Scan in Progress: Darkout and Starbound

Starbound1At the tail end of last year, not one but TWO randomly-generated, Terraria-inspired space games launched on the exact same day. Starbound had been quite the community darling before it even made it to Steam, but Darkout was a dark horse, a relatively unknown dark horse that lingered in beta on Desura for a few months. Both share almost identical controls and the general goal of crafting to stay alive, further blurring lines between the two competitors.

If you throw two identical games into the cutthroat Steam marketplace at the same time, a “Which is better?” debate is always sure to follow. The question isn’t always necessary, or even relevant- there’s no reason two similar games can’t provide their own unique appeal and reason for being. In this case, however, the question has merit, as Starbound thoroughly outclasses its shadow-bound cousin.

In this genre, the best interface is easy to parse and maneuver when you’re seconds away from being eaten alive by a galactic leopard. Starbound’s various bars and boxes are simple enough to avoid mistaken orders, with the right dash of complexity, proving that accessibility doesn’t have to dilute function. Sadly, Darkout allows you a great deal of control without ever explaining how to properly utilize the tools given to you. The tutorial might as well be written in another language; it orders you to complete certain tasks without ever explaining how to accomplish them in the first place. I found myself fighting with my inventory slots more often than the ugly foes surrounding me, and was doubtlessly left at a disadvantage when I couldn’t make heads or tails of its “Dark” meter.

Darkout1Before Starbound begins, it lets you choose from six playable races: Human, bird-thing, flower person, tentacle-head, Robot, and Ape. You can customize their gender, hair color/style, pigmentation, clothes, and even posture. If you manage to last longer than five minutes on whatever diseased planet you’re orbiting, you can even craft Santa hats and other nonsensical apparel so you look your looniest as you make a steak dinner out of the indigenous wildlife. Why not invite some random online player to your ship so they can bask in your fashionable glory? “Look at my hat!” you’ll beam, right before they murder you and claim the cap for themselves.

Darkout’s a serious game for serious people, and it doesn’t have the patience for your zany antics. You can choose your gender, your name and the color of your form-fitting getup, and that’s the end of that. Sure, you’ll make new sets of armor eventually (if you ever wrap your head around the nonsensical interface), but they all follow the same drab “space marine” formula found in the typical generic science fiction story. At least you don’t have to worry about putting on a show for the others; you’re totally alone, so the only person you’ll bore is yourself.

The boredom is hardly from a lack of trying; Darkout and Starbound sprinkle bits of plot here and there to keep players motivated, but they’re hardly page-turners. The former casts you as the sole survivor of a destroyed ship, marooned on an alien planet and quick to discover that (dun-dun-DUNNN!) you are not alone. It’s a touch predictable, though it has a more immediate presence than Starbound, which offers a few paragraphs of race-specific setup before stepping aside to let you explore the universe at your own pace.

Starbound2Both set out to establish their own unique tones, and that’s certainly respectable. Sadly, Darkout’s clearer sense of narrative purpose ends up hurting it when the story just stops instead of offering any resolution. The developers promise to finish the story in later updates, but it’s impossible to ignore that the story is currently incomplete. Starbound offers little beyond an open invitation to explore anywhere, though it accomplishes what it sets out to do in a satisfying way. I’d rather settle for the threadbare story than a plot that puts me on hold for months at a time.

The story isn’t the only component left incomplete; the team behind Darkout have promised to patch in more planet “biomes” at some point in the future, but until they act, you’re left with one measly type of terrain. In less than a few hours, you’ll probably see every sample of trees, grass and caverns that your planet has to offer. Even though Starbound is an Early Access, the sheer variety of flora and fauna it spits from its randomized planet generator puts Darkout to shame.

While Darkout lacks a comprehensible interface or any substantial customization options, it has a much bigger problem; for a game billed as a complete “base”, it feels less finished than its Early Access competitor, Starbound. Darkout has a long way to go before it can be considered done, but I would happily play Starbound in its current condition, even if it were sold as a finished game. Playing Darkout is a case study in what could have been, while Starbound is a celebration of what is.

A review code of Darkout was provided by the developer.