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Astroneer’s Switch port is great for exploration, less so for base-building

Exploration still gives you plenty to do

A screenshot from Astroneer, where an astronaut runs towards a vehicle, across a field of purple foliage Image: System Era Softworks

Astroneer may be a survival game, but it has always had more of a sandbox feel, thanks to the lower pressure of its “survival” elements. In adventure mode, you die when you run out of oxygen — a gauge on your backpack shows the remaining supply — but oxygen is easily available through buildings, vehicles, or crafting tethers that connect players to an oxygen line.

This has made Astroneer ideal for players who enjoy crafting and base management, but would rather pursue those goals in a low-pressure setting. The game plops an astronaut onto a procedurally generated planet where players harvest resources, build their base, and explore the vast nooks and crannies of space. The new port to Switch, which is out on Jan. 13, offers largely the same fun experience but in a portable setting, giving the game an edge for casual, creative play sessions. But if you’re looking for more intense base-building, Astroneer is still a better title on Windows PC, which benefits from more precise controls and greater processing power.

In most respects, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed Astroneer on Switch. The colorful, low-poly art style translates beautifully to the console. This is key, as most of my time in Astroneer involves roaming around the world’s beautiful, vast map using a special ray gun to modify the environment and collect resources.

With these tools, the potential for exploration in Astroneer feels nearly infinite. You can spelunk deep into caverns for mineral resources. You can terraform weird cliffs and launch yourself off of them. You can quite literally burrow into the planet’s core and keep going until you emerge on the other side. Unlike Valheim, another game that removed the survival grind from exploration and base-building, there are no bosses that soft-gate regions.

The Switch controls are decently intuitive: The right trigger is either a cursor or the player camera, depending on whether the ray gun is toggled. When it’s a cursor, players can pick up items like seeds, resources, or base items, as well as plug in power cords and move the placement of a tether. When the ray gun is toggled, the right trigger highlights the area the gun will terraform. Flipping between these modes is a breeze. It’s also intensely satisfying to hit the right trigger to make the ray gun go brrbrr, sucking in the environment around you in a whirlwind.

Despite the kinetic satisfaction of exploring and terraforming, I earnestly struggled with base-building. It’s much harder to maneuver a joystick precisely over an object’s pickup window, which is annoying when you’re trying to grab tiny materials from your pack, and stick them on various printers for crafting purposes. (I can imagine Joy-Con drift would make this even more frustrating.) It’s disappointing because this is a base-building game. I’ve always been a management sim player primarily on PC — I’m a sicko who loves a dense menu, lots of inventory management, and high-stress situations, and I typically play these games with a mouse.

A screenshot from Astroneer, where two astronauts stand inside a pink cavern Image: System Era Softworks

I originally played Astroneer on PC in 2019. I focused more on objectives like building a shuttle and launching myself into space. I wasn’t really terraforming or exploring purely for ambient fun — I used terraforming tools to make long slopes that my astronaut could “snowboard” down, and streamlined paths to precious resources. I eventually got lazy and just started sticking dirt containers into the soil centrifuge, which extracted basic resources for me. Though I didn’t experience it personally, I know frame rate suffered on Xbox during the game’s initial launch, especially for players who built a more substantial base. I haven’t built a large enough base in my Switch playthrough to notice the same issues, but given the console’s lesser processing power, I could see it being the case down the road.

Playing on Switch didn’t diminish the enjoyment of pure exploration in the game. If anything, it pushed me to explore more — there’s something about using a controller for traversal that will always feel more natural to me, as a person who grew up playing Nintendo games. More than that, Switch portability means I reach for the game more frequently for chill play sessions in creativity mode, where I can really lean into the sandbox nature of the game, and use terraforming less for resource gathering and more for straight-up shenanigans. In my current save file, I’ve built very little — but I have hollowed out the core of a mountain.

As a dedicated fan of simulation and base-building games, I’m delighted to have two places to play Astroneer, each of which gives me a different focus — PC for base-building, and Switch for running around and doing dumb things. While I wish the Switch were a sharper platform for the actual base management, the portable option gives me more opportunities to play around in the game’s world. With Astroneer’s expansive and highly mutable map, that’s still an embarrassment of riches.

Astroneer will be released on Jan. 13 on Nintendo Switch. It is also available on PlayStation 4, Windows PC, and Xbox One. These impressions are based on a final “retail” Switch download code provided by System Era Softworks. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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