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Review: Starbound

At a Glance

ESRB Rating: NR - Not Rated
My Rating: Ages 10 and up
Genre: Building / Survival
License: Commercial
Release Year: 2016
Review Published On: February 18, 2019
Played on: Thaddeus

Available from:

Gamer's Gate, Humble Store, Steam

Save System:

With the exception of your progress through a special story mission level, your progress is automatically saved.

You can pause the game by pressing ESC to bring up the pause menu.

Summary of
Major Issues:

Players frequently need to combat hostile aliens and factions as they explore the universe. However, the only gore is part of some alien landscapes; defeated enemies simply disappear in a puff.

Some of the game's cultures also feature some unsettling elements, such as a fascist Big Brother analogue, murderous savages, and there is also a cult built around the game's ultimate evil.


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Talking with a wandering merchant

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Investigating a dark, cold world

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Mining. In. SPACE.

Game Overview

Although Starbound is a building / survival game like Minecraft or Terraria, it's far more story driven. In fact, it starts out with a literal bang: your character is on Earth when it is attacked and destroyed by creature known as the Ruin. After escaping this calamity, you find yourself lost in space: your ship has broken down and is in orbit over an unknown and hostile alien planet.

Your first order of business is going to be securing food and better equipment. Once you have those, you can begin investigating the planet and begin your journey throughout the cosmos.

Or not. Despite there being a story, once you've repaired your ship, you're free to just explore the universe on your own terms. Some parts of the game become unlocked as the story progresses, but there's no hurry. With thousands, if not millions, of different worlds to visit, it's easy to get sidetracked by wanderlust. Of course, in order to progress the story you need to visit many worlds in order to locate colonies of the different races, so everybody wins.

With countless worlds, hidden dungeons, and many secrets, Starbound is going to appeal to a lot of gamers, especially those who enjoy building their own lairs and collecting artifacts. There's also a lot of alien creatures to fight or hunt, and a grand evil to conquer.

Points of Interest

Tons of customization
When creating a character, you can not only select their race and gender, but also choose from a selection of hairstyles, starting outfits, and "personalities". You'll be able to further customize their appearance using new outfits and armor that you can craft, purchase, or find throughout the universe. Most of these sets can also be dyed, allowing for even more combinations.

Your character's race also determines the design of your ship and "mech". Each race has their own aesthetic style, and as a result their ship designs are tailored to their culture. Your mech (a small humanoid pod you'll be using to explore in outer space) is also going to be initially based on the race of your character. But, unlike the ship itself, you can find new mech parts and designs to tailor it to your liking.
Master matter manipulation
The most important piece of equipment in Starbound is your Matter Manipulator. It's the swiss army knife of construction tools, but it's features are limited at first. You'll need to hunt down upgrade modules for it as you explore. Once you've applied the upgrades, this tool becomes severely overpowered. For example, it can mine a 5x5 area in a single use. It'll also be able to suck up liquids; something that can't be done with your regular mining tools in many building games.

When it comes to placing things, it gets even better: you can place any block in the foreground or background. When placed in the background, blocks just act like a decorative wall, so you don't need to craft special "wall panels" like you did in Terraria. Additionally, you can unlock the ability to paint surfaces with your Matter Manipulator. This is especially good for themed designs or just ensuring that everything you're building looks great.

The Matter Manipulator can also be used to scan objects you come across. Once scanned, most of these objects can then be replicated via a device known as a Pixel Printer. This is more of an endgame item, but there's never been an easier way to decorate your base.

Lastly, this tool also has a flashlight attachment, which is extremely useful for scouting out the many dark caves you'll find around the universe. An actual flashlight is still the safer option most of the time, as it can be carried in one hand. This allows you to hold a weapon at the same time, unlike the Matter Manipulator, which requires both hands to use.
Progress at your own pace
In Starbound, the story waits for you. There are no random events, so you'll never get surprised by the sudden appearance of a boss. On the other hand, there are only two places where hostile creatures can't spawn: the Outpost and your ship. Going AFK anywhere else without pausing the game first is probably going to result in your character's death sooner or later.
Make friends and gather a crew
Many of the NPCs you'll meet throughout the universe need help with something. These missions are optional, but often reward you with money and other items. Additionally, by completing these tasks, you'll build up a reputation with the locals, and eventually you'll even be able to recruit them as part of your ship's crew.

Of course, once you've reopened the Beak Easy you can skip the "making friends" part and simply hire a penguin mercenary or two to help run things on your ship.
A whole galaxy to explore
There are hundreds, if not thousands, of randomly generated worlds in this game's universe. Each world comes complete with its own unique creatures, though there's also going to be a selection of common monsters mixed in as well. You never know what you'll find until you visit a world and explore it.

That said, travelling between stars isn't free; it uses up a small amount of fuel to go past light speed. This fuel can be harvested in crystal or liquid form from any moon, but there is a catch. If you're on a moon and carrying fuel, then a monster known as the Erchius Ghost will come after you. These ghostly entities pass through walls and cannot be harmed, so get out of there before they get too close!

The game's universe is also persistent, meaning that all of your characters will share the same universe. This can be used to let your different characters share resources: simply have them visit the same planet and leave the items behind in a crate or other storage box. Planetary coordinates are shown in the navigation console, so this is pretty easy to do. You can also bookmark your favorite planets and systems, making returning to them a breeze.
Explore deep space
Planets aren't the only thing found among the stars. There are also space stations, ships going to and fro, and local anomalies that might be worth investigating. You can also mine various metals from asteroids if that's your thing. The only catch to doing any of this is that you'll need a good mech. These robotic exosuits are the only way to freely move in zero gravity. Once they run out of power or take too much damage, you'll find yourself floating adrift in the void.
Create colonies and space stations
One reason you'll want to try your hand at being an architect is so that you can create elaborate colonies on new worlds. While you don't have much control over who moves in, you'll be able to collect rent from your colonists. They might also offer missions like regular NPCs, so they're a good source of adventures and income.

