TombStar is a game that could lead to somewhere great, but it currently isn’t there just yet. Luckily this is what makes a beta so good. They give you a chance to see a game and to say what you’d like to see in the future. In this case, I’d like to see quite a lot. As a twin-stick shooter with roguelike elements, it functions fine but it fails to make itself feel all that unique, and doesn’t give much to make you want to come back for more.
Taking place in the aforementioned TombStar, a land filled with members of the Grimheart Gang, you must make your way through taking down outlaws and eventually freeing up the galaxy “from their tyrannical grip”. The story, if you can call it that, is more so a backdrop than a full-fledged narrative from what I played. It is an excuse for runs and doesn’t pretend like it is any more than that.
Starting a run in the TombStar Beta gives you access to one playable character – Jack Galloway JR. Jack has the “Old Faithful MK.II” as his starting weapon – a single shot pistol that’s bog standard. It doesn’t have any special effects but shoots reasonably fast and has unlimited ammo. He has decent stats in Health, Speed and Stamina as well as a dive roll and an ability to stop time. Jack Galloway JR. is a very standard hero: your Soldier 76. This leaves room for TombStar to experiment with more characters at a later date and I hope it does so when it releases on PC and console in the early stages of 2021. For now though, upon entering your run, you will likely notice the hearts at the top left as well as some general collectables with a map at the top right, gun at the bottom right and an ability at the bottom left. This is, more or less, all you have to pay attention to throughout your time in TombStar.
Also the enemies – you can’t forget about the enemies. Most enemies slowly walk towards you and shoot bullets. They generally don’t pose a threat until you start getting to the more advanced ones. Enemies that jump and throw knives are often hard to read and those that come complete with shotguns have a wide arc they shoot in. This leaves a skill ceiling for you to figure out. All bullets in TombStar are visual and weighty like those of Enter the Gungeon or The Binding of Isaac. This gives you ample time to plan routes and get out of the way. It works reasonably well and the twin-stick shooting feels quite tight and responsive. Dodging feels very good too, and moving out of the way just in time to avoid a lethal amount of damage is as satisfying here as in Enter the Gungeon before. The dodge gives a nice sense of momentum to encounters, but encounters themselves aren’t all that interesting.
This is due to enemies currently feeling zombie-like, often moving without purpose or charm. They don’t feel like enemies, they feel like AI. There also isn’t much change in them, no real sense of personality. In comparison to the roguelikes mentioned – which admittedly set a high bar – they feel stale and lifeless.
The same can be said for customization and upgrades. Throughout your runs, you can use keys to open chests for more weapons and a purple currency to open machines for perks. These do small things like: “The first shot of each magazine deals double damage”. They are a nice addition to the loop but it goes unnoticed after a little while and doesn’t do something nearly as strange as you might expect from a cartoony game about space pirates. Visually, TombStar looks fine though, coming with a blocky texture that allows it to run fairly easily on PC, but failing to push things much more than that. Its visuals aren’t quite fun or artistic enough to be worth mentioning; they are near indistinguishable from other games of its calibre. Guns also don’t have enough to stay interesting, often feeling very similar. I would like to see more experimentation in this field.
Currently TombStar lacks a bit of what makes other roguelikes so addicting, despite countless deaths. I don’t come back to The Binding of Isaac to have the same gameplay experience or hear the soundtrack – though the soundtrack is addicting. I come back to see more of what there is to see. With tons of upgrades and wild changes to the base formula, roguelikes stay fresh for years. Although in beta form, I’ve not yet got that kind of feeling with Tombstar.
Although there are quite a few criticisms I have of TombStar, it’s undeniable that its gameplay is very smooth and tight, especially when you consider that this is a game that won’t release for some time. It is clear the team have some sense of what makes these games tick and they just need to flesh out its ideas more. It may lack real personality at this stage, but is still a reasonably good experience so far from launch. I’d love to see TombStar compete with the greats when it finally releases on PC and console, but for now it just needs more time in the oven.
Huge thanks go out to NoMoreRobots for giving us access to TombStar on PC in beta form. We’ll follow with a full review further down the line.