Starlink: Battle for Atlas first popped up on my radar at E3 2018, where Ubisoft showed that Star Fox would have a presence in the game. That caught my attention, and I made a point of watching the Nintendo Treehouse show off the game. Seeing it in action, it seemed like something I could enjoy, but I was a little concerned about the toys-to-life aspect. My younger brother was into Skylanders as a kid and I remember how expensive all the little figures were. These days, those Skylanders are at my house – my son plays with them as action figures and my brother wants nothing to do with them. I kept my eye on Starlink’s accessory prices to see whether or not I wanted to jump in – and once I saw the price tag on those little star ships, I said “no thank you” and put the game out of my mind.
Some time later, another blogger advised me to check out the difference between the physical and digital versions of the game. That advice led me to check out this article by IGN, which compares the prices of the digital version of the game against the cost of each of the components within it if purchased physically. The difference is night and day: buying the digital editions gets you more than twice the content of the starter set for a lower price, and for only $5 more than the starter set you get the entire Starlink package. Knowing that the digital edition would be a better deal put Starlink back on my watch list, but since $80 is still higher than standard new game price I decided to save that money for games I was more excited about that are coming in 2019.
What finally led me to scoop up this game was a massive sale on Ubisoft titles. At the time this article is posted, Ubisoft is having a Switch sale discounting their games for as much as 67% off until March 14th. When I saw the sale I had the idea to check in on how much Starlink was discounted; while it didn’t quite hit 67% off, the normally $80 deluxe edition now sat at a cool $40. With the game at half price and the recent announcement that more Star Fox content is on the way (including my favorite pilot, Peppy), I decided to finally scoop up the game and give it a try.
Starlink: Battle for Atlas tells the story of the crew of a starship called Equinox. Their captain, St. Grand, discovered an alien being that helped to greatly accelerate his scientific research, but that research has been targeted by an alien empire called the Forgotten Legion. They attack the Equinox, capture St. Grand and steal his research, and allow the ship to crash on a desert planet called Kirite. Playing as various pilots from the Equinox crew, you must get the starship back into space in order to pursue the Forgotten Legion to rescue St. Grand and recover his research. As far as how Star Fox gets involved, he and his fellow pilots see the initial attack on the Equinox and choose to help, hoping that pursuing the legion will help them to locate Star Wolf.
At this point in my experience with the game I have restored power to the Equinox’s flight engines and can now head up to space, but I have chosen to hang out on Kirite for a bit to solve some of the puzzles there. Being one planet into the storyline, I haven’t engaged in every one of the game’s mechanisms yet, so I’ll be focusing only on the parts of the game I’ve been able to play so far. So let’s dig into what it is like to explore a planet, complete with accomplishing missions, solving puzzles, exploration, and upgrading your ships and pilots.
I’ll start off by saying this: it has been said by some that playing one Ubisoft game is the same as playing any other, and Starlink definitely falls into that trap a little bit. There’s a possibility that the game becomes truly open world after the first planet, but currently it has that quasi-open “either do the main quest or ignore the main quest and do stuff out of order if you want to, I guess” feel to it. Once you land on Kirite, you can effectively go wherever you want to, but you may not be able to engage effectively with everything you find. You find collectibles in the environment like plants or ores to scavenge, complete quests to expand your view of the map to find more side quests, and earn points towards a total completion percentage of each planet as you clear locations. If you know you like that core gameplay loop, great – the key is to focus on what makes Starlink different from games like Assassin’s Creed or Far Cry. Fortunately, there are quite a few features that help it to feel unique.
When you’re on the surface of a planet, your ship skims along the ground. You can jump, hover, boost, and create shields in addition to firing both your left and right weapons. On the Switch, the Y button is your interact button, which you use for doing everything from talking to NPCs to picking up collectibles to scanning wildlife. The skimming controls feel pretty good – I actually enjoy having to fly across long distances because boosting through the environment and watching all the scenery fly by is pretty satisfying. The right stick controls your camera and the left stick controls the direction your ship moves in relation to that perspective. It took me some time to get used to that but once I did, it actually feels like moving while locked onto your target in other games I’ve played.
The planets are open environments that you can explore at will, with a minimap/radar showing you roughly what’s around while pressing ” – ” opens a more detailed star map, which shows the full globe. You can only see as much of the planet as is revealed by the observatories that you’ve unlocked and powered. Revealing more of the planet using these observatories allows you to see all of the significant locations nearby, from the minor ones like electrum veins for farming money to the major ones like rare wonders or spires that relate to side missions. Between all of that there are all kinds of little collectibles to discover. On Kirite, you can pluck the fruit from local plants, hit crystals with the appropriate elemental weapons to reveal what’s inside, or even yank the scales off of sandworms (though I haven’t quite figured out what to do with them once I’ve got ’em).
