Friday, November 30, 2018

Starlink: Battle for Atlas (Switch)

When Starlink: Battle for Atlas was initially announced at E3, the concept of a toys-to-life game with starships sounded interesting to me since the genre seemed to somewhat stagnate and it seemed like a refreshing idea. Some time later, it was announced that the Nintendo Switch version would get exclusive content based on Star Fox, including a Fox McCloud pilot figure and a starship based on the Arwing. I decided to go for this version if only because I didn’t want to feel like I was missing anything, at the cost of a few physical items from the PS4 and XB1 versions that became digital items in the Switch Starter Pack, as well as needing an excuse to use the system (and also despite not having played a Star Fox game before). Despite a couple minor inconveniences, I found the game to show some promise and be a welcome addition to the toys-to-life genre.

In the Atlas star system, the mothership of Starlink, the Equinox, is attacked by a group known as the Forgotten Legion. After a crash-landing, the members of Starlink repair the Equinox and go in search of their leader Victor St. Grand, who has been kidnapped by Legion leader Grax. Grax, meanwhile, desires to harvest the element known as Nova in hopes of being able to rule over Atlas.

The story has a generally good pace to it, featuring a fair amount of world-building that shows promise for any future endeavors with the IP. Additional world-building can be found when completing side missions and exploring more of the world, indicating that the world of Starlink was well thought-out and can make you want to learn more about it.

The graphics are really good, even when playing through the Switch’s mobile mode, though the experience is much better on a full TV screen. Care is taken to present each planet with lush environments that range from bright and colorful to dismal and saturated, including effective use of smoke and dust effects to indicate areas under Legion rule. Planets also feel much different from each other thanks to a variety of weather effects, making it easier to remember what you have and haven’t done yet on each world. Each planet can also be fully explored, allowing players to seemingly discover something new with each visit. The music is also good, though sadly not all of it stood out to me; that said, some menu tracks and the track that plays when using Fox McCloud’s pilot ability (more on that later) will certainly stick with you.

Contents of the Switch version of the Starter Pack.

The main selling point of the game is its usage of starships for the toys-to-life functionality rather than what had been seen in games such as Skylanders or Disney Infinity. Each of these ships is customizable to where you can swap out weapons and wings on the fly, plus you can even adjust who is piloting the ship. Each of these is represented though physical toys that connect to a special controller mount included in the Starter Pack, with the mount being specially designed for each system to accommodate the differing controllers. Each pilot also has their own timed special ability that can be activated with a shoulder button, such as Fox McCloud being able to summon backup from the other members of Star Fox, so who you chose for the pilot can be important depending on your playstyle.

That said, there have been some reported connectivity issues that can occur, though this is random and depends on the figure. I personally had an issue with the Arwing’s left wing not reading properly after a few days, which was fixed by exchanging the Starter Pack I purchased with another one at the store I bought it from; the second one works just fine, though I got a warranty on it to be safe. The game can also be played entirely digitally and toys (including the Starter Pack) can be purchased on digital storefronts, however this is something to look out for for those (like me) that prefer playing with the physical toys. On a related note, attaching toys to the mount or starship unlocks the toy for digital use, though you cannot use physical and digital together. Additionally, while you have the option to purchase everything digitally, Target and GameStop each sell their own exclusive Starship Packs (each of which includes one of the Starlink pilots available in the individual $8 Pilot Packs), both of which are physical only.

The choice of weapons you equip to your starship can make a lot of difference. The game comes with a Fire and Ice weapon (plus a physical Kinetic weapon in the PS4/XB1 versions), which you will likely be using the most as you come across a lot of enemies that can only be damaged by the opposite type of weaponry (this rule also applies to things you find on each planet such as Canisters and Corrupted Nova, which can also tie into other mechanics). The late game also introduces Gravity elements that can require the usage of Stasis weaponry, the only one of which to be released is the Levitator; while Gravity enemies can be hurt by Fire, Ice and even Kinetic weaponry, Gravity Corrupted Nova and some Warden Spires (more on that later) absolutely require this weapon, which can only be found in the Neptune Starship Pack that also includes the character Judge, necessitating a $25 purchase on top of the Starter Pack just to get 100% completion. Thankfully Gravity weapons, which are also needed in certain situations, are far easier to come by, available in $10 Weapon Packs as well as Starship Packs, allowing more options for budget players. As a side note, Starships typically need weapons equipped in order to attack, however the Arwing comes equipped with Laser Cannons straight out of the Star Fox series that can be used in their place if needed.

