Exploring The Great Beyond In Starbound
by Jeff Marchiafava on Jan 30, 2014 at 05:28 AM
Platform PC
Publisher Chucklefish
Developer Chucklefish Games
Rating Not rated

Players have always dreamt of tackling the final frontier in video games, but creating a limitless universe of unique planets to explore isn't exactly easy. Just don't tell Chucklefish Games that; the small indie developer has been feverishly plugging away at Starbound, a procedurally generated sandbox game that expands on Terraria's 2D mining and crafting formula in exciting new ways. While checking out the early-access beta, I chronicled my adventures in an ongoing journal, which you can read below.

Stardate 6546.5: The Birth Of Littleface
Players begin Starbound by creating and customizing their character from one of six playable species. The creativity of the species is impressive, as they all sport their own cultural style. Avians are birdlike beings whose culture is based on the Mayans, Florans are a tribal plant people, the Glitch are robots stuck in the middle ages, and the aquatic Hylotl draw their cultural inspiration from feudal Japan. Then there are the humans, which are just boring old humans. None of these choices matter once I see the final species, however: sentient space monkeys called the Apex.

After choosing my species, it's time to customize my character's appearance. I give him slicked back hair, a short beard, and a personality (i.e. stance) the game describes as "proud" – I am a monkey that can pilot a spaceship, after all; I think I've earned it. Despite the Star Trek implication, I give my character a red shirt under his commander jacket for a splash of color.

All that's left is a name. A few minutes of brainstorming doesn't come up with anything decent, so I click the randomize button. After a couple of tries, the game suggests "Littleface." It seems accurate enough (my character's face is pretty little), and sounds like something a sentient monkey might be named, so I go with it.

Starbound's art style is lighthearted, as is my character's backstory: As a member of a failed rebellion against the Apex's Ministry of Scientific Progression (also known as MiniKnog), Littlefoot narrowly escapes death by hijacking an enemy ship. Now out of fuel and in orbit above an unknown planet, it's my job to stop the Miniknog and topple its despotic ruler, Big Ape. If I'm going to get anywhere, however, I'll first need fuel for my ship. After picking up a few handy items including a Matter Manipulator, it's time to beam down to my first procedurally generated planet.

Stardate 6546.6: First Contact
I use my ship's teleporter to beam down to the planet, a temperate forest world named Alpha Vaastolaan Minoris II. The name doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, but it's unique to my game, and presumably not even the developer has seen its particular mix of flora, fauna, and procedurally generated caves.

The surface of AVM II is covered in purple grass, and soaring green roottrees with bubbly magenta-colored leaves tower overhead. The dirt on the planet is blue, though ore-infused stone is a more familiar grey.

Following the tutorial instructions, I use my Matter Manipulator to fell one of the trees, which collapses into a pile of logs. As a veteran of Minecraft and Terraria, I know the drill; I use the logs to craft a work bench, then collect some stones to make my first crude tools and weapons. The Matter Manipulator can dig up to four blocks at a time, though it takes a while depending on the material. After a while I create a pickaxe, which in addition to mining nine blocks at a time is a great deal speedier as well. Sometimes technology can't trump a classic.

After building a few items, I start exploring the hilly landscape and come across a variety of animal species. Small lizard-like creatures attack on sight, as do a species of weird yellow snail monsters that have spiny purple shells on their backs. A species of squat black creatures is also indigenous to the planet, but despite their massive teeth, they don't seem to mind my presence.

After a while my hunger meter drops, and the tutorial prompts me to procure some food. Killing creatures with a weapon (in my case a rusty old sword that was on my ship) causes them to drop pixels, the game's currency. In order to get meat, you need to use a bow. I craft one out of some logs and vines, and set out to hunt. Despite only hunting aggressive creatures (Littleface strikes me as a live-and-let-live kind of monkey), I have a backpack full of meat by sunset.

