Starlink: Battle for Atlas (Switch) review – Toys-to-Life Done Right

I’m honestly surprised it’s taken Ubisoft as long as it has to jump onto the toys-to-life bandwagon. But that’s for the best: they’ve had time to look at what worked in games like Disney Infinity and LEGO Dimensions, and, more importantly, what didn’t. Enter Starlink: Battle for Atlas, a toys-to-life game where the actual toys-to-life part is a novelty rather than a necessity.

Starlink is designed around the idea of playing with toy spaceships, mixing and matching different parts to create your own unique craft and switching builds on the fly as the situation demands. In its full-blown toys-to-life form, that building and rebuilding is done in a literal sense: wings and weapons socket into your chosen ship body, with microchips connecting everything and passing a message to your Switch as to what your current configuration looks like, and that’s then reflected in the game. If you want to swap to a different set of weapons, you simply pull off the ones equipped and replace them.

But, for better or worse, none of this is necessary. You can also play Starlink in “digital mode”, where the swapping of parts is handled by a stock-standard loadout menu. Any toys you’ve bought and used are tied to your game, readily available for use in digital mode without the need to go through the physical process of swapping parts. Indeed, if you have no interest in the toys-to-life aspect, you can buy all the different addons in digital-only form, and at a much cheaper price.

This is a gamble on Ubisoft’s part, because by not being strictly required to play the game, the toys could be at risk of becoming moot. I know I’ve spent far more time playing in digital mode just for the convenience of it, particularly when it comes to playing on the go. In my opinion, it’s a gamble that’s worked, though.

The toys-to-life aspect is enjoyable enough to justify its existence—swapping parts around in real time and seeing those changes reflected on screen is satisfying, and it’s something that younger kids in particular would get a kick out of. The ships also make great collector’s items; they’re well designed, well made, and look great on display.

Crucially, Starlink gives its audience a choice. If you want all the bells and whistles, they’re there, but if that doesn’t interest you, you can still just buy and play it like a regular game. This will also do wonders for the game’s longevity, because even when the toys stop production and become hard to find (and expensive, as a result), you’ll still have the option of a digital purchase. Where the actual games within Disney Infinity and LEGO Dimensions have been dragged under by the sinking of their respective toys, Starlink will be able to carry on as normal even if its toys face a similar fate.

That’s good news, because the game at the heart of Starlink is a good one. Part flight combat game, part open-world exploration, it sees the members of the titular Starlink expedition force travelling between the seven planets of the Atlas system in search of their missing leader, St Grand. Naturally, this puts them in conflict with hostile alien forces—the Wardens, and their robotic Legion army—but it also aligns them with friendlier faces, like the planets’ settlers and another intergalactic research group. (It’s worth noting here that none of the planets seem to have any sentient life of their own. From Starlink to the Wardens to the other allied groups, everyone is alien to them.)

It’s a simple story, and echoes a million others like it, but it works. The ragtag band that makes up Starlink show plenty of personality, and each of them gets their moment in the spotlight. There’s also a blunt but effective environmental message built in: the Wardens and their Legion derive all their power by draining the planets of their precious natural resources, with chaotic results, while Starlink are content, for the most part, to leave only footprints.

I was pleasantly surprised at how well Star Fox—who is exclusive to the Switch version of the game—is integrated into the story. You might expect him to be just a gimmick add-on with a couple of unique side missions, but he’s actually woven into the main plot and ends up being a key player within the Starlink group. That’s great news for Switch players, but bad news for everyone else: if you’re playing on PlayStation 4 or Xbox One, you’re paying the same price for a much less interesting experience, precisely because Star Fox isn’t limited to just some forgettable side content.

Although it’s presented as a space combat game, most of your time in Starlink is spent planetside, where it functions more like a traditional third-person shooter. Sure, you’re flying, but you’re generally confined to hovering a few feet above the ground, where you can freely move in four directions and even jump. You can fly properly in the planets’ atmosphere if you want to, but aside from a few key moments during boss fights, there’s little reason to do so—everything you need to interact with is at ground level, and the flight controls are less adaptable than grounded ones.

It works well enough, though. Each planet is a carefully-crafted alien wonderland that is breathtaking to explore, even just for explorations’ sake. It’s a shame that there’d no dedicated photo mode, because this game is rife with stunning photo opportunities (though there is, at least, an option to disable the UI).

Each planet also has plenty of things to discover and tasks to undertake. Starlink keeps up with the Ubisoft open-world trend of giving you a map full of icons representing things to do, but it’s less cluttered than a lot of similar games, and the activities themselves feel more meaningful.

Part of what makes those various activities work is a bigger meta-game that plays out across the planets, which sees you fighting to stem the Wardens’ influence. Each planet has a bar that shows you the degree of control from the Wardens and from your allies. The various activities you undertake will decrease one and/or fill the other, but these aren’t set in stone. A planet left unchecked for too long can get overrun, but you can help prevent that by building its defences and taking down the motherships that haunt the space beyond the atmosphere.

Which brings us to what is probably Starlink‘s most enjoyable aspect, at least in terms of pure gameplay: space combat. With flying in three dimensions and with controlling an actual spaceship that can’t just stop and change direction on a whim comes all those beautiful maneuvers: the bombing runs, the swooping volleys, the fly-bys, the barrel rolls. Flight combat inherently makes movement a key part of the equation, and Starlink makes the most of that. My only concern is that it’s not utilised nearly enough—a good 80 percent of your time is spent grounded, still technically flying but playing what feels more like a regular third-person shooter, and that seems a missed opportunity.

Still, Starlink: Battle for Atlas has a lot to offer, both planetside and in the vast expanses of space. Each of the seven planets is a wonder to explore, and the trips to space do a great job of creating a sense of scale. The story tying everything together is a simple one, but it’s enjoyable nonetheless—especially on Switch, with the seamless inclusion of Star Fox. But Starlink‘s biggest achievement, perhaps, is in making a toys-to-life game where the toys aspect is truly optional: the toys are great if you want to play that way, and they look fantastic on display, but you lose nothing by going for the cheaper digital route.

Score: 4 stars
Starlink: Battle for Atlas
Genre: Flight Combat / Third-Person Shooter
Developer: Ubisoft
Publisher: Ubisoft
Platforms: Nintendo Switch (reviewed), PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Release Date: 19 October 2018
The publisher supplied a copy of the game for this review.

Matthew Codd

Matthew is a writer based in Wellington. He loves all things pop culture, and is fascinated by its place in history and the wider social context.