Minecraft‘s runaway indie success has nearly single-handedly spawned an entire genre of games—commonly called “sandbox.” They’re all light on structure and story, instead emphasizing open-ended gameplay such as exploration, crafting, surviving, and building with friends.
Starbound is one of the most famous of these upcoming sandbox games. It’s available on Steam in an Early Access version. However, recent updates to the game have made it a title that families should definitely keep their eyes on.
Getting Started in Starbound
After creating a pixelated character out of a myriad of choices (bird people, fish people, etc.), you start on your very own spaceship hovering over a suitably low-level planet. The ship’s computer AI directs you through a series of simple tasks that act as a tutorial.
A major staple of games like Minecraft is mining for resources. Starbound is no different. Every single pixelated block can be mined and collected via your handy matter manipulator. Then it can be quickly reconstructed to form your own houses, dungeons, towers, and laboratories. You’re only limited by what you discover, making exploration vastly rewarding.
After working your way up from crafting simple items, you’ll gain access to an intergalactic outpost. This outpost is filled with friendly non-player characters that offer quests and goods. Quests are mostly of the “bring me 20 of these” variety, but they offer some nice goals and give Starbound more of a video-game feel than other sandbox games.
By working your way through the quests, you’ll repair your ship enough to travel to other planets in your solar system, and soon, to other galaxies. The universe opens up in a big way. The sheer amount of randomly generated planets you can explore is staggering. Each new planet can be mined for resources, loot, and fun objects with which to decorate.
The developers promise that eventually you’ll be able to progress through the game without having to use a weapon. In the game’s current state, however, adventuring is the only option. Combat involves all manner of guns and melee weapons, both crafted and found. Most planets are teeming with hostile creatures. The aliens are all fairly cute in a Pokémon-style way, and there’s no blood when engaged in the simple but fun combat.
Exploring in Starbound
Exploring different alien planets and digging through underground caverns are by far the most fun aspects of the game. Collecting resources lets you build new equipment and items. But you can also stumble upon one of hundreds of randomly placed dungeons, campsites, research labs, or robot villages. You may find an airship filled with merchant pirates or a heavily guarded mushroom town. Sometimes while digging you’ll find a single room, a few mysterious tombs, or a vast underground laboratory with plenty of loot.
While finding fancy new items if fun, much of the joy of these discoveries is the fact that you can grab anything. In Starbound, you can pick up the very dirt under your feet. Absolutely nothing is off limits. Grab that giant wooden statue and place it on your home planet. Drain the lava near the planet’s core and construct your own perilous bridge. Swipe the funny motivational poster and make a trophy room in your ship. For those with a desire for building, the creative aspects of the game are astounding and incredibly rewarding.
One of my favorite new additions that Starbound brings to the genre is in your own personal spaceship. Your ship can be decorated just like any other structure. Your ship expands with more rooms as you complete quests and advance through the game. At any time you can teleport to your friend’s ships to meet up. It’s a fun way to show off your decorating skills as well as give you a personalized home that you can take with you on your far-flung adventures.
Drawbacks to Starbound
The beginning of the game is somewhat tedious. After amassing a sizable amount of increasingly rare resources, crafting better equipment and defeating each major boss encounter, things open up considerably. You can build skyrails over planets. You can equip energy based Tech skills. You can even construct elaborate wiring systems that perform a variety of advanced functions. Starbound rewards your attention and persistence with tons of neat features just waiting to be discovered.
Still, one should always be cautious when diving into an Early Access game, especially one that’s been years in the making. For my money, Starbound is easily worth low cost of admission. It’s been fun seeing the changes as they’re implemented. However, technical glitches and the large amount of time before new content is added can be drawbacks.
Multiplayer, one of the biggest draws of the sandbox genre, can also be a pain to set up with Starbound. The advantage of specific networking requirements is that you can join your friends’ games without fear of random people jumping in. This is a big advantage for younger gamers. But it also means you may have to put in some work just to set up a game to play with friends. It’s certainly not the most user-friendly experience, though there is an online guide that can help you.
Starbound’s official release date has yet to be announced, though an official release is almost a moot concept, as updates and features will (hopefully) continue to be added post-launch. Despite the game’s Early Access status, the core gameplay of exploring, crafting, and building remains fun and rewarding. Even if Starbound were to never be updated again, I still think it’s a fantastic experience and a wonderful way to lose yourself among the stars.