Formally announced back in 2012, Starbound has been firmly on the radar of many. Promising unending exploration and limitless possibilities to create your own universe, the highly anticipated sandbox game recently saw its official release out of Early Access.
Picking from seven different races, you first create a character. Races range from robots to mysterious 'gas-bag people', but if you're feeling less adventurous you can also pick the plain old human race. Besides resembling your way cooler alter-ego, no race seems to have any other purpose or (dis)advantages in gameplay above others, leaving you free to pick whichever you find most aesthetically pleasing (or suitably humorous).
After choosing and dressing the bundle of pixels you will play as, the game starts with a graduation ceremony. Having graduated from Terrene Protectorate, an intergalactic peacekeeping organisation based on planet Earth, you must rush or else you miss your own ceremony. Guiding your character out of bed, getting dressed and hurrying to the ceremony teaches you the basic controls of the game - you can run, jump, inspect and interact within the world around you.
When arriving at the graduation ceremony, Earth is suddenly under attack by a mostly unseen monster - apart from the multitude of tentacles that is. Your superiors urge you to flee, taking a tool called the Matter Manipulator with you. Obeying their command, you man a shuttle that shoots into space, only for it to break down amongst the stars. Your only option is to explore the closest habitable planet in order to find materials to fix your ship.
This is where your adventure truly begins. Beamed down to the planet below, you'll use your Matter Manipulator to gather resources by simply beaming a target until it turns into a conveniently sized block for you to carry. You will also immediately encounter native life forms, none of which seem happy to have your around. This is where you'll be wielding your first weapon, a sword, to slash through the unwelcoming habitants.
Slowly, with the emphasis on slow, you'll be introduced to combat, resource gathering, crafting, and plenty of dying. Starting your Starbound adventure, even the weakest enemies are able to kick your pixelated butt. With little direction where or how to gather and craft materials, you may find yourself running around aimlessly whilst dying countless times before making any progress. Depending on which difficulty you chose at the start of the game, dying can be more than a slight inconvenience; casual mode only causes you to be beamed up back to your ship, whereas survival mode makes you lose all your materials upon death. For players who like a challenge, there's even a hardcore mode, where death is permanent and your character is gone forever.
After dying for the umpteenth time by the hand of a seemingly cute rabbit-like creature, we got slightly frustrated. Using the Matter Manipulator, we attempted to dig our way around the enemies that could withstand our sword attacks. Noticing we could dig quite deep and then some, we continued down. It wasn't long before we unearthed hidden treasures and even whole civilisations, which instantly made us forgive and forget the slow and at times frustrating opening.
These hidden gems in the game are exactly what makes Starbound a highly enjoyable experience - nothing seems to be too crazy. With a plethora of planets to explore, you never know what you'll find, or where. When we dug our way into several unseen civilisations, we couldn't wait to shoot for the stars and explore more. After your ship is fixed and with no home-planet to return to, you may as well do just that!
Of course, gathering and crafting materials to build or enhance items is a core element of the game. Crafting can even feel positively overwhelming at first with the plenitude of options available, ranging from enhancing tools to fully customising your entire spaceship.
Starbound offers a storyline to follow and quests to complete, and whilst none of these bring anything new to the table (think your standard fetch quests), there is clearly a lot of lore in the game. For example, each of the races has a unique culture, and several books found throughout the game provide information about politics and history. This gives the seemingly simple side-scroller a lot more depth than players may initially expect. Playing through the storyline will have you face a boss after each chapter, which can be surprisingly challenging. If you chose the hardcore mode, you may want to learn the attack patterns of your opponents before heading in to battle!
Playing through the story is entirely optional - players can freely enjoy the game and choose their own path and pace in this immersive sandbox game. Whether you choose to explore, hack away at extraterrestrial lifeforms, or even create new colonies - the choice is entirely yours. Alongside the many avenues of exploration, options to build and decorate the world around you are just as bountiful.
Apart from seemingly endless gameplay, Starbound holds another alluring aspect: the multiplayer. You can choose to team up, exploring worlds and building impressive installations together. You can also play PvP, damaging other players who also have PvP option enabled. With options such as group chat, anti-cheat functions, server broadcast messages, banning and optional PvP, online gameplay can be enjoyed by new and experienced players alike.
Another huge attraction is undoubtedly the modding option. Starbound allows players to modify anything from items to monsters, even whole planets can be tinkered with. At the time of writing the developers are still working on improving this aspect, promising to make it an easy experience for inexperienced modders too. Tutorials on how to start are available on the official Starbound Wiki.
At first glance, Starbound may seem familiar. Playing around with building blocks and endless gathering/crafting gameplay in a pixelated art-style is something we've seen in the immensely popular Minecraft and Stardew Valley (the latter is even published by Chucklefish). However, Starbound manages to set itself apart by expanding its gameworld to the entire galaxy, providing players with many different planets to explore, civilisations to encounter, and hidden gems to discover - the sky is not the limit. Along with the multiplayer and encouraged modding, Starbound certainly conquered a solid place amongst its peers.