When Starborne: Frontiers was first announced back in June of 2021 (which, wow, I can’t believe it was that long ago), I was extremely excited to play an MMO in the world of Starborne. The original game was absolutely captivating for me. It essentially ate up every waking (and in some cases, sleeping) moment of my life for about two months. It was an absolute blast.
Only half a year later, after I’d been patiently waiting for more info on this MMO to come down the pike, Solid Clouds downgraded the MMO to a squad RPG. That’s pretty interesting. Disappointing yes, but also interesting. I’m up for some squad-based PvP, sure. I’ve played my fair share of Valorant, Rogue Company, and miscellaneous others. But then the news went dark, and I kind of forgot about it for apparently a year or so.
So when last month Solid Clouds announced the game was soft launching on mobile, I was so ready to jam. I’ve been on a card game kick for a while, many games of which have been mobile, so I was prepared to download and game on.
I’ll admit I wasn’t following any additional news about the game other than the main headlines mentioned above, so I really was not prepared for what I was about to experience. To say I was disappointed and surprised would be putting it mildly. And I don’t mean mild like the store-bought mild salsa. I mean like “black pepper and salt is your spice tolerance” level of mild. I mean like “child throwing a tantrum because she isn’t going to eat that rice if it’s even a single degree over room temperature” mild.
Let’s start with what this game actually is: an autobattler
OK, let’s pull it back. Starborne: Frontiers is not an MMO anymore, and it’s also not really an RPG. I don’t think I’d call it that. I don’t really have a hero or a character to call my own. There isn’t really a specific ship or place that I can say is mine either. That isn’t to say there aren’t RPG elements – because there are – but as a cohesive game format, it doesn’t deserve that label. You do pick one of the three starter ships to begin the game as your first ship, but I don’t think it matters much. It’s sort of like choosing your first Pokemon: Yes, it’s a decision that will impact the other units you add to your crew at first, probably, but ultimately you’re gonna find new ones to replace it with.
Now, when you first start up, you’ll get to watch a nice little movie about the game world and get immediately thrown into a quick tutorial fight. It does a good job of explaining how things work, and the little pop-up robot, who looks like Navi from Ocarina of Time got turned into a bot from Portalslides in with plenty of dialogue boxes to guide you through the intro.
The graphics, animations, and artwork are all top notch. It’s really a beautiful game. The whole world and ambiance of playing the game is solid. I really want to feel immersed in what is on offer! But the gameplay…
The game – or the combat part, I should say – is basically an autobattler. I’ve never played one of those games myself before now, but this sure fits the bill. You have a slew of ships, each with different stats and abilities, that you can place on a board in the order and locations that you believe will achieve a victory. Then you hit the Battle button and watch your little ships fire away until either the enemy is gone or your ships are.
That’s not to say there are tactics involved in the gameplay, though. For one, there is a sort of rock, paper, scissors aspect – here used as electric, thermal, and chemical – which also brings to mind some Pokemon gameplay inspiration. Each ship falls into one of these types where one type of unit is stronger than one but also weak against the other. Each ship also has a class too. Depending on the class of the ships, they can be healing units, stealthy vessels, tanks, and more. Most of these units have specific skill rules they have to follow too.
The healer I had could heal units that were in the two spaces directly in front of it. Some attacks will also target the second or last unit in a row too. So you may want to keep your healer close to your tank, but maybe you need a buffer unit because the enemy attacks also skip the front to hit past them.
In short, there’s a number of tactical decisions you need to make when preparing for combat. Fortunately, the game doesn’t ramp too quickly, so you can be pretty lazy about it at first while learning the ropes.
The RPG side of the game is focused on joining alliances and getting your ships’ kits put together. I assume I haven’t played enough, but I haven’t actually run into the alliance portion of the game yet, so I can’t comment on how that functions.
While you play swiftly through the story chapters, you’ll gain credits, which can be spent to upgrade your ships and the gear you put on your ships.
