Death of the Critic

The Backlog - Starbound

Written by: Tom Blaich


I have a confession to make. Like many of you reading this, I have a list of games that I’ve been meaning play for years. I have way too many games on Steam, and a stack of cases sitting next to my TV. Close to five hundred games now. Maybe more. It makes me feel guilty. I haven’t touched 90% of them in one way or another. I need to fix that. So this week, I dug deep into my backlog and pulled out a game. I want to play all of them; I’ve just never had the chance. Now’s the time.

Before we even noticed it, survival games came to dominate the indie PC space, pushing aside
roguelikes to utterly saturate the market. Taking their cue from games like Minecraft, the scavenging, mining/survival game industry is a big one but luckily Starbound manages to carve out a place of its own. Strongly influenced by Terraria, but with some excellent quality of life changes along with a decent enough quest system that actually gives you a reason to explore the world after you have established yourself.

You don’t start the game out by punching trees to make tools or scratching at the ground for ore. You are a student at a cool space academy that is attacked during your graduation ceremony (because when else would it be attacked). So, you get a “matter manipulator” as well as some basic weaponry and your own spaceship. You will still have to gather and craft, but the core element of how you start and your default equipment does change the feeling of the game to me.


There have been so many games that have you starting from square one over and over during those first few hours, and it always feels tedious. Set up your small base, build your tools, gather materials, build more tools, gather nicer materials, build nicer tools. Repeat ad infinitum until you have stockpiled enough to sustain your adventuring for a while.

Here those steps are skipped almost entirely. Your matter manipulator is the only tool that you’ll ever really need, and while you can upgrade the speed, range, and area of effect of the laser-beam/mining tool, you can always mine any piece of material that you come across. Having it work on multiple blocks by default makes the process of mining way less of a chore and just speeds up a process to let you get back into the game quicker. It also doesn’t take up any inventory space, which means that you don’t have to worry about juggling tools around on a shortcut bar every time you enter a mine or get a new tool.

Speaking of the inventory, the way that they have it set up here is probably one of the best implementations that I’ve seen in a while. You have separate inventories for equipment, building material, food, etc. so you always feel like you have space left. No more leaving a mission halfway through to drop off loot, especially with the max stack size for many items being 1000 pieces, which takes forever to fill up. You can’t forget about your inventory altogether, but it feels like less of a constant hassle and more of another consideration to make before you go out on your adventures.

The story that they have crafted may be a bit boilerplate, with you being the last hope for your group of survivors against a hostile group of aliens, but the very inclusion of an actual story feels like a step forward, giving us a reason to explore the many different planets and track down that next piece of material.


The quest log can quickly balloon up as seemingly every NPC that you come across wants to give you a fetch quest that you’ve probably already completed, but having the ability to mark quests on your map does make them quite a bit easier to complete. It’s a bit strange to be praising decades old game design being included, but it’s something that I think that I’ve sorely missed when playing these open-world crafting games.

With this focus on quests does come an unfortunate amount of repetitive combat, which becomes a game of jumping around while managing an energy bar and taking potshots at enemies whenever you can. The elemental effects on weapons, from simple pistols to flaming swords to poison bows, do add a bit of variety, but it still comes down to backpedaling and shooting over and over again until all of the enemies on screen are dead. Enter the next room and repeat.

There are multiple separate instances where you’ll be sent for combat focused missions, where you can’t mine out the level around you and you simply have to deal with the enemies as they come. It’s a nice change of pace from the more exploratory missions, but after you’ve done one or two, you know what to expect.


Sometimes you’ll be joined by an AI partner, who seemed to invariably be stronger than me, and made quick work of everyone that we came across. The characters, along with the others in towns and in the wild that you can meet help to flesh out the world and feel populated in a way that most survival games don’t. You go to a planet and there is a functioning society there that you can interact with. It’s cool the first few times you see it, but due to the large number of planets and systems, you’ll quickly see how copy pasted these settlements actually are, and how similar many of the quests happen to be.

It is hard to shake a feeling of déjà vu while playing this, a feeling that it was all something that I’d seen or done before. Because in large part, it was. None of the ideas here are new. They just took many established ones, from all over the gaming world, and combined them together in a way that would minimize the faults of the chosen genres. It is by no means a perfect game, and it does fall prey to many of the shortcomings of its genre (mostly in terms of repetitive content), but it certainly is a fun one, and even though I played a fair bit for this Backlog, I have a feeling I’ll be back soon for more.



Tom has been writing about media since he was a senior in high school. He likes long walks on the beach, dark liquor, and when characters reload guns in action movies.

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