When you review a free-to-play game, you can often spend more time on the monetisation model than the game itself. Nothing comes completely free, after all: we need to know what has been compromised in the transition to free-to-play. Is there enough within the free stuff to make it worth playing? And should the paid stuff be unpaid?
We’d love to take a different approach, and review the game rather than the payment model, but Starlit Kart Racing makes it incredibly difficult. This is a kart racing game that – like the studio’s other game, Starlit Adventures – jealously guards a lot of content behind a paywall. But it’s what it has chosen that raises our collective eyebrows.
Imagine Mario Kart, but fifty-percent of its karts are behind real-world currency. Now, take the other half of the kart roster, and make them prohibitively expensive for in-game currency. You’re going to have to grind for several hours to unlock each. We played enough to review Starlit Kart Racing, but only managed to to unlock a single racer beyond the initial three.
Now, carve up 150cc onwards and put that behind the paywall. Yep, make the game speed and difficulty an MTX purchase. Finally, require the player to pay for the game’s ‘grand prixs’, the cups, with in-game currency too. The first half of these cups you will unlock almost without noticing. The latter half, you will need to grind for. The curve of that grind gets increasingly sharp: you will be playing each cup several times to unlock the final races.
This is what makes reviewing free-to-play games on console so incredibly hard. In the case for the defence, this is an utterly free karting experience. There aren’t many, or any, 1-4 player karting experiences that a family can just pick up and play on a couch together. With a bit of collective grinding as a family, a healthy roster of tracks is available: as many as a full RRP karting game. Eager players might even find the odd racer becoming unlocked.
But the argument against? Starlit Kart is carved up in the most unusual and, if we’re being unkind, anti-player manner possible. You start with three different karts, but that’s not enough for four players to all pick someone different. Sorry little Amy, you’re playing the same character as Jim-Bob. And we struggle to recall a game that monetises its difficulty modes. If you’re good at Starlit Kart Racing, you have to pay more, as the lower difficulties won’t pose a challenge. It may only be a cheap, £4.99 purchase to unlock it, but something – anything – would have been a better choice, amirite?
As a value proposition, Starlit Kart Racing is messy. The quantity of stuff you get for free is high, but there are bizarre compromises on how you are allowed to play it.
But we should probably dive into the important stuff: does Starlit Kart Racing place highly, or does it lag far enough behind the leaders – the best kart racers – that it gets lapped?
For all our free-to-play whining, Starlit Kart Racing is a halfway-decent little kart racer. On a rudimentary level, it feels good to play. Especially on the higher difficulty levels (damn it, Starlit Kart-microtransactions!) there is a real surge of speed, and you’ve got a large degree of control, even when you don’t have all of your stat points in Handling. It’s a high-octane kart game, with as much emphasis on the driving as the weapons.
The controls have their quirks. Collisions between karts are bizarro: you can’t crash into someone, as you kind of merge into them instead and then get flung in different directions. We lost a race when a boss phased through us and then accelerated out of the front, like we projectile-vomited them out. And the drifting in Starlit Kart Racing isn’t really a drift. You don’t get any improved handling while you’re drifting, and you can move left or right while performing it. So, it’s more of a boost system: you hold the ‘drift’ button and let go to gain a boost. You get used to it, but it’s a weird take on the traditional drifting.
Plus-points go to the weapons. There’s an absolute metric ton of them, for a start. Hitting question mark blocks gives you two weapons, and they pull from roughly twenty different types. That’s on top of a kart-specific weapon that is on cooldown, which would be great if the different karts were cheap to unlock.
We could get snooty and say that there are only really a few different categories of weapons: there are the red shells, the mines, the boosts and the pulses that twat anyone around you. We couldn’t tell you how some of the boosts differ from each other, for example. But they look good, and there’s still room for the odd curveball, like a lightning-bolt-style power-up that shrinks everyone. Although, for the love of god, never put another weapon into a karting game that switches the controls. Starlit Kart Racing has a ‘confuse ray’ that switches left and right, and By Jove, there is nothing as curseworthy as slamming into walls when the weapon both begins AND ends.
But the overriding feeling as we played Starlit Kart Racing was that races felt, well, inauthentic. It’s an odd term to use, but the only one that really fits: we didn’t really feel like races were fair or believable, particularly against CPU racers. It felt like we were racing against a fast-moving plank, with racers superglued onto the top. We would hit a racer, but they would super-accelerate back into position. There were no real gaps between first and eighth: they all seemed to be the same distance apart, like a constant peloton. And the plank would keep pace until the final lap, when it would finally ease off and let you win – particularly on easier difficulties. Something just didn’t feel… right.
Levels get a passing grade. Each cup introduces a new mechanic – conveyor belts and bouncing pads, for example – but then Starlit Kart gets over-eager and adds them to every race in that cup, with little variation beside them. It gives cups an identity but tracks less so, and it verges on the lackluster. Otherwise, things here are a little flat, a little conventional, and shouldn’t give Mario any restless nightmares.
Finally, the game modes are fit-for-purpose. Cups and Versus give the traditional grand prix and single-race options for one-to-four players, while a Boss mode pits you against a Chase HQ-style villain. These boss modes really highlight the lack of race believability, as the boss never stops overtaking, regardless of what you do to them. Yet, fall behind, and they will pull over and wait for you.
Finally, a Ranked Mode lets you race against other players (plenty of them, never had trouble getting a game), but – gah! – doesn’t give you in-game currency for finishing. Instead, you get ranked crowns that help with match-making and unlock cosmetics. Just when you find a game mode that is worth replaying, you can’t use it to grind the grindy stuff. Gadzooks!
Heaven knows what score I should be giving Starlit Kart Racing. As a free-to-play game, it is generous with its tracks and miserly with everything else, slapping price tags on things it really shouldn’t (difficult settings? Really?). As a karting experience, it is surprisingly solid, with plenty of weapons, but it has an air of inauthenticity, as rubber banding snaps the CPU opponents back into position, just after you’ve thrown a mine in their face.
If times are lean, and you’re looking for a free-to-play karting experience for four local players, then Starlit Kart Racing will serve you, and serve you well. For everyone else, this is too flawed, too penny-pinching to really consider.
You can buy Starlit Kart Racing from the Xbox Store