Eventually, you'll be able to craft race specific armor with some nice bonuses, but everyone plays the same at this point in the game. It's a little frustrating that my fish creature fares no better in the water than my ape, but I appreciate how different two characters can be appearance-wise. Human females alone have more than 50 different hairstyles, and playing around with the character creator often yields surprising results. The lack of race-specific bonuses may wind up being a plus in multiplayer, since players won't feel compelled to go with the strongest race.
Speaking of multiplayer, it looks like it's going to be an absolute blast. You can move a character seamlessly between single player and multiplayer games, customizing your spaceship on your own before showing it off to your friends. If you stumble across an amazing planet, you can easily bring your friends back there later, and if you find something you can't handle on your own, you can call for backup. Right now, multiplayer functionality is still pretty limited, but I imagine things will get more interesting once there are public worlds.
The combat isn't perfect, but it's steadily improving. Balance issues are steadily being tweaked, and the fundamentals are solid. On the surface, things seem pretty simple: equip a weapon, and click on an enemy to fight. However, as you spend more time with the game, you'll find yourself developing all kinds of strategies. Is the best way to take on a flying enemy jumping, or creative range attacks? Are you better off attacking an enemy from a distance, or selecting a melee weapon with a lot of knockback? The further you progress, the more options you have, and the more interesting combat becomes.
Starbound feels like the kind of game I could play forever. There's so much to do and so much to explore that I can't imagine ever getting bored. There are lots of improvements I'd like to see - a better levelling system, an easier way to bank pixels, and an enhanced multiplayer experience - but even in the early stages, the game is more than worth playing. Chucklefish has created something incredible, and I can't wait to see where Starbound goes next.