Starlink: Battle for Atlas has arrived at an odd time. It's launching in an era that comes after the real toys-for-life boon, and over the last few years we’ve seen similar toy-enabled titles like Skylanders, Disney Infinity and even Lego Dimensions slip into oblivion. So in that sense, Starlink: Battle for Atlas, with its range of modular space toys and figures, seems like a bit of a risk.
But another way of looking at Starlink is that it’s a surprisingly brilliant No Man's Sky / Destiny hybrid, where the actual toys can play as big or as small a role as you'd like. And at no point does this feel like a game for children - and I say that as an almost 30-year-old woman who giggled gleefully at the proposition of switching out the wings on one spaceship and shoving them onto another.
The entire premise of the game is that you're part of the Starlink Alliance - and yes, even Starfox, temporarily, if you're playing the Switch version - who have been sent to Atlas to find an artefact. But, as soon as they arrive there, they're ambushed, their captain kidnapped and ship damaged as it turns out the Nova that powers their ship is actually a much more valuable commodity than whatever they're looking for in this new galaxy.
A distilled glass of No Man's Sky
Throughout the course of the game, you'll be tasked with exploring seven planets - and the surrounding vastness of space - to discover all their secrets, pushing back the enemy Legion forces, and building a resistance. But in between all that, there are these moments of tranquility, where you'll be scanning animals to discover what species they are, removing Legion blights from their back like some cosmic vet, or simply collecting minerals, plants and other items to build out your Altas encyclopedia and earn some in-game dosh along the way.
In that way, it can have that same "let's just see what's over that horizon" gameplay loop that you'll find in No Man's Sky. Each planet you land on is distinct and utterly stunning, to the point that I actually had to remind myself I was playing on Switch rather than actual No Man's Sky in 4K on PC. It doesn't help that it feels like Starlink borrows heavily from the visuals of Hello Games' procedurally generated masterpiece, from the colour palettes that bring the planets to life, to the strange alien creatures that wander the lands. (I did a double take so hard on something called a Gritfish, I almost sent Sean Murray a DM.)
With a twist of Destiny
But that's not always a bad thing. For anyone who thought No Man's Sky needed some more structure or a storyline, that's what Starlink: Battle for Atlas never falters on. You have a constant stream of missions and other sidequests that you can busy yourself with - and that's outside the optional busywork of discovering the local flora and fauna - and whether you're engaging in galactic dogfights amongst the stars with the outlaws, working your way through a Prime's substantial health bar like something out of Metroid Prime, or simply just checking on a researcher for one of your outposts, it all feels fantastic, and like a Destiny for beginners, without the complexity of having to know about the meta or the reams and reams of lore.
All of that serves to build out the world around Starlink's incredibly exciting and beautifully told space opera of a story. The cast are all memorable and fully fleshed out - even if I would like to put Levi on mute - and it makes you feel more connected to the game when you choose between them as your pilot for the evening. It might seem strange at first that you can never get out of your ship, with your rig instead becoming your playable character, but it's all been configured to make you feel like the powerful little space explorer that you want to be. You level up your pilots, your ships and the weapons, and you can swap in and out various elements of each one until you find the configuration that you want, especially swapping in and out weapons to fit the battle you're facing. Ice Giants won't get damaged by ice-based weapons for example, the same for fire-based foes and that flamethrower shotgun you've fallen in love with, which is where things get a little confusing with Starlink's proposition.
The toys-to-life dilemma
You can either buy Starlink with a starter pack of pilots, a ship and a couple of weapons, or you can buy it as a standalone game. If you go what the game calls "digital-only", you can switch between all the ships, weapons and pilots in Starlink's vast arsenal at will, building up your varietable fleet as you level up across the board.
However, if you have the toys, you can pretty much only use what you've paid for. You can see everything else that's available if you want to pay for the physical weapons, ships and pilots, but you can't equip them or get access to them at all. So if you're struggling against an enemy and it advises you to switch to a different weapon, you might have a small child tugging at your sleeve for a pack with a kinetic weapon in it, and with expansions costing $24.99 / £24.99 for a ship, pilot and a weapon in one pack, you might think twice about splashing out. Instead, you might tell your kids to take the controller out of the Starlink dock, and go digital-only and get access to all the rest of it for free, meaning there's a distinct risk of the toys you paid for sitting gathering dust in a corner.
It almost feels like you're getting penalised for using the toys. When you die, you'll be told that you can switch to another ship to keep playing, rather than respawning and losing any progress you might have made in a boss battle - which I'll warn, really aren't easy - and you'll be told that "five ships remain". Well, you do if you are digital-only, but if you're playing with the toys, again, you can only switch to what you own, unless you rip your Joy-Cons from the dock and continue in digital form. It's really frustrating, especially when there's such satisfaction in modding out your ship in real-life, and seeing it come to life in the game.
Because of that, it's actually quite hard to recommend this as a toys-to-life proposition, and I'd instead recommend it as a wonderfully family friendly space game, with an adult level difficulty that will mean the entire family gets involved. The toys are brilliant, but it seems like unless you're going to buy everything, or are prepared for kids (and big kids) getting confused with the wealth of content in the menu, but not in your arsenal, it can be incredibly irritating to play.
However, that's not to destroy the entire product altogether. Starlink: Battle for Atlas is joyous fun that should be explored by anyone who as any interest in No Man's Sky, or a more family friendly Destiny. Just maybe skip the toys.
Reviewed on Nintendo Switch. Also available on PS4 and Xbox One from October 16.