With the release of the second part of Denis Villeneuve’s Dune film, I found myself with the urge to delve into my backlog in order to give Starsand¬†another try. After grabbing it on release, about a year and a half ago, I eagerly booted it up … only to drop it in the first fifteen minutes or so, after not really clicking with it.

Now that I have deserts and sandworms on the mind again, it’s time to give the game another shot to see if this time I can manage to stick with it.

And I’m really glad I did.

THE WORM HAS TURNED
The story opens with an unnamed marathon runner doing the run of his life. Surrounded by other like-minded individuals, he sets off for a desert run under the blazing heat. Things go south quickly, however, as a sandstorm hits them and ends up stranding him alone in the middle of nowhere.

As he quickly tries his best to survive under these extreme conditions, he uncovers the ruins of a civilization along with some magical scrolls that details the threat they were fighting from, which they inevitably lost against. Unfortunately, these creatures are still out there. Somewhere. Hunting.

It’s a pretty generic setup for a survival game, but it does the job well enough. It is disappointing that there’s no type of character customisation at all, considering there’s absolutely zero development of the main character over the course of the story. He doesn’t even have a name at all – just a generic face, which you’ll instantly forget moments after seeing it. What the character lacks is more than made up for with the desert environments, which – although full of sparse barren sand – is also home to some incredible ruins and pyramids, which make you want to delve further into the world and explore more of it.

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As mentioned at the top of the review, Starsand gets off to a bit of a rough start. After the opening cutscene, you find yourself in a rather bland and empty area of the desert, with only a small shelter and a water bottle to hand. During this time, you’ll be guided through the game’s core mechanics: notably that of its inventory and crafting system.

The problem is that both of these systems are horrendously clunky and awkward to use with a controller. The inventory system in particular is a nightmare to manage, and even hours into the game I still struggled trying to select certain objects – and the game gives little guidance on how to both equip and use items, which is pretty important for a survival game. As for the crafting menu, it fares a littles bit better but still feels really awkward to navigate properly. It’s clearly designed with mouse controls in mind, and they really should have adapted it to fit more naturally on a console.

These systems make it almost impossible to jump the gun and try to survive without following the guidance given by the tutorial. There are some things that just aren’t clear at all without the tutorial’s help, making any attempt to do so a recipe for a quick death.

However, if you accept the game’s tutorial and play the game as it wants you to play, you’ll soon start to cover the impressive amount of depth on offer hidden behind some admittedly obtuse systems. Natural resources can be turned into tools, which in turn allow you to craft or find more resources. Basic tools will allow you to chop down trees for basic materials that can help you construct hunting weapons, shelter, or a fire in order to cook yourself a hearty meal. The hammer will allow you to create yourself some more substantial fortifications that can act as a means of defense against both the natural elements and hostile creatures. Resources are tight at first, resulting in some rather restricted buildings, but later you’ll be able to create something that resembles an actual home.

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After you getting to grips with the basics, you’ll probably be reluctant to leave the confines of the oasis where you build your first home. After all, with endless water to satisfy your thirst and a range of resources at your disposal, it’s easy to make yourself comfortable. However, as supplies start to dwindle, you’ll be forced out in order to find more supplies should you wish to survive. Thankfully structures can be dismantled should you wish to leave better equipped, or you can just leave it in case you need to come back later.

As you set off into the deep desert, survival will be your main focus. The intense heat and dehydration are going to be an obvious concern, particularly as your water bottle holds very limited liquid. However, hunger will also become a serious issue and the lack of animals out in the vast sand will mean you’ll want to resort to your picked fruit supply. Of course, some of these may prove poisonous and create other concerns, but perhaps your hunger will force you to deal with it regardless. The desert journey is a long one, and the sight of trees or monuments in the distance will always come as a great relief as you cross your fingers and hope it bears a new oasis for you to plunder.

If you’re lucky, you may find a new source of food and water where you can settle down for a bit and regain your health and supplies. New materials are often found further afield too, which can help you craft better items and aid your survival further. If you’re unlucky, you’ll stumble across a ruin that may unlock some further lore, or perhaps encounter a grand pyramid filled with secrets.

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During your journey though, you’ll also start encountering threats to your survival: namely, the dune-inspired sandworm creatures that hunt you in the sand. They will signal their presence via tremors, which should prompt you to get yourself ready for attack. They’re far smaller than the creatures that they’re based on, but they’ll usually come at you in small groups and will terrorise you until death. They’re pretty dumb for the most part, and can be exploited rather easily, but they still have quite a terrifying presence. As far as I’m aware, their numbers are limited so killing them will take them down for good, so don’t worry about doing whatever it takes to stop them.

Overall, it’s a surprisingly compelling gameplay loop that should prove to be rather enjoyable for fans of survival games. I am not one of those fans (at all), but I still found myself clicking with the game after overcoming that rather rough start. For anyone worried about the difficulty, the game does offer a decent amount of customisation before starting to help make things as easy or as difficult as you’d like; however, I found the default difficulty rather fair and would probably recommend that newcomers stick with that.¬†

VERDICT
Even though Starsand can be tough to get into at first due to its clunky systems, there’s an impressive amount of depth to the survival within quite a compelling world. The barren desert is a great setting for a survival game, and you won’t be able to get the experience of uncovering a massive pyramid on camelback anywhere else!