Early Access Showcase: Starbound

Today marks the final new type of feature that you can see each month on Darkstation.com, the Early Access Showcase. It's space where we will discuss games that are currently in a pre-release state but are accessible via open betas or Steam's Early Access program. If you missed last week's inaugural edition of Hall of Fame, check it out here. Now on to Starbound

At the time of writing, Starbound has over one million unique players; not bad for a game which only entered beta testing officially on December 4. The story begins back in April 2013, when a small UK indie studio called Chucklefish announced a Kickstarter-style funding campaign on the Humble Store. The response was staggering; 10,000 people backed the project with the first 24 hours. By the end of the month, all stretch goals had been met and the studio had generated over $1,000,000 in pre-orders.

Then something amazing happened: the studio delivered exactly what it had promised. In response to a monumental amount of support and pressure (or perhaps in spite of it) the developers gave their audience the game they had paid for; no mean feat considering the amount of heavily-funded failures that litter the Kickstarter wastelands.

Starbound is a 2D survival crafting game that takes place in a vast procedurally generated universe. At first glance it’s easy to confuse it with the immensely popular Terraria. There are two reasons for this: the first is that Starbound’s Lead Developer, Finn “Tiy” Brice, was one of the original graphic artists (or “spriters”) for Terraria; the second is explained by Starbound’s Community Manager, Molly Carroll:

“People will always draw similarities - it’s this in space or it’s that in 2D - when anything new comes out. But actually it’s becoming more of a genre. It’s not about games copying each other, but building on each other.”

With that in mind, it’s still fair to say that Starbound is effectively Terraria 2.0 – the developers have essentially up-scaled the basic premise of its spiritual predecessor, adding a dizzying array of fresh and innovative content, as well as a huge canon of background lore.

You begin the game by creating a character from one of seven different races, each with their own history and natural affinities. For varying reasons, your character has fled their home world in a small starship and is now in orbit above a randomly generated planet. In order to survive, you must beam down to the planet with your Matter Manipulator (one tool now replaces the traditional axe/pick/shovel combination) and begin resource gathering, hunting, crafting, etc.

A rudimentary questing / RPG interface acts as an introduction to the game’s first few hours, explaining how to survive your first night on the planet’s surface and rewarding you with XP for following those instructions.

Thanks to the complexity of the custom-built game engine, you can never be sure of what awaits you on the planet’s surface. You might find a total paradise, replete with pre-fabricated buildings for you to inhabit and all the fresh food and drink you will ever need. Alternatively, you might just as easily beam down onto a barren, inhospitable wasteland where the water is poisonous and the acid rain will melt the flesh off your bones in seconds.

The procedurally generated monsters are just as unpredictable. Huge Grizzly Beasts can be timid and docile enough to train as pets; small brightly coloured birds can flutter about your head before dowsing you in a hail of lava-tinged vomit.

Starbound builds on the success of Terraria’s survival mechanics by implementing a hunger system, farming and cooking abilities and even the necessity to regulate your body temperature depending upon the environment and time of day. Chucklefish has enhanced the building, crafting and mining systems, allowing players to create some unbelievably complex habitats.

Because the game takes place in a massive procedurally generated universe, the addition of a solid multiplayer component ensures an element of persistence. Players can beam aboard their starship and warp to friends in distant systems, adventuring together to discover all the secrets this game has to offer. I get the feeling, however, that due to the sheer size and complexity of the game world, no one will ever see it all.

By far my favourite element of Starbound, and something that will hopefully keep the title alive for many years to come, is the limitless devotion and creativity of the game’s modding community. There are more than 700 mods currently available already. Some are cosmetic, adding new clothing and ship designs (Firefly, anyone?); some enhance industrial elements which assist with mining and manufacture; some are just harmless fun, such as the rather juvenile “Nude Gun”.

It has been very rewarding to follow the ups and downs of Starbound’s development. The only real downside to being part of the process so early on was the necessity by Chucklefish to periodically refresh their servers, thereby wiping the entire universe. Many players still lament the loss of their favourite characters and ships along with the many and varied worlds they once called home.

But Chucklefish’s latest patch notes on January 26 confirmed massive changes to disk serialisation, making character wipes a thing of the past. Now has never been a better time for new players to dive straight in, safe in the knowledge that they can explore the Starbound universe without limits.

Starbound is currently available via Steam Early Access.

Well, that's it for this edition of the Early Access Showcase. Check back next week for the next edition of the Backlog as we visit the wonderful world of Caelondia.