Over the COVID-19 lockdowns I’ve had the chance to try my hand at a fair few survival games and the thing about a lot of them is that, well, it isn’t that hard to survive in them. Valheim, Raft, The Forest, 7 Days to Die, Ark and others have their challenges for sure but just getting enough food or basic materials to get by isn’t one of them. When I started playing Starsand, the latest release from Tunnel Vision Studio, it felt very familiar. There is a sparse tutorial and one of the first things it told me to do was find a rock. So far, so typical.
Except, there weren’t any rocks. The game begins with your unnamed character getting lost in a sandstorm whilst in the middle of a cross-desert marathon. So, I guess, of course there aren’t any rocks; you’re in the middle of the desert. It took me a good while to find a rock and, over the course of three hours of gameplay, I learned to get excited at the glint of that sweet dark-grey gold lying on the ground. This is your first hint that Starsand is more in the Long Dark mould of survival games than something more casual.
One of the main challenges of the game is finding enough to get by. Soon enough I found my way to an oasis with a few trees scattered about and some frogs for good eatin’, but those trees didn’t grow back (at least over the course of the few days I played). Once that wood was used and those coconuts were eaten, that was it for them. This constant drive to gather to survive forces you out into Starsand’s vast, open world and, in doing so, introduces you to the other big challenge of the game.
Deserts, it turns out, are not easy places to live. Managing heat during the day, and cold during the night, are real challenges in the game. More than once I died of heat exhaustion at the bottom of yet another colossal dune. Finding shade to reduce body temperature and equipping yourself with a big ol’ hat and some home-made sunscreen are essential to survival. Even with these measures, the amount of time you want to be wandering around in the desert is finite, which is why it is very notable that it’s easy to get lost in Starsand.
The map in the game is probably my favourite aspect of it. There is nothing on the map to tell you where you currently are, or which way you’re facing, and the only marks on the map are ones you put there. You can build markers in the game that will then add a symbol to the map, and you can always add oases, ruins or other points of interest to the map at your leisure. I mean, you don’t know exactly where on the map you are or where they are but you’ll probably get them in about the right place. Getting turned about and losing your bearings in Starsand can be absolutely lethal.
Dotted about in the sand are various places of interest to discover; many with valuable resources and others with something even more intriguing; a slice of the mystery behind where you are and what happened here. My playtime wasn’t enough to discover much by way of the storyline of Starsand but the taster I had was enough to make me want to see more and to find more of the ruins that would both reveal the story, and provide new items to craft.
Starsand is in its first early access release and so it is quite understandably a little limited in the crafting options. I didn’t discover most of what was in the game but the unfound recipes are visible in the crafting menu in silhouette, so I have some idea of the number of recipes there are to find. That, in itself, is not a problem though. More content will be added to the game over time ahead of release that will doubtless increase the options available for crafting and building in the game.
In its form at release, Starsand stands well poised between the casual and hardcore ends of the survival market and makes great use of its unique environment. It is currently only a single player game but the developers have confirmed that co-operative multiplayer is on the way. It remains to be seen how well the game will translate into multiplayer but, even with that question mark, there is enough here that bodes well for a single player experience. There are a couple of obvious areas of improvement, most notably around the tactics and responsiveness of combat with the desert’s inhabitants, but it would be harsh to mark the game down for any of these aspects at such an early point in development. There is a lot of promise to Starsand and I will certainly be checking back in with it over time to see how the game develops.
Starsand is available for PC on Steam from 4th November 2021.