In a distant star system, an exploratory starship crew searches for the origins of one of their own, the mysterious alien Judge. Guided there by the visionary Victor St Grand, lead pilot Mason and the Starlink team use ground-breaking technology to swap their ships' elemental weapons in real-time, using the powerful system to navigate strange worlds and survive the relentless onslaught of the ancient Forgotten Legion.
With a set up that sounds tailor made for a 1980s Saturday morning cartoon, it's no surprise Starlink ties into a companion toyline. Unlike most classic kids' shows though, here the toys can be integral to playing the game, with a fleet of ships, arsenal of weapons, and squadron of pilots that can all be snapped onto custom controllers and swapped in and out of the game at will. Yes, Starlink is a toys-to-life effort, but unlike its predecessors in the genre (think Skylanders or Disney Infinity), this has a lot more to offer players that pre-schooler comedy and super-simple gameplay.
For one, the mechanics skew towards slightly older players. This is at heart an open world exploration game blended with 360° space combat, with a dash of crafting, alliance building, and dungeon raiding thrown in for good measure. You'll always be piloting a ship, with three flight modes – surface-level hover, aerial flight, and space flight – and jetting around to uncover the secrets of the Atlas system. At any point, you can switch your pilot, ship, or weapons around, creating unique combos of skills and abilities in order to take on challenges or enemies scattered around the mysterious planets. In short, there's far more to see and do than its peers offer, and it's all wrapped in a story that explores big sci-fi ideas and presents rounded, emotionally complex characters.
Then there's the universe you're exploring. Past a few early story missions to establish the stakes, you're largely free to explore Atlas at will, hopping between several distinct worlds, all rich in bizarre creatures and plants (which can be scanned to build an encyclopaedia). In the gulf between worlds, you'll be testing your piloting skills with random attacks from Legion fleets or Outlaw pirates, while on the surface you'll be looking for resources, defending and upgrading research stations or mining outposts, and tackling the Legion's life-draining Harvesters. It's sort of a more contained No Man's Sky, with the RPG elements of Mass Effect, and it's a terrifically engaging experience.
Starlink gets right a lot of what past toys-to-life offerings got wrong.
The toys themselves are also fantastically well done. The ships themselves are the standouts, all benefitting from imaginative designs, and worth playing with as toys in their own right, not just glorified plug-ins for the game. Pilot figures are nicely posed, if static, while ship weapons are easily identifiable by elemental type. Best of all, the physical toys are a relatively concise line – only six ships, plus a few standalone pilots and weapon packs – meaning this won't break the bank for collectors or parents.
However, perhaps scared off by the fate of other toys-to-life brands – all of which are currently dormant if not outright cancelled – Starlink makes its toys entirely optional. If you have just the digital edition of the game, or simply don't want to snap the toys on at that point, you'll have access to virtual pilots, ships, and weapons to swap around. You can't cross between though – for instance, if you do have the toys attached, you can't use the digital version of a weapon you don't physically have. It's a bit of a mixed message, and could be confusing for parents buying this for kids. It's also a bit of a shame developer Ubisoft is seemingly being cautious with the toy line, as they really are a lot of fun to engage with.
While Starlink is a multi-format release, for a lot of players, the Nintendo Switch version is going to be the one to go for, thanks to its exclusive Star Fox content. Rather than a standalone DLC pack or side mission for Nintendo's anthropomorphic fighter squadron, Fox McCloud and his allies are deeply woven into the narrative, aiding Mason and the Starlink team throughout the main campaign. They also benefit from a unique storyline of their own, pursuing arch-enemy Star Wolf across the Atlas system. Thanks to Starlink's open universe and freedom of exploration, this quest is layered onto the greater whole, the hunt for Wolf taking the form of missions that can be followed and completed at will, making the Star Fox characters feel an integral part of the universe. The Arwing – Fox's signature ship – that comes with the Switch starter pack is a particularly great toy as well, with some nice moveable parts adding to play value. The only downside to the Switch version is some very noticeable pop-in effects and some janky textures at times, particularly if you're playing in digital-only mode with the Switch out of its dock.
Whichever format you play on though, Starlink gets right a lot of what past toys-to-life offerings got wrong. The toys themselves offer more play value than just sitting there, like Skylanders or Infinity's static maquettes, and the game itself will appeal to older players without ever presenting anything that's unsuitable for younger ones. Starlink offers a universe you'll crave exploring, one full of imagination, weird characters, and beautifully paced aerial combat.