You’ll get to do a lot of leveling too. Likely each time you go to upgrade, you’ll drop four or five levels on multiple pieces of gear. The numbers are huge, so you don’t really even pay any attention to them. You just tap, tap, tap – close this window, go to that menu, tap, tap, tap, and repeat. It’s not my favorite gameplay, but it is a type of gameplay.
New ships are gained by spending special tokens you earn. I probably got them through the campaign missions as well, but there’s just so much loot that I didn’t even try to keep up with it. Tap, tap, tap and move on. The tokens come in four flavors which I think are their rank – common, uncommon, rare, and legendary. When you spend tokens, you’ll randomly get a new ship. So maybe it’s a good combo of type and class that you need, or maybe not. You’ll just need to roll the dice again and see if you get what you want next time.
There are multiple game modes for both PvE and semi-PvP play
There is a solid amount of content included in the game, and as light as the actual gameplay felt to me, the devs tried to make up for it with plenty of ways to experience that gameplay.
First, you have a 10-chapter PvE campaign. Each chapter has several fights within it. I think I played through three or four chapters, each with around eight or so battles. The story part of the campaign was a bit light, admittedly; I couldn’t tell you a single beat from it. There are multiple difficulty modes, so you can replay them for added rewards.
There’s also a Bounty mode, which was my favorite, though it was tough as a nails. There, you fight a single monstrous boss; after you win, you can then challenge the next tiered version of that boss for better rewards – so it’ll be the same fight, basically, just harder.
Anomaly mode is pretty similar to the Bounty one. The main difference here is that instead of fighting a boss spaceship, you’re fighting alien ships and objects. Plus, the rewards are specifically neural implants that help you level your units’ skills faster.
The last mode I had access to was the Arenas. This is where you can participate in PvP, but I think it’s more like pseudo PvP. There’s no real time element to it, but maybe that’s just how most autobattlers do PvP.
Basically, you set up your ships you want to be a defensive fleet in the proper gear and configuration so that you have a fleet that other players can challenge. Then when you want to compete, you just look at the list of opponents available and pick one to battle. You’re able to see the ships they’ve chosen and their level – but not how they’ll be configured to fight on the map until you actually begin the fight.
So that’s sort of neat. I’m not sure if you get any rewards for winning fights with your defense or not, and the option of opponents the game gave me were… absurd. I’ve only been playing a few days, and I’ve followed all the steps to get here, so I’m new as can be. Check out the image below: The game offered me opponents whose ships were in the level 40 range (that’s the little number in the top right). For reference, my ships are level 10, and I’m clicking through the story chapters that I’ve done without any problem so far. Needless to say I didn’t even try any of these arena fights because it would’ve been a bloodbath.
Holy tippy-tappy looty-scooty, Batman!
So the process of tapping through all the rewards in this game is outrageous. You get daily, weekly, and monthly rewards. You get battle pass rewards, character rewards, achievements, contract objectives, and just tap tap tap. It’s a bit overwhelming. And then, as a big warning sign for what type of player Starborne: Frontiers really wants, you get playtime rewards; you earn rewards for playing 5, 10, 30 minutes up to hours each day.
The heavy emphasis on monetization is excessive. I think every time you return to the home lobby screen, the game pops up a full screen ad for purchasing a bundle from the cash shop.
The shop has the works. The whole enchilada. The full monty. The Alpha, the Omega, and even the Epsilon Eridani. You’ve got purchasing credits and things for leveling up but also credits to spend on the beacons you use to gain the random ships – basically lootboxes/lockboxes. At this point, it’s gone a very, very long way from the MMORPG it was originally supposed to be, and I think the heavy-handed monetization is quite a turn-off.
Let’s wrap things up by saying that if you’re into autobattlers, I do think there’s a game here you’d enjoy. But the gacha type of mechanics and the gameplay itself just isn’t compelling for me. So make of it what you will.