The Arwing's Laser Cannons in action.

Upgrading your ship or weapons can be done using Mods, which are surprisingly easy to obtain. Mods can be earned by defeating the right enemies or completing certain tasks, or even by searching around Warden Spires (more on that later) and provide a number of benefits to suit one’s playstyle. Weapon Mods include abilities such as reduced cooldown times or extra range (among numerous other things) and come in varying levels of effectiveness; some are also made to go with specific types of weapons. Ship Mods are similar, providing upgrades such as increased defenses or resistance to certain elements to name a few. Some also go with specific ships, such as a special set of Mods in the Switch version made for the Arwing that provide extra power to the Laser Cannons.

During the game, alliances will need to be forged on each planet, one way to do so being the creation, upgrading and interactions with Outposts that do various tasks such as revealing more of the world map or engineering Mods. Outposts can be upgraded (up to twice each) by paying enough currency or giving them certain collectibles found in each world. The two main forms of currency in the game are Electrum and Nova, the first of which can be found a lot more easily. Electrum is usually spent on things such as upgrading the Equinox or building/upgrading Outposts (another type of Outpost can even generate more Electrum for you). Nova is used for a similar purpose, though it’s usually obtained upon completing certain objectives such as decoding crashed ships or taking down Extractors. Upon death, one can either keep going by attaching another ship to the Mount or respawning at another point on the map, though the latter option also costs Electrum to do so and will reset progress on Primes.

Primes and Extractors are the primary forces of the Legion and their presence determines how much control they have over a planet. Primes take the form of giant mechanical monstrosities whose difficulty in defeating varies by planet, though defeating one can net you a Prime Core that you can exchange at an Outpost to upgrade it faster. Extractors mine Electrum from planets and destroying them reduces control over a planet, while defeating a Prime erases Legion influence completely (though any outstanding Extractors still remain). The presence of certain enemies can make taking down either of these harder, especially if defeating those enemies is the condition for exposing an Extractors weak spot, though the rewards can be worth the effort.

Weapons appear in real time upon being attached to the toy starship.

Each planet usually contains a couple of Warden Spires, each of which has an assortment of Mods and Electrum hidden within them. Opening them requires solving a sort of puzzle, for which specific weapon types are required. Most of them can be opened with the Fire and Ice weapons included with every Starter Pack, however some require the usage of Gravity or Stasis weapons, the latter of which especially necessitates an extra purchase to complete. The general area is also usually packed with an assortment of Mods hidden inside chests, so exploration is encouraged.

While Skylanders had included guest characters by way of explanation through character bios (and the special Crash Bandicoot level in Imaginators), the story of Starlink goes out of its way to include the Star Fox cast in the Switch version through a special addition to the opening cutscene that introduces Fox McCloud, who convinces Star Fox that Starlink needs all the help they can get. Fox McCloud also gets special interactions with the regular Starlink cast, plus the Star Fox cast is included in a handful of cutscenes in a way that's non-intrusive to the plot, yet makes them feel like part of the adventure. There is additionally a special Star Fox mission track, in which Star Fox must stop Wolf O’Donnell of Star Wolf from using the power of the Primes on Corneria, a location in the Star Fox series. As I am unfamiliar with the franchise, I cannot say how well this represents Star Fox as a whole, although I can say that it seemed to give me a good idea of the characters and their relationships to one another.

Starlink: Battle for Atlas is a refreshing new take on the stagnating toys-to-life genre. The use of what are essentially playable model ships is an interesting and well-executed concept, even with the connectivity issues that plague specific units. The gameplay is generally solid and the graphics bring life into every planet, which makes you want to explore further. Fans of other toys-to-life games, particularly those that have stopped updating with any major releases, may want to give this one a shot as it provides what you need to scratch that collectible itch. Fans of Star Fox may be more easily attracted to the Switch version (for obvious reasons), though your choice of platform ultimately comes down to personal preference.

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