You never want to be late to the party. Well, in real life you may want to turn up fashionably late. When it comes to the consumer marketplace, though, you want to be the first or at least among the first wave. There were many audible gasps when, during Ubisoft’s E3 press conference, the company announced it was developing a toys-to-life game. These weren’t the good gasps of joyful astonishment. The collective reaction to this news was incredulity, wondering if the hierarchy at Ubisoft had lost its mind. This announcement was after Disney Infinity had been cancelled. It was a few months before Lego Dimensions would have the same fate. Even Activision’s Skylanders franchise had been put on indefinite hiatus. So, has Ubisoft lost the plot, or is Starlink: Battle for Atlas the game to breathe new life into the toys-to-life genre?
Starlink tells the story of the crew of the Equinox IV. They’re exploring the Atlas star system seeking answers about the origin of Judge, an alien who crashed on Earth. While in Atlas, they are attacked by a group known as the Forgotten Legion. The team’s leader, Victor St. Grand, is kidnapped, and the remaining crew has to find a way to rescue him and deal with the Legion. This is made harder by the fact that the Equinox crash-lands on the nearby planet of Kirite. Before being able to rescue your leader, you must find a way to restore your ship to orbit. You do this by helping out the local residents and finding Nova, which powers the engines of the Equinox.
All of this is just an excuse to enter into the open-world gameplay. Well, I say open-world, but we’re really talking open-galaxy as there are seven planets that you can travel to and explore. Once the map is opened up, you are free to participate in any events that you find. There are allies to find, people to befriend, areas to clear of enemies, structures to destroy, and giant foes to defeat. Ubisoft is known for their open-world games, and this ticks nearly all the same boxes as their other titles. You may not have to climb a big tower to show the local area on the map. Become allies with a local observatory, though, and the map will become more detailed. There are collectibles, side missions, outposts to take over, and most of the other staples that you associate with open-world games.
Of course, all of this open-world gameplay would be worthless if the core flying and combat gameplay were rubbish. Fortunately, the team at Ubisoft Toronto have done a great job here. Controlling your spaceship feels intuitive. Whether you’re piloting your vessel through the three-dimensional realm of space or the more two-dimensional surface of a planet, the controls just work. The combat can be quite forgiving, with the game helping you considerably with your aiming. (This can be turned off.) The pace of the battles makes this quite welcome, though. You are often fighting multiple enemies, and it could become overwhelming if that assistance weren’t there.
Speaking of combat, it’s quite a strategic affair here. You really want to balance your weapons against the enemies you’re facing. Most of your weapons have an elemental component (fire, ice, gravity, levitation). If you’re up against a Fire Giant, then you want to use ice weaponry as your fire-based arsenal will have minimal effect. If you’re faced with a Crush Cyclops, then you’re best served using the Levitator. Fortunately, you can not only equip two weapons at a time (one on each wing) but can also easily swap weapons mid-battle. Just pause the game and then adjust your weaponry as required. This is particularly welcome later on in the campaign as you will have encounters that feature all types of elemental enemies.
The actual campaign is not that long. There are just a handful of campaign missions. However, you will have to complete a lot of objectives to unlock these. I put around 38 hours into the game and have completed about 80 percent of the game. There are a couple of side campaigns, but most of your time will be spent clearing the planets of any sign of the Legion. It is worth completely clearing the planets of the Legion as any planet left with remnants of your enemy will eventually be under threat again. You will also often have to go back to planets to clear them of Primes. These large enemies are intimidating at first, but by the end of the game I was annihilating them with considerable ease.
The most notable side campaign of the game is, of course, the Switch-exclusive Star Fox content. You can actually play through the entire game as Fox. He does have his own individual missions, though. The setup for his inclusion is that he has tracked his nemesis, Wolf O’Donnell, to the Atlas system. Fox and his cohorts (Falco, Peppy, and Slippy) set about finding Wolf and stopping his evil machinations. All of this fits surprisingly well into the Starlink IP. The Star Fox characters are implemented nicely into the videos as well, either with bits at the start of a video or just being a character in the background while the main characters talk. Many commentators have spoken about how this is like a Star Fox game in its own right. There is some truth to this (which I will talk about in an article later in the week), but the main thing is that the publicity-grabbing addition of Fox doesn’t overwhelm the game, nor is it distracting.
This is an ambitious game for the Switch hardware, and for the most part, it handles the workload well. There was an occasional framerate drop when there was a lot (and it had to be a lot) happening on screen. There is also a fair bit of pop-up as you are flying through the galaxy and the planet surfaces. This always felt quite reasonable, though. It’s far enough away on the planets that you never have to suddenly dodge out of the way of something. In space, you can’t realistically expect the game to render every single piece of space debris that you would encounter between planets until you get closer to them. The game runs just as well in handheld mode as it does on the TV. There is a co-op mode (which you can activate at any time during a playthrough), and this also worked very well.
Visually, the game is solid but not spectacular. The developers have chosen a cartoony style for the visuals, which give them more leeway in what they put on screen. The ships look great but have enough differences between them so you can instantly point yours out. The planets have their own themes and colour schemes, so you never feel like the worlds are the same. Some enemies look similar, but you can easily distinguish them so you know which strategy will be best suited for them. You will encounter similar bases and encampments over and over again, but show me an open-world game that isn’t guilty of the same thing (other than those made by Rockstar).
You’ll notice that I haven’t commented on the toys at any point in this review. The reason for this is that we were sent a code for the Digital Deluxe version of the game. This basically granted access to every ship, character, and weapon in the game. The standard digital edition easily has everything that you’ll need to complete the game. When it comes to the physical version of the game, my biggest concern is the price. You are going to want at least two ships and the four elemental varieties of weapon to complete the campaign. This means you are going to be looking at a sizeable investment in the game to get the most out of it. Obviously, this is the same with all toys-to-life games, but when you can get everything digitally for around the same price as the starter pack of the physical version, it does make you question the viability of the physical version of Starlink. I have to admit, though — that Arwing model looks so good!
Starlink: Battle for Atlas absolutely consumed my life for the last four days. While this was mainly because I was rushing through it to write this review, I enjoyed nearly every moment of my 38 hours with the game. The minute-by-minute gameplay may not be anything particularly new, but it’s done in a fresh and fun way. The open-world/galaxy is pretty much what you would expect from Ubisoft. That may turn some people off. For many others, it is a good thing. The story has enough to keep you engaged and the inclusion of Star Fox is inspired. I don’t think this is the game that will reboot the toys-to-life genre, but I believe that it has enough to live on as a standard IP. I, for one, would be delighted to play through more adventures in the Starlink universe.
A review code was provided by the publisher.