Player accessibility is not typically a strong-suit of space simulations, which often favor fidelity-enhancing mechanics, such as the arcane cockpit controls found in Elite Dangerous. The other side of the coin is the arcadey shoot ’em up gameplay typical of core Star Fox titles. One might argue that the latter approach is more appealing to kids or kids-at-heart, but it’s sort of refreshing that a game aimed at young children preserves some of the things that can make more complex space exploration sims so rewarding. Starlink: Battle for Atlas does just that, striking a healthy between fidelity and delight, though a complicated toys-to-life scheme may dampen the experience for some.
On the Nintendo Switch, much has been made of Fox McCloud’s inclusion in the Starlink universe, and boy is he ever included. I’m not sure anyone expected just how integrated the Star Fox crew would be in Starlink‘s story, but Peppy, Slippy, and Flaco are all here, sporting spiffy, slightly uncanny character models (still not sure we need to see Mario’s nipples or Donkey Kong’s wet mouth, but I digress). I won’t get into too many specifics, but I can confidently report that Ubisoft has very cleanly integrated Star Fox into Starlink with respect to the tone and lore of both games.
The jury is still out on whether or not toys-to-life games are vital product category or a fad that has long since passed, but Starlink: Battle for Atlas manages to barrel roll away from that line of inquiry by offering a competent and colorful space-faring simulation that’s less reliant on physical goods than its marketing suggests. In fact, aging nerds already drowning in plastic baubles might be pleased to learn that the toys are not a requirement to enjoy the game.
That’s not to say the toys are devoid of their charms. Generally, the miniature pilot figurines are faithful renderings of their in-game counterparts. The Starlink ships also exhibit a consistent level of detail, though they lack the weight of something built with higher quality materials. The lack of heft proves essential, however, as players are meant to play the game with the ship attached to a provided Joy-Con dock (similar contraptions exist for the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 versions). If a player needs to swap ships or weapons, they plug them into the Starlink base, and the swap is made instantaneously in-game. It’s a novel, if superfluous, concept, and given enough exposure, I’m sure kids will eat it up. As a cynical adult, I found the entire operation distracted from the game’s otherwise satisfying progression, and I can’t help but imagine these things floating in the Great Pacific garbage patch in a five years time.
As a game, Starlink: Battle for Atlas has a lot going for it. It takes the often needlessly complex space simulation genre and boils it down to its more enjoyable components. Like No Man’s Sky before it, to travel between space and the ground of one Atlas’s various planets is seamless and exciting. Entering and exiting a planet’s atmosphere without a load screen offers nearly limitless joys, and the Switch seems to handle it quite well from a performance perspective.
Once planetside, players can classify fauna or take on research or bounty missions at local outposts. Outposts will offer help and resources to advance your cause of, well, saving Atlas or something. If any of this sounds familiar, that’s likely because a similar strand of open world gameplay serves as the skeleton for many of Ubisoft’s titles, for better or worse. Starlink seems to benefit from this added structure, however, with the potential to give young players grounded objectives and milestones within a relatively vast play space.
Starlink‘s story is the stuff of Saturday morning cartoon archetypes. It’s not far removed from Star Wars Rebels or Star Wars: The Clone Wars in both spirit and execution. To its credit, however, I never found the story or its characters distracting or inconsistent, even if they behaved in predictable patterns.
Both on the ground and in space, combat is dynamic and challenging. The ability to swap weapons on the fly, using a loadout system — or using the previously mentioned toys — adds a bit of strategy, as enemies often have shields that require specific types of elemental damage to break through. Pilot super abilities will also get you out of a tight spot, and there were more of those than initially anticipated. Fox McCloud’s super ability is especially satisfying.
I can’t help but wonder how Starlink: Battle for Atlas might be received without all of the paraphernalia. Perhaps this initial breadth of playable content is just a preamble to toy-gated DLC or sequels, and maybe this is the next Skylanders. As it stands, however, Starlink: Battle for Atlas is a surprisingly deep open-world space simulator, and while it’s marketed to children, adults in the room may find themselves engrossed as well.
This review is based on the Nintendo Switch version of the game. A copy of the game, a starter pack, along with several add-ons — ships, pilots, and weapons — were provided by Ubisoft.
Starlink: Battle for Atlas preserves some of the complexity that makes deep space sims so rewarding by striking a healthy between fidelity and delight; a complicated toys-to-life scheme may dampen the experience for some, however.