DarkStar One Nintendo Switch Edition review - Starfield 2006 (2024)

An obscure space trading game from the Xbox 360 era is inexplicably remastered for the Switch but does it have anything to teach Bethesda?

In 2006, when third person space combat and trading game DarkStar One was originally released, Tony Blair was prime minister, Saddam Hussein was still alive, and Xbox 360 was in its pre-Kinect heyday. Looking back, it feels like an eon ago, which makes the game’s sudden reappearance on Nintendo Switch so unusual, especially since this isn’t a remake but a direct port.

Unlike films which, despite advancements in image capture and sound reproduction, often remain watchable decades after they were made, video games tend to date more quickly. What were once reliable stock-in-trade mechanics rapidly become risible, as technology and player expectations escalate. That often makes coming back to a nearly 20-year-old game quite an experience.

The first thing you notice with DarkStar One is the graphics. Although the Switch is the least powerful current console by a wide margin, it’s still capable of rendering astoundingly beautiful games, as players of Mario Kart 8 Deluxe or The Legend Of Zelda: Tears Of The Kingdom can attest. Darkstar One is perfectly serviceable but reminds you of just how much things can change in two console generations.

Murky textures, blurriness, and oddly squared off human faces are things we all mutely accepted in the early 2000s, and despite notionally having received a graphical makeover, things still look distinctly old school in the Switch version of DarkStar One.

The dialogue is just as iffy, its cut scenes now sounding stilted and poorly translated (original developer Ascaron Entertainment were German). In dogfights, opponents repeatedly spout the same clichés, including ‘Now it’s your turn to die!’ and ‘You are easy prey!’ Although we must admit we got a good laugh when one of them said, ‘Now we will find out who has got more honour in his body!’

Nevertheless, Darkstar One does age better in terms of its flying and shooting action. Viewed from just behind your ship, the majority of your time is spent warping between star systems, shooting down pirates, and hunting for the mysterious alien artefacts that you use to upgrade your ship. And no, we didn’t just accidentally cut and paste a summary of Starfield in there.

Every system you visit has a main planet, giving the area a little colour and personality, along with something for its research and trading space stations to orbit. You can only land on the former when the story demands it, but you’ll frequently need to visit trade stations, which automatically repair your ship, offer side quests and escort missions, and let you buy and sell commodities.

That’s important because, like Elite Dangerous, this is a game that lets you be whatever kind of spacefarer you want to be. As you follow the game’s plot, you’ll continually need to improve your ship’s weapons, shields, and systems, and while artefacts take care of enhancing its superstructure, you need cash to buy the equipment to fit it out.

There are a lot of ways to earn money, from becoming a trader by building out your ship’s freight capacity; getting into piracy, which also demands room for loot but with more guns; or turning to bounty hunting and mercenary work. Your reputation evolves according to the choices you make, along you to specialise as you please.

There are also factions you can do odd jobs for, or inadvertently anger by destroying their assets doing a job for someone else. There’s a GTA style wanted level that gives you up to five stars of heat from that faction’s police force, which gradually subsides over time, provided you don’t commit any more crimes in sectors they control.

When the going gets tough, the soundtrack turns to heavy metal, its screaming electric guitars lending the whole thing an even more goofy 1980s feel. It fits well with the creaky graphics, phoned-in voice acting, and endless fetch quests, completing a package that’s truly, madly retro.

Considering the light load all that must put on a modern era console, it’s depressing that it still has bugs, and during our play through it crashed quite a few times, forcing reloads of the game. In most cases only a few minutes’ play time was lost, but it’s disappointing given how few other improvements seem to have been implemented.

Sadly, that lack of re-engineering extends to its missions, whose nadir comes when you leave space in favour of flying down seemingly endless canyons, or worse, cramped tunnel interiors. Those sections serve to highlight the shortcomings of the control scheme and also seem to cause more frequent crashes.

Ultimately, you can’t escape the sense that this is a poor man’s Everspace 2. That’s another third person space combat with strong role-playing elements, but one coded for PlayStation 5 rather than antique PCs. That’s not unfair, given that Darkstar One costs exactly half as much, but it also reminds you how far games have come in the best part of two decades.

The weird thing is that despite its shortcomings, Darkstar One remains oddly compelling. The complexities of its upgrade paths, and the decisions they force you to take, are finely judged, making grinding side quests for extra cash seem like a fun and useful thing to do. Going back to eliminate a bunch of pirates that made mincemeat out of you earlier is also immensely satisfying.

If you like tooling around in spaceships, and especially if you were a gamer in the early 2000s, this may well play as a delightful slab of space opera nostalgia. There’s certainly a lot of map to explore and from a certain perspective the muddy artwork, bugs, and laboured dialogue can be considered part of its offbeat charm.

DarkStar One – Nintendo Switch Edition review summary

In Short: One of the least demanded remasters on Switch is a primitive but surprisingly nostalgic reminder of just how ambitious and open-ended gaming could be in the Xbox 360 era.

Pros: A huge map and endless (although often recycled) side missions. Satisfying upgrade system and accidentally amusing dialogue.

Cons: The story’s forgettable, the voice acting mediocre, and it still suffer from crash bugs despite being so graphically primitive.

Score: 6/10

Formats: Nintendo Switch (and Xbox 360 and PC)
Price: £26.99
Publisher: Kalypso
Developer: Engine Software (original: Ascaron Entertainment)
Release Date: 20th June 2024
Age Rating: 12

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