Star­link: Bat­tle for At­las

PS4, Switch, Xbox One


For a game pred­i­cated on play­ing with toy space­ships, Star­link: Bat­tle For At­las can feel like bloody hard work at times. As part of a plucky group of pi­lots, your job is to pro­tect the At­las star sys­tem from an ever-grow­ing force known as the For­got­ten Le­gion, swoop­ing down onto plan­ets to clear out en­e­mies be­fore de­stroy­ing the alien moth­er­ships that pro­duce them. Ev­ery so of­ten there are signs of life in this toys-to-life space RPG. Mostly, how­ever, it feels su­per­fi­cial, as you hover over the sur­face of plan­ets with­out ever set­ting foot on them, per­form­ing repet­i­tive fetch quests on end­less, te­dious clean-up duty. Hero? We feel more like a rocket-pow­ered cus­to­dian.

It’s heart­break­ing, as there’s no short­age of spirit in the con­cept of Star­link. This is a toys-to-life game in spite of the very pub­lic death of the genre – and with plenty of orig­i­nal ideas to boot. Star­link’s mod­u­lar toys ap­pear in the game when con­nected to a con­troller mount: first you snap on your pi­lot, then clip a star­ship over the top, at­tach your choice of wings and weaponry, and away you go. This ap­proach to toys-to-life feels won­der­fully fresh – not least be­cause the high-qual­ity toys them­selves are so much more than static stat­ues, and great fun to play with with­out the dig­i­tal busy­work at­tached. These are Trans­form­ers with perks.

In­deed, Star­link’s stand­out fea­tures are un­doubt­edly its move­ment and com­bat. It feels fan­tas­tic to cut about in even the most im­prob­a­ble ship cre­ations (we spend an en­joy­able hour or so in a ridicu­lous triple-winged mon­stros­ity). Dodges, bar­rel rolls, loop-de-loops and bunny hops make the ba­sic act of nav­i­gat­ing the seam­less star sys­tem a joy. And al­though the ma­jor­ity of Le­gion en­e­mies are mean­ing­less can­non fod­der, blast­ing them away can be ex­hil­a­rat­ing. The crunchy im­pact of the Iron Fist shot­gun is enor­mously sat­is­fy­ing, as is turn­ing your­self into a fiery pro­jec­tile with the Me­teor Mk 2.

But the best re­sults come from el­e­men­tal com­bos. With the Flamethrower and Frost Bar­rage, you can send foes into ther­mal shock. Siege weapons of­fer more op­tions: our go-to load­out in­volves us­ing the Vor­tex to trap en­e­mies in a grav­ity well be­fore turn­ing it into a ball of flame with the Vol­cano gatling gun. We can’t al­ways rely on it – Crush en­e­mies are im­mune to the ef­fects of grav­ity weapons, for in­stance, and we’ve even seen some foes strengthen them­selves by trig­ger­ing a Frost Vor­tex with their weapons be­fore we can light it up. Ef­fi­cient shoot­ing, then, has us re­build­ing our toy star­ship on the fly to keep up in tougher bat­tles. Far from fid­dly, for the most part, the chunky toys make in­ter­act­ing with Star­link a novel plea­sure.

Cru­cially, they pro­vide a phys­i­cal, per­sonal link to an in-game world that some­how feels more pla­s­ticky than the kit. Take away the toys, and much of the spirit is lost. Un­for­tu­nately, it’s ad­van­ta­geous to ditch them. If you want the full com­ple­ment of ships and weapons – and you will if you’re hop­ing to en­joy your­self, as each ship func­tions as an ex­tra life, and hav­ing the right weapon to hand is far more con­ve­nient than track­ing down an el­e­men­tal can­is­ter – it will cost you. Doubt­less the well-made toys will be worth the ex­tra ex­pense for col­lec­tors. But it’s far more prac­ti­cal to shell out for the (still eye-wa­ter­ingly pricey) com­plete dig­i­tal edi­tion, switch­ing parts via the menu. A game over means call­ing in a new ship: this is easy to do dig­i­tally, but an ab­so­lute chore with the toys. And if you only own a cou­ple of ships, you’ll have to respawn lit­eral light years away from a fight and chug all the way back to try again. Ba­sic de­sign over­sights like these mean play­ing Star­link feels less like the toys-or-no-toys choice it’s pre­sented as. Good in­ten­tions are there; the ex­e­cu­tion is not. Like­wise, the ba­sic struc­ture of Star­link it­self. The loop goes like this: take down Ex­trac­tors to track down huge, mecha-bug Primes. De­feat enough Primes, and you weaken their ori­gin, the huge Dread­nought ships out in space. Parts of this loop are ex­cit­ing. Prime fights are bril­liant, re­quir­ing you to whizz through the many legs of the ro­bot to get at its weak spots, which it tries to hide by sheep­ishly shuf­fling in cir­cles. Dread­noughts are a true test of your dog­fight­ing skills and over­all power level. Ex­trac­tors are less in­spired, static tow­ers where you shoot red orbs with in­flated health bars while shak­ing off mobs. The whole process soon be­comes pre­scrip­tive. With Le­gion forces al­ways re­turn­ing, nag­ging per­cent­age bars on each planet tick­ing up again as the same Dread­noughts keep reap­pear­ing well into the endgame, pa­tience very quickly wears thin.

Not least be­cause we find it al­most im­pos­si­ble to care about At­las, or any of the char­ac­ters. The plan­ets mostly feel like life­less coloni­sa­tion spheres, as you are made to con­struct your own ex­pen­sive re­source-min­ing struc­tures or run dull er­rands to raise your al­liance lev­els with the in­hab­i­tants. Mean­while, about 80 per cent of the cast is ei­ther for­get­table (poster boy Ma­son) or in­suf­fer­able (vlog­ging berk Levi), and the story so bare­bones that we sus­pect the cutscene bud­get must have run out early. In­deed, the emo­tional turn­ing point half­way through the cam­paign prompts dis­be­liev­ing laugh­ter, as we are asked to be sad about a char­ac­ter we barely know from Adam. The tar­get au­di­ence may skew younger, but this is pa­tro­n­is­ing stuff.

Else­where, this isn’t the case: Star­link has mean­ing­fully im­proved on the fun­da­men­tals of toys-to­life, and de­serves to be com­mended for it, even if not all its me­chan­i­cal bits and pieces fit to­gether per­fectly. But with­out a com­pelling jus­ti­fi­ca­tion or re­ward for your hero­ism, it’s hard to see why we should bother bat­tling the busy­work for At­las at all. It’s a shame that, for all those nifty cus­tom USB sock­ets, there’s no real con­nec­tion to be found here.

For the most part, the chunky toys make in­ter­act­ing with Star­link a novel plea­sure

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