Expectations are best left at the door when entering into Starlink, Ubisoft’s late-to-the-party toys-to-life space adventure. Targeted to younger space explorers, it still maintains enough complexity to draw in experienced players. And while physical toys are a big selling point, the whole thing is playable without them (see sidebar below). Capitalizing on the joy of discovery and experimentation, Starlink may be simple, but it’s a lot of fun. It’s also a natural fit for its Switch platform-exclusive co-stars, the Star Fox team, and there’s no reason the entire thing can’t be played through with Fox McCloud in the cockpit.
As a squad of space explorers drawn to a distant solar system, you unravel the mystery of an alien teammate’s origin and get entangled in a war against a conquering legion of baddies. You pilot powerful ships across seven planets and the outer space region that seamlessly connects them; the game world feels large and filled with curated content. Your ship is equally at home in asteroid-strewn dogfights, or skimming along planetary surfaces. Destroy enemy fighters and mechs, build alliances with the locals, research animal species, and uncover lost relics left behind by an ancient civilization, all from behind the stick of your versatile vehicle.
Starlink’s narrative and gameplay tropes rarely surprise, but the narrative flow maintains momentum in the lead-up to the explosive conclusion. Progression is satisfying thanks to a procedural system of planetary control; I enjoyed slowly bending each planet to my alliance by completing missions, bringing down enemy towers, and finally assaulting dreadnoughts. Only in the later hours do some of these tasks become rote.
The big selling point is the moddable ships, pilots, and weapons, which represent an impressive array of customization. Hitting upon a cool damage combo and decimating the enemy is a blast, like transforming a bloom of void energy into a fire vortex by infusing it with a flamethrower. Pilots receive a cluster of power-ups and special abilities, earned by using different ships and weapons, but pilot switch-outs are unfortunately discouraged; the more you vary your squad, the more grinding is required to keep them all up to snuff. Your best bet is to choose a pilot you like early on, and stick with them as you scale the power ladder. That balance issue really slowed things down for me in the middle hours.
While the cartoony graphics aren’t going to blow your mind, the colorful art and weapon effects sell the alien nature of the landscapes, and I love zipping up through the atmosphere and into space in mere moments to keep the action moving. Planetary battles are exciting but elementary, characterized by lots of circle strafing and witless enemies that go down with ease if you equip the right weapons. Space combat fares slightly better, as the addition of three dimensions of movement introduces some challenge, and I wish it was a bigger focus of the missions.
These battles to control the Atlas system are at their best on the Switch; I’ve rarely encountered such a well-integrated system exclusive as the Star Fox content. Fox and his team are looped into many mission dialogues and cinematics, and their goofy anthropomorphic animal schtick feels perfectly at home here. Switch owners can also play a whole additional suite of missions about chasing down nemesis Wolf, and it all makes you wonder how this didn’t end up as an actual Star Fox game.
Accounting for its likely use by families, Starlink includes a solid couch co-op option, letting two players confront the adventure in split-screen. I like that you can trigger each other’s weapon combos, and coordinate on big capital ship assaults, but it can get a bit frustrating that the game won’t let you get far from your partner before teleporting you back into proximity.
I eventually abandoned the physical toys for the convenience of quick onscreen tweaks, and the road to victory had some bumps and dips with balance issues and some repetitive mission structures. Nonetheless, I found a lot to like in Starlink’s uncomplicated and wholesome sci-fi campaign. And I have no doubt that the 11-year-old version of me would be at least twice as thrilled.
Starlink can be purchased and played as a toys-to-life experience, or digitally without toys, all at a variety of price points. Buyer beware; whether physical or digital, the game gives you more lives (ships) and flexibility in combat the more you’ve purchased.
The toy ships are solid and attractively sculpted, and the pilot minis are detailed. Everything can be slotted on a controller mount that comes with the game, and the system works without a hitch. Switching out components and seeing those changes reflected in game can be a ton of fun, but it’s an expensive proposition. In a nice twist, physical toys used with a copy of the game remain unlocked on that copy for a week.
This review pertains to the Switch version of Starlink: Battle For Atlas. The game is also available on PS4 and Xbox One, but does not include any Star Fox content.