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I’m traveling through the galaxy in a spaceship with a pig, a couple of aliens, and two heavily armed mercenary penguins. I myself am a robot—named Robot Baratheon—and I’m playing FürElise on an electric guitar I stole from a massive library I found at the bottom of an ocean as we travel to a forest planet to find cotton so I can craft a teddy bear to give to an actual bear.2014-01-09_00018-1920x1080None of the above is particularly unusual in Starbound, the 2D space-based exploration and crafting sandbox from developer Chucklefish. What begins as a quest to save the universe from an ancient evil quickly devolves into a fun and charming rabbit hole of tasks and to-do lists, some official but many more personal. Yes, you need to upgrade your armor so you can defeat a quest boss who bombards you from a flying saucer, but if you tire of digging for titanium ore you can instead spend hours carefully decorating your starship with furniture and wall-hangings you stole from a bipedal alien frog’s swamp-house. It’s up to you how to spend your time, and Starbound is very easy to spend lots of time in.images (3)Each time I beamed down from my personal starship into the 2D sidescrolling craft-em-up that is Starbound, I found an experience that shoots for the stars and lands squarely among them. Exploration of a diverse array of planets, biomes, and subterranean nightmares is the highlight of the voyage, but the combat, scripted bosses, and rich backstory help this excellent evolution of the established Terraria formula shine nova bright.

images (4)Starbound handles the now-traditional routine of mining, refining, and crafting as well as any of its peers, and even allows you to group up with friends. The early game is a bit slow paced, as your handheld matter manipulator takes a while to bust through tougher materials until you upgrade it, and even the weaker enemies can get the better of you before you’ve found the right rare resources to craft some half-decent gear. What truly elevates this open-ended crafting sandbox above others like it, though, is the diversity.imagessearching for hidden civilizations and ancient relics, and battling through some visually interesting levels and difficult, powerful bosses. Side quests are mostly of the forgettable, radiant variety: fetch me this, deliver me that, craft me X amount of Y, find my idiot friend who has the ability to teleport yet somehow can’t escape from a shallow puddle of water without your help—but they’re typically easy and result in winning the favor of NPCs who can be recruited as your crew. As your crew grows, you can begin expanding your starter ship, though unlike the houses you can craft from scratch, most of the customization of your ship is limited to cosmetic decorations.

maxresdefaultStarbound has three modes: casual (dying is barely an inconvenience), survival (you drop items upon death and need to eat), and permadeath. There’s also co-op, so you can play alongside friends either on a dedicated server or simply by joining their game through your Steam list. I tried a bit with Tyler through Steam. It was good fun, it worked very well, and I hope to play more.starbound1Each planet I visited had me breaking blocks, exploring caves, and hunting for resources to combine and craft into items, but each one is unique. There are over a dozen interesting planet types to discover, from temperate to jungle to roiling seas of magma, and procedural generation guarantees an endless supply of them to explore. Each also contains several different biomes, both above and below ground, so you can travel from one side of a forest moon to the other and see three or more types of arboreal environments. Below the surface, it’s the same story.

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I wasn’t fully prepared for some of the downright disturbing (in a good way!) buried biomes I came across, and I’d rather not spoil them for you here other than to say to expect the unexpected. It’s fully possible to land on a frozen world and drill down to a liquid ocean, beneath which is a temple made of bones, which in turn hides a steampunk mineshaft leading even deeper to a lava-filled mini dungeon. And that’s just in one vertical slice of a single planet. Exciting, randomized locations, hidden ruins, new crafting resources, and quests round out these worlds and help them come alive.

starbound-ark2Other than gathering resources, the main way you interact with these places is by killing their inhabitants. The side-scrolling combat, whether you prefer a melee weapon or slightly more thematically appropriate firearms, is tactical, responsive, and at times intensely challenging. Diverse enemies and fighting styles allow experimentation and prevent battles from becoming stagnant and repetitive. Meanwhile each weapon type has a specific niche and encourages a different style of fighting, to the point that switching from a sniper rifle to a sword and shield made me feel like I was almost playing a different game.