Platforms: Switch (reviewed), PS4, Xbox One

Starlink: Battle for Atlas is a bit of an amalgamation of ideas that, when taken as a whole, adds up to something that’s surprisingly compelling. It’s a toys-to-life game, with physical items you can collect and use inside the game. The good news is, they’re not required to experience the title.

It’s an open-world RPG full of vast areas to explore, dozens of quests to complete, and countless bits of loot to collect, but with the twitch-based action combat you’d expect from a space-based dogfighting game mixed with ground-based tank games.

According to company representatives at a preview event a couple of months ago, some of Ubisoft’s most veteran designers and developers are working on the title, and it shows. Visually, it’s bright and colorful, with exaggerated character designs and whimsical creatures. Combat is fast and flashy, and voice overs are quite chipper. It’s got all the trappings of a simplistic kid-friendly game, complete with toys to collect, but when you dig in under the hood, Starlink: Battle for Atlas is actually a deep, complex open world RPG with a sweeping plot and tons of variety.

To be honest, I had a lot more fun than I expected.

Spaceships to life

Ever since Starlink: Battle for Atlas was first announced back at E3 2017, the toys-to-life angle has been a huge part of its marketing. With this game, you can purchase physical spaceship toys, pilot figures, and weapons that slide onto a controller dock and appear inside the game. You’re able to mix and match wings and weapons to craft unique ships with a litany of pilots at your disposal that all have different abilities.

Usually price isn’t a big factor in game reviews for me because it fluctuates over time and everyone values money differently, but it’s a pretty crucial discussion topic this time. If you buy the physical Starter Pack that’s gonna run you $75 for the game itself, pilot, ship, and assortment of weapons. On Switch, the Starter Pack is Fox McCloud and his iconic Arwing. Each ship pack (which includes a new ship, pilot, and weapon are $25 each -- there are four of them so far. Then you’ve got four weapon packs of two weapons each at $10 apiece, and finally, four other pilot figures that are $8 each. If you want every single physical toy for the game, it’s going to run you about $250 total.

Or you can just buy the Digital Deluxe version, which includes in-game only versions of all ships, pilots, and weapons for just $80 -- that’s only $5 more than the physical Starter Pack.

In terms of gameplay there isn’t a big difference. If you’ve got physical ships, you have the satisfying tactile interaction of picking up and manipulating the actual toys themselves, and you can even switch out weapons and ships on the fly while playing without even pausing the game. That’s pretty nifty, since playing digitally requires going into the menus to make any changes at all.

The toys themselves are fantastic. Pilots are a little bit smaller than amiibos, but the ships themselves are thick, sturdy, and quite large. A single ship with wings and weapons is larger than a Switch Pro controller, or most other modern gamepads. It’s awkward to balance the toys on top of a controller like that, but it gets the job done. I think the toys are excellent quality and worth buying to collect in and of themselves, but to be perfectly honest I didn’t touch them again after my first session. From then on I redeemed a Digital Deluxe version for this review, and never looked back.

Blasting off

At its heart, Starlink: Battle for Atlas is like most other Ubisoft games. That means you’ll unlock large hub areas with NPCs to hand out quests around the region that results in tons of icons popping up on your map.

You’re free to explore and experience things as you like, slowly leveling up and gaining new powers over the course of the game. That’s all here, but it’s from the perspective of piloting a nimble spacecraft.

Every ship has the ability to freely swap between aerial flight mode and a ground-based hover mode. Both facets of the game control well and feel great, although it feels like you end up spending overall more time near the land than you do in space. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I did enjoy space traversal a lot and hoped to see more of it.

Combat is much easier on the ground given the added flexibility in movement, and how nimble most ships are, with space combat ramping up the difficulty. Often times, especially early on, the difficulty spikes felt a bit ridiculous for space combat versus ground combat.

Once you spend enough time with one of the seven planets, you’ll start to develop relationships and even offer protection by way of setting up bases that can be attacked by the slowly encroaching enemy. It’s a decent system that offers some unpredictability, to everything and makes the solar system feel distinct and alive.

The Star Fox effect

Now if you’re playing on Switch, there’s actually a pretty massive bonus. Ubisoft partnered with Nintendo to not only bring Fox McCloud himself to the game, but the entire core cast of Star Fox is along for the ride. Fox’s story perfectly integrates with the main plot, they’re all fully-voiced, and feel like a natural part of the world. This is the first game of its type where we’ve seen a fully animated Fox, in and it’s almost uncanny how much detail is afforded his face.

Playing Starlink: Battle for Atlas on Switch really does feel about as close to a proper, large-scale Star Fox game as we’re going to get anytime soon.

If you’re on PS4 or Xbox One, you don’t get any of that. I only played the Switch version, but I’d imagine the story rolls along just fine without it. Still though, it seems like getting the game for Switch is the way to go if you have the luxury of choice.

A big question is whether or not the game is playable and fun with just the Starter Pack, or if you need to buy additional weapons and ships. The short answer is that all you need is the Starter Pack to play the game. It’s perfectly playable with just that. However, it’s much better if you expand your repertoire.

Not only does buying more things or at least more digital things open you up for some local co-op multiplayer, but it expands your options in combat and puzzle solving. All of the weapons are quite different, and sometimes you’ll want a long-range blasting laser turret over a short-range flamethrower burst or a battering ram ability. Combat would get tedious with just the starter weapons, but it’s all technically playable. Some puzzles require specific weapon types to complete, but there are always objects in the environment somewhere with the appropriate elemental charge to finish any challenge you’re stuck on for lack of the right weapon.