Starlink: Battle for Atlas was originally revealed by Ubisoft at their E3 conference. The reveal faced rather tepid reactions because, for most, it was just another Toys-to-life video game, designed to get the most cash out of kids. Who would have thought that this would end up as a well-crafted space sim with a major Nintendo franchise leading a hand in the game’s story? The expectations were already low for it, but Starlink has managed to completely shatter them. It is easily one of the most enjoyable games released this year, and if you are a Star Fox fan, there is nothing better out there for the franchise now.
In Starlink: Battle for Atlas, the central concept for the Toys-to-life revolves around the ship and pilot system. The toys classify into three main categories: Ship, Pilot, and Weapon. There are two weapons to equip on a ship with a pilot in the cockpit. The ships come in different sizes and shapes, while one of the pilots – and perhaps the most appealing one – is Fox McCloud. Don’t mistake his inclusion as a mere cameo since the entire Star Fox cast plays a role in the story for the game. They even appear looking all pretty in the pre-rendered cutscenes for the story events.
Despite being a Toys-to-life video game, it was surprising to see that the production values are absolutely top-end in term of the overall visual presentation. Even on the Nintendo Switch hardware, the game feels technically ambiguous, offering the players large planets to explore without a single loading screen in sight. This is something that you will realize instantly as you crash-land on the first planet and then later repair the ship to make your escape out into space. It started feeling like a No Man’s Sky for kids due to the similarity in the colorful look of the game and how the ships enter and exit the atmosphere of each planet. Of course, there is no element of procedural generation involved here.
Despite offering such a great looking presentation, there are two key elements where the game suffers. The first is the focus on Toys-to-life does it more harm than good. I tested the toys to see if they offer anything meaningful, but the fact is you can merely get all the extra purchasable pilots, weapons, and ship by getting a digital edition. The physical toys don’t serve a good purpose, and their design never feels like it is appealing enough to collect them. It merely feels like a novel concept shoehorned into this game. Their design also looks rather cheap and doesn’t match the quality and appeal of an Amiibo.
The second is the story and the repetitive missions that you have to go through just to make some progress. Now the world design here is absolutely fantastic, you will witness gorgeous vistas and meet all forms of fascinating alien life. You will do some spectacular dogfights in space with weapons that are satisfying to fire, thanks in part to the HD rumble of the Nintendo Switch controller. But beyond that, the content lacks variety and most of the missions are mere fetch quests. This only applies to the mission design though, because the main story is actually handled really competently. Each campaign mission can lead to multiple pre-rendered cutscenes that advance the story, and they are always fun to watch.
The main reason Toys-to-life genre failed hard was that unlike an Amiibo, you don’t expect to use them in most other games. I feel like the same will apply to Starlink: Battle for Atlas, and when the biggest appeal of the game is Star Fox collaboration instead of the toys, it is not going to help them in the long run. This casts a doubt on the future of the franchise, however, it is something that I will feel bad to see because this is a genuinely fun game with a great concept in hand. Building a ship itself to use in the game is actually a fun little distraction. You can attach the Joy-Con controllers to a special mount. You can then attach a ship, add a pilot and then two weapons to it. The changes will reflect in the game, and you can swap it all at any point during gameplay.
Starlink: Battle For Atlas is a completely open world space sim. You have a limited number of planets that you can explore, but each of them is full of missions to do, or secrets to discover. Ship customization can also be handled in-game without having to resort to the toys, so it is not essential to use them at all. Customization begins to feel limited as you progress in the story. The weapons usually have elemental properties, and you can discover the weakness of enemies to a specific element. Whenever you encounter a new enemy, the game exposes their weakness in a tutorial so you can change weapons for them, but it would be more satisfactory to discover this on our own.
Pilots can also gain experience points to level up and unlock some skills. These skills never feel like they are doing anything better than what you can carry out with mods for weapons or the ship. The difficulty is already easy enough that you won’t have many challenges with the default setting. The weapons are pretty cool though, and you can even combine their power in some cases which helps eliminate any threat rather quickly if you can exploit weakness. Each burst of fire from the weapon feels satisfying because of how the HD rumble emulates it on Nintendo Switch hardware. You gain mods by completing missions, but pilots, ships, and weapons are all a part of the Toys-to-life package.
Starlink: Battle for Atlas shows a great deal of potential if Ubisoft can iron out some of its kinks. For starters, they should focus on a tightly designed campaign but keep the same combat system, since it is actually quite fun. If the gameplay loop was better, this could be something really special. Star Fox is easily the best part of Starlink: Battle for Atlas, and this is a good or bad thing depending on how you look at it. While you can enjoy better visuals on other platforms, the experience is marginally better on the Nintendo Switch, giving it the upper hand among all other platforms.
Starlink: Battle for Atlas Review (Switch)
Game Reviewed on: Switch
Game description: Starlink: Battle for Atlas is an action-adventure video game developed by Ubisoft Toronto and published by Ubisoft. It was released on October 16, 2018, for Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. The game also features optional toys-to-life elements.
Final Score - 7.5/107.5/10
Starlink: Battle For Atlas is a worthy contender of surprise game of the year and in a good way. It offers gorgeous visuals, high-quality cutscenes for the story, and it is easily the best Star Fox game in a long time.