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Starlink: Battle for Atlas is a new toys-to-life game, but you don’t really need the toys

The base game will cost you a lot less if you opt out of the toys

Starlink Battle for Atlas’ Judge goes up against a Prime boss.
Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

Starlink: Battle for Atlas, out today, is a new toys-to-life game from Ubisoft. The concept — modular toy starships that can be physically reconfigured in the heat of battle — makes it sound like a lot of fun. But rather than leveraging the tech for interesting gameplay opportunities, the developers have chosen instead to set a kind of trap for consumers.

Turns out that you don’t need the expensive physical toys to play the game at all. In fact, skipping that aspect of the game makes it a cheaper experience by far.

In Starlink, players take on the role of a pilot under the command of Victor St. Grand. After the discovery of an alien species, St. Grand takes that rogues gallery of pilots on a galaxy-spanning quest of discovery. But a mid-flight disaster disables the expedition’s mothership, scattering its pilots around an alien star system. In order to put their ship back together, they’ll need to build up support within that star system by helping its indigenous races to fight back against the forces of evil.

The tech behind the game is pretty slick. Instead of near-field communication it relies on custom-built peripherals that clip together using little tabs that look like printed circuit boards. You begin by mounting a pilot onto your controller. Then you clip a ship’s fuselage on top of them. Finally, each ship has two hardpoints, which you can add weapons to. Using the proper weapons against certain enemies gives players an advantage, and the more enemies you defeat and missions you complete, the more experience you’re able to build up for your pilot and ship.

The trouble comes during the game’s elaborate boss fights.

I encountered the first boss fight, against a massive, four-legged monster called a Prime, on the surface of a planet after more than an hour of gameplay. Each of these battles against Primes takes place in distinct phases. Players shoot at the glowing weak spots while avoiding devastating attacks and navigating teams of low-level mobs.

It’s pretty basic video game stuff, truth be told, but the excellent flight model makes up for it. Ships have two modes, one for ground-based skimming and the other for full flight. By switching between those two modes you can take advantage of a Prime’s weakness during certain stages of a fight. Regardless of which mode I was using, I always felt in control.

However, if you only have one ship and it gets destroyed, then the boss fully resets, at which point you have to jump out into orbit and make the long trek to the surface of the planet to start the fight over again. The only way to keep your progress against that specific boss is to swap out your ship’s fuselage for a new one.

But folks who purchased the $74.99 physical starter set for PlayStation 4 or Xbox One are at a distinct disadvantage. They only get one ship — one life — out of the box. Folks who buy the Nintendo Switch physical starter pack, on the other hand, get two — one physical (modeled after Star Fox’s Arwing) and one extra ship in digital format.

In the review package that Ubisoft sent over was a crate full of toys, including four ships. Battling that first boss, I went through all four ships not once, but twice before I got it right. I can only imagine how frustrating it would have been if I only had access to a single ship.

Each additional physical ship bundle, which comes with another pilot and some additional weapons, costs another $24.99. For the set-up that Polygon was given access to — four ships total, with a host of additional pilots and weapons — you can expect to pay more than $150 plus tax.

But if you want to go a cheaper route, just get the game digitally. Digital-only versions start at just $59.99 and come with four digital ships — five if you get the version for Nintendo Switch. Coupled with the Star Fox mission set that’s exclusive to Switch, it’s far and away the better deal. Unfortunately, very little of this is made clear on the game’s packaging in stores.

Know that additional ships, pilots and weapons can be downloaded a la carte, whether or not you have the physical or digital versions of the game. Starships go for $12,99, weapon packs for $4.99 and pilots for $3.99.

Of course, aside from the digital options, this is nothing new if you’re used to series like Skylanders, where owning a collection of toys of different types made the game easier. It’s just that Starlink pushes the necessity of spending additional money in an overly aggressive way. It also punishes those who don’t own a Nintendo Switch by charging the same amount of money for the starter sets on PS4 and Xbox One, when you happen to get a lot less value in the box.

If a company has an incentive to sell more toys, its game’s systems will be designed to be punitive if you don’t buy them. But the way that Starlink uses those mechanics feels exploitative in a way that actively overshadows its novel technology and excellent flight mechanics.

Swapping out weapons is a blast. Gaining experience for my pilot and upgrades for my ship is great fun. But when Starlink makes me sideline a ship that I’ve invested time and energy into upgrading to simply slap on the next one in order to get back into the fight, it begins to feel unfair. My only recourse was to turn down the game’s difficulty, which you can do at any time without penalty. But honestly, that made the game itself painfully easy.

Making matters worse, every Prime boss seems to act roughly the same way. It’s just that they get progressively larger life meters, requiring you to grind out experience to make your ships more powerful, while also encouraging you to expand your expensive fleet.

The game is kid friendly and feels well-tuned for that eight-to-12-year-old range. But if you’re a parent eyeing up new experiences for the holiday season, get ready to drop a lot of money on Starlink or run the risk of your budding little starfighter pilots losing interest fairly quickly.