To explore Kirite is to engage in a number of subsystems or minigames. Many collectibles must be plucked, which is a minigame where you yank an object towards you by positioning your ship at just the right distance to charge up a meter. To learn about local wildlife, you have to scan them, which requires you to fly in a circle around the creature highlighting a series of icons to complete the scan. This can be tricky when the creature starts moving, requiring you to use boosts and some good camera control to make a full circle around the fauna. Some locations have full-blown puzzles to solve, requiring you to use specific weapons in order to charge meters on a spire or turn or move small nodes into the correct positions. These puzzles are fun little challenges, nothing complicated but still providing a nice alternative to flying around and shooting stuff.
Of course, shooting stuff is the meat and potatoes of Starlink, so it’s best we hit on that. All over the planet you’ll find forces belonging to the Forgotten Legion that have it out for you. These threats range in level of danger from the annoying but mostly harmless imps and the hives that spawn them to massive extractors protected by extensive laser defense systems. You have to dodge, shield, and shoot to keep your ship in one piece, and the weapons you choose for each battle are key elements of that. Each enemy type has a set of particular weapons they are vulnerable to. Imps, for example, need to be hit with close range weapons like the shockwave or the imploder, while cyclops are more vulnerable to the combination of fire and ice weapons. You are given incentive, then, to be swapping out weapons as you move from battle to battle.
This is where having the deluxe edition of the game has come in handy for me. I started the game with access to every single weapon available, which means that no matter what I am facing I can equip just the right combination of tools to take them out. It makes combat a lot easier as well as guaranteeing that I always have the right gear to solve elemental puzzles in the environment. Luckily, if you’re not wanting to spring for the full deluxe edition, the standard digital edition still has 12 of the game’s fifteen available weapons. Where you’re really going to struggle is if you are wanting to play Starlink using the physical attachments.
The starter set of Starlink for Switch only comes with three weapon types: one fire weapon, one ice weapon, and a non-elemental weapon. You also get the bonus of the Arwing, which can fire lasers with the wings when no weapon is equipped. But buying physical means you have a painfully limited selection of tools to help you through the game, and it costs more than the digital version of the game (especially right now during the sale). This is a tough call to have to make because some folks simply don’t like to have their games digitally. For that version of Starlink to be the Clear and Obvious Choice™ is a blow to those who want to have a cartridge for their game.
Having a limited selection of ships and weapons doesn’t just hurt your versatility, either – it hurts the maximum power that your pilots can achieve. Each of the pilots in the game has a skill tree that enhances their performance in combat and upgrades their ship. Skill points are generated by regularly using the same ship and weapons. You gain experience primarily from completing missions and killing enemies. The thing is, each weapon or ship has a limited number of skill points it can provide: ships give five and weapons give three. So a physical starter set for the Switch, with only two ships and three weapons, can only give a maximum on 19 skill points to your pilot. Now you do receive skill points from certain story events as well, but since Fox’s skill tree takes 30 points to fully upgrade, there would have to be eleven such story skill points for physical edition owners to be able to max out a pilot – and that requires them to get every possible skill point in the game (for them). So owners of a physical edition of the game may not be able to push any of their pilots to the maximum level, or if they can, it will take a much greater effort to do so.
Pilots aren’t the only upgrade-able piece of Starlink. Each ship and weapon in your arsenal can be modded using items you find during missions. These mods have effects of varying significance from small boosts to defense or speed to increasing damage to improving the amount of experience you earn. Fortunately there are lots of these mods lying around so it’s pretty easy to find enough of them to upgrade all of your different ships and weapons. The game also makes it easy for you to flip loadouts on the fly with three pre-saved options, so if you find that a particular weapon and its mods aren’t working for you, you can very quickly adjust to a different one.
There’s one last piece you can modify in Starlink, and that’s your crew’s starship Equinox. This is the most recent function I unlocked but it’s one I’ve been focusing on before leaving the planet of Kirite. There are lots of features that can be upgraded from Equinox, ranging from fast travel options to increasing your inventory capacity to improving your combat capabilities. This requires you to have your pilots at specific levels, and sometimes those pilots have to be ones in specific factions. Additionally, these upgrades require money and cores from completing spire missions. It’s an incentive to try out pilots you haven’t been using and to complete as many of the game’s missions as possible.
So far I’ve been pleasantly surprised by Starlink. The overall lack of buzz around this game, along with the issues concerning the pricing, gave me the initial impression that this game wouldn’t be good. However, the flight is fun, experimenting with different weapons is engaging, and the game has a good reward loop as far as giving you incentive to complete missions in order to upgrade your ships and weapons. If you’re someone who has been interested in Starlink but isn’t sure whether or not it’s going to be worth your while, I would currently recommend it based on my first impressions. However, that recommendation comes with the caveat that I purchased this game at half price and have the deluxe digital edition, which gives me all the tools I need to have the peak Starlink experience. If you’re attached to getting the physical version or are reading this after the sale ended when the game is full price again, I don’t know yet if my recommendation holds. I’m planning to do a review of the full experience later down the line, and of course lots of other outlets have already done their reviews if you want to check those out instead.