Once you've progressed far enough into the game to have access to Ancient Gateways, you'll be able to take things a step further by creating terraforming equipment. These structures change planets to whatever biome you want, potentially allowing a barren world to become a lush garden (or whatever else you desire).

Lastly, you can even go so far as to build your own space station. These are incredibly expensive to make, but it might well be worth it if you want to create a base among the stars.
Steam community features
Like most games that are released on Steam these days, there are achievements and Steam trading cards that can be earned while playing Starbound. Only a few of the achievements revolve around completing portions of the story; the majority of them involve hunting down and collecting various items. Only one achievement requires you to be playing in a multiplayer game; the rest can be earned with a lot of patience and effort in a single player game.
Rivalry with Terraria
Terraria and Starbound are very similar games; in fact, at least one of the Terraria developers migrated to Starbound's development team. Because of this and some old drama with Terraria itself, there have been bouts of bad blood between the fans of these two games. Fortunately, this has cooled down significantly since Starbound's official release.

Still, it's common for people to ask which of the two games is better. In the end, the main difference between the two games is that Starbound is more story driven and less combat-oriented than Terraria. If you want to explore strange new worlds, play Starbound. If you want to fight for survival in a hostile world, pick Terraria.
High starting difficulty
Regardless of whether you're playing on Casual, Normal, or Hardcore, you're going to be at a real disadvantage at the start of the game. While there is a tutorial mission, it doesn't explain how the game's healing mechanics work, and this could lead you to waste what few medical supplies you have. Along those same lines, the starting weapon is pretty much useless, which means that until you've found something better, any fight is likely to be your last.

Concerns and Issues

Fictional religions and cults
The main story that drives your adventure is based around a fictional creation myth. According to this lore, the universe was created by a powerful being known as the Cultivator. Shortly after everything was made, another powerful cosmic entity known as the Ruin arrived and sought to destroy all forms of life. Unfortunately, the Ruin proved to be the stronger being, and so the Cultivator sacrificed itself to seal the Ruin away. At the start of the game, the seal holding back the Ruin has begun to weaken, and the Ruin is slowly getting through -- hence the attack on Earth.

Naturally enough, a cult has also formed around the Ruin. Members of this cult appear randomly throughout the universe and act as an enemy faction.

Additionally, the Avaian race's culture is heavily based on their religious beliefs, which take many cues from the Aztec and Mayan civilizations. You'll find a lot of their elaborate tombs and temples during your journey, and you'll even need to fight against an avatar of their god at one point in the story.
Violent populations and animals
While combat isn't really this game's forte (compared to other games in the same genre), there is a lot of it. You'll be spending a lot of time fighting against hostile factions, dangerous wildlife, and the Ruin itself. Fortunately, there is rarely any blood or gore, as the majority of the creatures in this game simply "poof" out of existence once they are defeated.

In some cases, the player is the aggressor, as you'll need to hunt some of the alien species for things like leather and meat.
Unsettling environments
Although the violence is kept fairly tame, there are a few places where you'll run across some mild gore. Specifically, there are a few biomes that are based on organic tissues and bone graveyards. Both are rather creepy, though what you can find on some of the story missions are a little worse. Notably, the first major story mission features miners that have been corrupted beyond recognition by exposure to an eldrich horror.

The invulnerable ghost found on the various moons is probably worth listing here too, as its form resembles some types of parasitic worms.
Unsettling implications
All seven of the playable races has their own culture and history. For the most part, this is just interesting and provides a lot of local flavor. However, each race is represented by at least two factions. One of these factions is peaceful (at least towards the player) and the other is hostile, if not outright evil.

Humanity provides the most extreme examples of this. On one hand, the peaceful human settlements are basically "hippie" camp grounds with tents and RVs. On the other hand, the hostile settlements are prison colonies where the murderous inmates have taken over. Evil humans can also be found as bandits and members of a cult that worships the Ruin.

The Florians are another example, as their culture revolves around hunting and warfare. Even the "good" Florians decorate and built their homes using the remains of their (possibly human) prey. The evil Florians take things up to eleven by dressing and acting like the stereotypical cannibal tribes from old movies.

The truly unsettling stuff comes from the Apex, as their society is clearly inspired by extreme fascism and police states. The "peaceful" colonies live their lives under the watchful eyes of Big Ape, a "big brother" analogue. Other Apex live as militaristic rebels who oppose Big Ape and everything he stands for. Both sides are even shown decorating their colonies with large amounts of propaganda. Making things worse is that there are Apex scientists who, apparently under instruction from Big Ape, are performing unethical medical experiments on other Apex.
Mild non-human nudity
Six of the seven playable races can go nude. Humans are the only species that cannot appear naked, as they'll always wear underwear. That said, there are only three ways to see any character in the buff. The most common method is just to have them take a nap -- apparently everyone sleeps au naturel in this universe. The second method is to systematically remove your character's armor and apparel. The final method is to, again, remove their clothing and then ask a tailor to make this "outfit" your crew's new uniform. If you do that, then your entire crew will be wandering around in their birthday attire.

Regardless of how you do it, you're still in control over when characters undress, and since everyone has the anatomy of a Barbie doll, there's not much to see when you do strip them down, making this more of a footnote than a warning.