Starlink: Battle for Atlas is trying to please a lot of people. Its primary audience is children seeking an epic space adventure, their own No Man's Sky. There is the legion of Starfox fans that have been desperate for any life out of their favorite franchise. There are console players looking for an arcadey flight game or a space sim with some budget. Even fans of the toys to life experiment are hoping to claim victory out of the jaws of defeat. I'm sad to say that this isn't really going to please a lot of these different factions. It's a fine first step into a new universe, but the scattered focus and a strict adherence to the Ubisoft formula prevent Starlink from truly getting off the ground.
Out of everyone, Starlink will probably please the younger set the most. The narrative is pure Saturday morning, with characters defined more by their character traits than their actions. Our heroes are a ragtag bunch of outcasts led by a wise mentor who pulled them all together. Our enemies are The Legion, a robotic hivemind led by a masked villain who'd give Dr. Claw a run for his money in the voice department. If you're old enough to remember Kids WB, you'll know exactly how each twist and turn in the story goes, but that's fine. Everything is played straight and the resulting narrative works on a genuine level. As long as you have the right expectations, every cutscene can be pretty enjoyable.
Of course, one hopes that the cutscenes are enjoyable because they are one of only two driving forces in Starlink's gameplay. If you're not down for genuine heroics and statements about friendship, the only other things Starlink has to offer is a whole lot of checkboxes. You might not expect it at first glance, but Starlink is an expansive open world in the Ubisoft tradition. Each planet is chock full of events to take part in, and there are seven full planets to explore. Perhaps most impressively, while you can fast travel, you can also fly off the surface of one rock and jet over to another in real time. I don't care how many games do that, it's still pretty rad.
With all that room to breathe, Starlink isn't concerned with variety. There are around five different types of missions to take part in once the game gets going, so you'll be doing repetitive actions over and over. Worse still, most of these activities boil down to finding a group of enemies and taking them down. There's a bit of exploration and a bit of clunky platforming here and there, but you'll mostly be dealing with a simplistic elemental combat system. In-game characters will practically demand that you shoot the fire guys with ice, even though everything is easy enough that you don't need the damage boost.
As for the gameplay itself, Starlink doesn't disappoint. Even though you'll be spending a lot of time hovering on the ground, it's a pretty robust spaceship game. Even as all my task became rote, the actions of firing lasers and collecting loot never got too tiresome. I eventually got into an open world rhythm and had a whole lot of fun picking space berries and seeking out new procedurally generated side content. For someone with a whole lot of time on their hands, it'll be a blast.
One thing I do want to mention is that it's very noticeable that you never leave your starship. You can "talk" to buildings to get missions, and all character chatter comes up via floating portraits. It makes these huge worlds feel barren since you can zip around them so quickly. This game could have used a few scenes where you depart from your ship and walk around one of the many outposts you'll be building. A sense of scale for the world could have gone a long way.
You feel definitely feel the pull of the toys to life design in Starlink. Unless you buy the most expensive version with all the trimmings, gaining new weapons, pilots and ships are all separate purchases. Thankfully, you don't have to buy the toys. Everything is available digitally if you so choose, and that's the less expensive option. The toys are well built, especially considering how well the Arwing fits with a Fox amiibo in a display. Playing Starlink with the toys is a neat novelty, but the controller grip for the ship is awkward to hold. Considering how this game's design encourages marathon sessions of clearing off planets, you can already imagine the hand cramps.
Thankfully, the additional content brought by the toys doesn't seem vital. Sure, a kid is going to want to play with the other characters and weapons, that's how this works. However, Starlink plays fine with just the starter set, and that's still a lot of fun. In fact, once I switched over to the version with everything unlocked, a little bit of the magic broke. While it looks like you get a full arsenal, many weapons function the same with just a new element. The various stat boosts you get from ship parts you loot and differences between ships seem minimal. I never really noticed my gameplay changing as I jumped around, which seems like a big deal for a game built around linking together different parts.
I confess that I did spend an inordinate amount of time playing as Fox in his Arwing. I'll admit, I'm of the age where the nostalgia for Nintendo's space franchise is strong. I was thrilled to discover just how well Fox and crew integrate into the campaign. It's not seamless, as you can tell where they have to cut around for the non-Nintendo versions, but there's still a lot of Fox here. He's in every major story scene and he has as much dialogue in the open world as anyone.
You get a lot of Wolf O'Donnell too, which is just a huge bonus. He's a more expressive bad guy than anyone in the Legion, heading up the Switch-exclusive StarFox mission chain. While these missions aren't too different from anything in the main campaign, they will have you planet hopping a lot more frequently. They also feature some stuff that isn't just the same downed drakes or extractors of the main game. Grinding through the same content over and over on one planet before going to the next to do it all over again can be a grind, so these more unique challenges are very much appreciated.
In fact, because of this exclusive content, it seems like the Switch version is really the one you'll want to look into. Whereas the regular Starlink cast members are stock actors out of an episode of Jackie Chan Adventures, Fox and company have a defined character that shines through. While the Switch exclusive missions are totally skippable and don't affect the overall narrative, you probably won't' want to. Even if you're not huge into StarFox, the additions are significant enough that they make the game more enjoyable. In fact, I'd go as far to say that the non-Nintendo version of Starlink will suffer for their absence.
When it comes to presentation, the only real standout is the lack of a soundscape. Sure, there's the roar of your ship's engine, the flora and fauna of the planet, all that realistic jazz. There's just not a score to sell what's happening on screen. This contrast is most evident when you use Fox's super move, which instantly goes into the classic Coneria theme. With this ancient tune playing in the background, the game springs to life. I was desperate for an option to keep the music going, or to turn on a StarFox soundtrack. While the boss fights do have some battle music as well, it wasn't enough to make up for the complete void haunting the rest of the experience.
In the end, Starlink doesn't really please everyone. Toys To Lifers won't find a new addiction with the limited purchasing options available here. Fans of dogfighting will shudder at all the planetside action. StarFox fans will enjoy the game to a point, but it ultimately ends up a cruel tease for what could be. The only people who'll get the most out of Starlink are the children. It's an Ubisoft open world squarely aimed at the younger set, and it seems poised to absorb every waking after school moment. I do hope we get to revisit Atlas at some point in the future, as there's a lot of potential in what Ubisoft has built here. With a laser focus, I think the next Starlink could be something that everyone can enjoy.
TechRaptor reviewed Starlink: Battle for Atlas with a Nintendo Switch Digital Deluxe Edition and toys provided by Ubisoft. The game is also available on Xbox One and PlayStation 4.
If you're of a certain age, Starlink: Battle for Atlas is an amazing prospect. It really nails the open world formula that Ubisoft has made famous and tones it down for kids. It's just too bad that the game doesn't hit the mark whenever it tries to achieve beyond that.
- Star Fox Theme
- Space Exploration
- Saturday Morning Storytelling
- Switch Content Exclusivity
- Lacking Score
- Underwhelming Arsenal
- Repetitive Mission Design