Nighttime introduces a temperature gauge to the mix as the planet cools. I build a fire underground and grill some meat for eating, and then craft an anvil and furnace for making more advanced tools. A star shower illuminates the sky overhead – another surprise of my particular planet. My little forest paradise does have one drawback, however; pools of poisonous green acid litter the landscape. Luckily, you can craft bandages out of vines which are plentiful in the various underground caves I've come across.

Stardate 6548.2: An Encounter With Mushroom Men
As the days and nights pass, I venture further out from my starting location. When you die, your body is reassembled (think The Fifth Element) back on your ship. You always spawn in the same place when beaming down to a planet, so the further out you go, the bigger threat death poses. You don't lose any of your items when you die, though, so the only real penalty is the time it takes to get back to where you were last exploring.

After traveling east for what seems like forever, the roottrees are replaced by giant yellow mushrooms. Pink mushroom men inhabit the area, but they too seem apathetic about my presence. Soon I come across a village of mushroom houses, adorned with red spotted rooftops. The houses are mostly empty aside from vases containing pixels. A sole treasure chest contains a blueprint for crafting a mushroom hat; not really something I imagine Littleface would wear, but I take it nonetheless.

Stardate 6554.7: The Enemy Among Us
Eventually I get killed by a flying orange bird that spews fireballs and warp back to my original starting location. Not wanting to make the long hike back to the mushroom village, I head west this time. Scaling a giant mountain requires placing a few ledges with my Matter Manipulator. Resources aren't super abundant on the planet, but I don't have too much trouble finding enough iron and silver to craft the items prompted by the tutorial.

A bit further west, I make a surprising discover: A robot armed with a rifle approaches and starts firing at me. By this point my rusty sword has been replaced by a giant axe; it's considerably slower, but deals massive damage. A few blows pulverize the metallic adversary, so I head further west, stumbling upon what the robot was guarding: a enormous, procedurally generated compound that serves as a dungeon of sorts.

I enter through an unmanned air duct and find a sprawling labyrinth of halls and stairways. Every object can be collect with my Matter Manipulator. I pick up a few vanity items like couches, tables, and monitors, along with more useful items; a bed for sleeping, a heater for keeping warm at night, and a fridge for storing food. A few more guards attack on sight, but by this point I've collected enough vines to make an abundance of bandages.

After thoroughly pillaging the compound, I continue west until eventually the scenery looks familiar; I am back east of my spawn location, having walked all the way around the planet. It's a lengthy hike, and rather than walking back to my starting location I beam back to my ship, then back down to the surface.

Stardate 6556.9: Wrath of Penguins
Having completed my epic walkabout around the entire surface of the planet, I decide it's time to move on. The final entry in my mission log instructs me to craft a distress beacon, which I place on the ground above my makeshift hut. Activating the beacon doesn't hail a friendly crew of fellow Apex rebels, however. Instead, a large saucer-shaped UFO shows up, filled with angry and well-armed penguins.

The mother ship creates huge holes in the ground by slamming into the planet, and ejects soldier penguins armed with rifles. Other penguins beam down in tanks; my axe and I don't stand much of a chance. Instead, I cheese my way through the boss battle by hiding in a hole and shooting arrows out of a narrow slit. The intermittent slam attacks of the UFO erode my cover, but it only takes a few seconds to replace it with my Matter Manipulator; using blocks to obstruct enemies is an effective (albeit cheap) strategy for dealing with most of Starbound's threats. Eventually, the exploding ship drops a molten core, which affords me a new tier of crafting items.

Stardate 6557.2: Too Damn Cold
After collecting my things from the surface of Alpha Vaastolaan Minoris II, I beam back to my ship. It's finally time to check out another planet. I load some fuel into my ship – turns out the space vessel can run on coal, which is easy enough to find on my starting planet. I set up some storage and crafting tools on my ship, and then head to the cockpit and open up the star map.

My first voyage isn't a long one; I head to one of AVM II's satellites, an icy moon that sports the rather unoriginal name Alpha Vaastolaan Minoris II A. After a short jump sequence, during which the game is presumably generating the world, I beam down to the plant surface.

