Note: This review was written thanks to a copy of the Digital Deluxe Edition of Starlink: Battle For Atlas and several Starlink ships, weapons, and pilot figurines provided by the publisher.
Ever since I was a little kid, I enjoyed the fantasy of flying around in a spaceship. Like The Lego Movie’s own Benny The Spaceman, I wanted to build a spaceship and fly it all day long while making laser noises, knocking over crude buildings and carriers made out of tinker toy all the live long day. That little child of mine went absolutely nuts when Ubisoft Toronto first revealed Starlink: Battle For Atlas.
Aside from PC-focused flight sims, spaceship combat games are few and far between in recent memory, and Starlink seemed like an answer to this. Some simple arcade action set in space and on exotic alien planets. But what was particularly interesting – and concerning – was that the game would also be another crack at the toys-to-life model: a game that ships alongside several toys and accessories that unlock more content. But while past series in this particular subgenre stuck to figures that could be scanned into the game, Starlink goes more in-depth with collectible spaceships, attachable weapons, and even different pilots you can put into the cockpit.
It’s a creative risk that really helps the game stand out from the rest of the crowd, and a novelty that will completely grip the children – and children at heart – that were just like me during that energetic time.
The Hunt For Nova
The story takes place some time in the far future and focuses on the expedition of the Starlink Initiative. A crew consisting of a ragtag group of pilots, all with diverse and vibrant personalities and backstories and the brilliant scientist St. Cloud all entering the Atlas system thanks to a special starship fuel known as Nova. However, it isn’t long before an evil organization lead by the zealous Grax attacks their ship, The Equinox, and kidnaps St. Cloud, forcing him to give up his secrets on creating Nova for their own nefarious needs. So, naturally, the crew starts deploying their ships to the various planets of Atlas, seeking whatever tools and allies they can to fight Grax and his seemingly endless army of robots.
Within the first five minutes of the game’s intro, I was hooked. Starlink: Battle For Atlas perfectly nails a delicate balance between energetic inventiveness and unashamed camp. The kind of excited fervor you’d see in a Saturday morning cartoon that isn’t afraid of being mocked for its po-faced audacity. The heroes are all gung-ho about saving the galaxy all while playfully bantering during missions. Personal highlights include the brash metalhead mechanic Razor and the fork-tongued cutpurse Shaid. Grax is cult-leading schemer with goals so large and ambitious Skeletor would be impressed. And the entire supporting cast are all supportive and diverse in both personality and visual design. It all comes together to make an experience that kept a smile on my face.
Granted, there isn’t a lot of nuance or depth going on in the main narrative. It mostly boils down to “we need to stop Grax and save St. Cloud.” The main cast do go through some characterization, even if they are different shades of surrogate father hang-ups, something a character even brings up in a moment of tongue-in-cheek lampshading, but otherwise what you see is what you get.
Which is a good thing considering just how much Ubisoft Toronto knocked it out of the park in the visual department. While Starlink: Battle For Atlas moves more towards stylization over realism for its characters and vehicles, the art direction and color palette of the seven different planets you visit are vibrant and distinct. Each one displaying their own rock formations, plants, wildlife, and even different biomes; any one of which could feel like the backdrop for a pulpy 1930s sci-fi novel.
I remember entering planet Sonatus’s atmosphere for the first time, flying through high spires with snowy terrain below me. But before I could even muse on the idea that I was on the “ice planet” the snow let up and opened up into an open field with rivers and lakes. It takes a lot of work to make a planet feel different without defaulting to such simplicity, but developers really pulled it off.
Collect Them All!
There are two distinct ways you can play Starlink: Battle For Atlas. The more expensive but arguably more entertaining option is the toys-to-life method. Every copy of the game’s starter pack comes with a special peripheral that attaches to your controller, or in the case of the Nintendo Switch version an altered grip for the Joy Con controllers. This peripheral is basically a fancy stand for the game’s physical spaceship toys and a reader for the collectible pilot figurines. When the game starts, you are prompted to click a pilot on the peripheral followed by your spaceship of choice over the pilot figure. The game then reads what you have attached and puts you in control of the character and ship in-game. From here, you can basically customize your ship on the fly, swapping out wings and weapons by attaching and re-arranging any of the toys you have purchased.
For those who pick up toys for the Nintendo Switch version of the game, Ubisoft has you covered for portable play. Any toy, pilot, or weapon you have attached to the controller will unlock a digital version of it in-game, ones you can simply access from the in-game menu without fiddling around with plastic, that will last about seven days until you re-attach the toy in question. So you can play Starlink: Battle For Atlas on the go with your Switch without having to lug around a bunch of colorful and visually striking toys along with you, whether it’s on a train ride to your shift and back or vacationing at the beach.
As much as I would love to say buy the toys thanks to some admirable craftsmanship, even if the pilot figures look and feel like cranked out assembly line mediocrity, there is another option for those on a budget. You can also purchase a digital copy of Starlink that will include all of the pilots, ships, and weapons already unlocked in the game for you to enjoy to your heart’s content.