AVM II A has its own design aesthetic, but despite being daytime, my temperature gauge immediately begins to plummet. I last about 30 seconds before needing to build a fire to slowly warm up. A green turkey-like bird flies overhead, unaffected by both the cold and my presence. After waiting twice as long for my temperature gauge to refill, I head back out.

After repeating this process several times and not getting very far, it's time to face the facts; the planet is simply too inhospitable for exploration. I warp back to the ship and decide to check out my homeworld's second moon.

Stardate 6557.8: A Warmer Location
The next moon is named – surprise! – Alpha Vaastolaan Minoris II B, and the star map lists it as having an arid climate. It's also considerably smaller than either of the locations I've visited yet.

After another quick jump sequence, I warp down to the surface. Starbound's variety impresses once again; AVM II B's surface is comprised of brittle green sand, and dark veins of obsidian prove cumbersome to mine through even with an upgraded pickaxe. The moon is also host to new wildlife, including winged pink lizards and furry-faced walrus monsters that attack on sight.

After traveling west for a few minutes, I come across a sword-wielding floran, a member of the tribal plant species. The floran states that my axe makes it nervous; putting it away causes the flowery guardian to stand down, leaving me free to continue. I pass through several floran buildings, some of which are multiple stories high. Speaking with the other florans offers up canned but sometimes humorous dialogue (all of it is text-only).

I find a few chests in the village, which contain mostly pixels – so far there hasn't been any real loot, aside from the furniture and other objects that can be picked up with my Matter Manipulator. These kinds of procedurally generated villages are neat, but don't offer many tangible benefits for exploring. Instead, I leave the village and head to the nearest cave to do some mining.

Stardate 6561.5: A Subterranean World
Most of the caves on the moon are comprised of tough granite that takes forever to break apart, making mining an unfriendly proposition. Eventually, however, I find an open shaft neighboring a lava pit. Most of the exposed pit is filled with sand, which cascades when struck, making it easy to upend large quantities of ore (and bury yourself, if you're not careful).

I continue following the hole down through several different biomes – first, the sand gives way to an underground cavern full of tan dirt and pinwheel-like flowers. Further down, the dirt is replaced by more stone and pools of water. I come across a multitude of new animal species, most of which are hostile. However, my overpowered axe works wonders in closed quarters, and a near limitless supply of bandages keeps me in good shape.

After an hour or so of placing and collecting a string of torches, I set up a work bench and craft a helpful new item: A backpack lantern. The new tool is really just a lantern hanging off of a big stick, but it affords me some light without having to constantly place torches or pull out my flashlight.

With an extra bit of illumination I continue on, only to break through another pocket of sand, which cascades into a giant cavern. After falling for what seems like forever, I land on a pile of green ooze, which the game labels slime blocks. The area is littered with canisters containing pixels, but there are poisonous pools of acid as well. Green blob-like creatures patrol the various ledges, but to my surprise are peaceful – that will teach me to judge a book by its cover (no matter how repulsive looking it may be).

I continue descending down until eventually I'm met with a giant pool of lava. It dawns on me that I might have finally found the planet's core – or perhaps there's a way around it. Either way, it's 4:00AM, which seems like a good time to quit.

I try to beam back up to my ship before realizing that the teleporting function doesn't work underground. I contemplate making a series of ledges all the way back up, but decide on a more expedient solution – flinging myself into the lava pit and respawning back on the ship. Checking through my inventory reveals that I now have enough leather to craft warmer clothes – perfect for withstanding the frigid temperatures of my previous destination.

Stardate 6569.9: Extinction Event
Recently, Chucklefish Games released a major update to the game, which required the developer to wipe all current characters, planets, and progress (thankfully, the update also ensured that no more wipes will be necessary in the future). Such is the peril of playing an early-access game, but even though Littleface has been erased from existence, I'm not at all discouraged. Exploring new worlds is one of the main draws of games like Minecraft and Terraria, and Starbound provides the most variety and creativity of the bunch. I'm looking forward to checking out what the update has changed, and what adventures await Littleface 2.0.

Have you played Starbound? Share your impressions in the comments below.

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