As easy as it would be to read this option as a sign of noncommittal cowardice on behalf of Ubisoft, after how quickly the likes of LEGO Dimensions spiraled out of control with its content and business model of “overpriced and hard to find LEGO sets with a pittance of gameplay content attached,” this reads more like a statement of confidence. A statement that says, “If you want to buy these toys, go for it, we put a lot of care into making them. But if you don’t want to, that’s fine too; we have a perfectly fine game for you to experience as well.”
But regardless of how you play, nothing in the game is locked off. There is no, “You need to have this ship or this weapon to come here” paywalling happening here at all. Something that I think a lot of people who have been burned out on toys to life games will really appreciate.
Pew Pew Pew!
In fact, perfectly fine is the best way to describe the actual gameplay of Starlink: Battle for Atlas. You have a spaceship and weapons, you get into fights, and you search for tools to help make your ship and weapons better. Each ship has their own strengths and weaknesses like the Nadir’s focus on firepower or the Neptune’s reliance on defense over speed. Each pilot has their own unique pilot ability that can be activated once enough enemies are destroyed like Judge’s power to stop time temporarily or being able to call in an orbital bombardment strike with Mason. They even have their own dedicated skill trees and leveling system where you can further enhance their piloting skills.
The dogfights in question are quite fun. Banking and spinning around looking for your attacker so you can unleash a cavalcade of death on them never gets old, but the elemental combo system in place gives it a sense of novel invention. Each weapon in the game has an element attached to it like fire, ice, kinetic, or void. A lot of them are self-explanatory, fire does burning damage over time, ice freezes enemies in place, void anchors them to a spot via a mini black hole, and kinetic just hits them really hard.
But, by firing certain weapons at a target in unison can lead to nasty and powerful one-two punches. Certain combos are thermal shock, where you just keep hitting an enemy with fire and ice until they’re a pile of fried ice cream, shatter is freezing an opponent then blasting them with kinetic force, and there are elemental vortexes where you light a void black hole on fire and watch your foe burn to ash. These combos are especially helpful the more you progress through Starlink since the enemies start sporting elemental powers of their own and battles become more a matter of rock-paper-scissors on top of being a balletic ship battle.
My only problem with this otherwise solid combat is how the planetside content can stretch it all too thin. Once the plot kicks off, you are tasked with traveling to different planets and exploring them. Looking for monuments and places of interest, as well as shut down multiple bases and roaming boss monsters. All of it is entertaining in its own right, but aside from one or two specific activities, they can feel repetitive and tedious.
If you aren’t fighting Grax’s robots, you’re fighting outlaws who show up to try to steal your stuff, and if you aren’t fighting outlaws you’re fighting robots. No matter how much harder they hit, or what configuration of enemy types they throw at you, it still doesn’t hide the fact that you are fighting a very limited number of enemies at a time.
It’s a shame because these limited encounters and scenarios hinder the potential of an otherwise robust combat system. The possibilities were endless with the amount of creativity that could be on display. Yet, more often than not I stuck to one or two combos of weapons that just completely wrecked anything that I came across and stuck to them just to speed things along. What is here is perfectly fine, but it is just on the cusp of being something better.
Do A Barrel Roll!
Of course, I do need to mention that Starlink: Battle For Atlas has benefited from Ubisoft’s newfound friendly partnership with Nintendo. Resulting in the Nintendo Switch version of the game featuring characters from the beloved Star Fox series. And as a long-time fan of Star Fox, it may have contributed to my childhood obsession with whizbang spaceship shooty fun mentioned in the intro, it would have been enough to just have Fox McCloud guest star as a playable pilot and have his iconic Arwing in the game.
But Ubisoft Toronto went that extra mile and makes the inclusion of Star Fox feel like a genuine crossover event. Fox and his team interact with the Starlink crew in the main plot. Fox is given equal billing as the other protagonists, including fully voiced dialogue with all major and supporting characters. The art direction and visual updates for the characters are so good that anthropomorphic animals don’t look out of place hanging out with lizard people and humanoids in the same room. There’s even an entire subplot dedicated to them tracking down some old enemies who are hiding out in Atlas.
This could have easily just been an attention-grabbing bit of pandering to the Nintendo faithful. Instead, it’s an entertaining celebration of what can happen when two companies fully embrace mixing up their intellectual property the same way kids mix and match their action figures.
While the overarching plot isn’t exactly high drama and the gameplay can feel limited by artificial busywork, Starlink: Battle For Atlas is the kind of game I’ve been craving for a while. A slice of breezy and exciting spaceship action wrapped up in a space fantasy wrapper with at least twenty hours of content to enjoy. If you have some reservations about it, feel free to check it out digitally, but if you have children who think the spaceships look cool, then they will have a complete blast playing this.