Game review: Starman on Google Play Pass

My efforts to find anything decent on Play Pass that isn’t just free crap with the microtransactions removed has finally hit a mostly decent game with Starman, a good old-fashioned puzzle game with no energy meters, gimmick items to let you skip intentionally unsolvable situations, or timers to limit what you can use or when you can play. If not for the last few levels, I’d have bestowed a full five stars on it. But we’ll get to those qibbles in a bit. First, let me tell you what Starman does right.

The game is mostly monochromatic, like a less dark version of Limbo. The titular star man is an astronaut who solves puzzles to power up locations, grab a little orb, and take it to an island, where he burns the orbs and they turn into butterflies. I know what you’re thinking: The fuck did I just read? It’s great stuff, really. This is a game that exists solely to service some puzzle, and there’s not a story or any real world sense of logic to why this little guy is doing these things. You just get some puzzles of varying difficulty with no hints, and the reward is a little pride at finally sorting out what the fuck that one level was on about.

The thing is, quite a few of the puzzles are brain ticklers. Some of them, I needed to walk away from and come back with a new take instead of banging my head on an obvious dead end. So yes, when I finally got the solution a day later, I felt happy. Or, at least I did until the next puzzle threw some new concept out that stumped me again. I can’t even give examples because spoiling the solutions ruins the fun of coming to terms with the game’s random rule changes. I can vaguely say that some puzzles want the astronaut to directly interact with the puzzle, while others want the player to interact with the environment, and it’s not at all obvious which is which going into each of the levels.

Level lengths also aren’t consistent, with some taking only a minute or so to complete, while others might take ten or fifteen even when the solutions are more obvious. The little astronaut might solve one room in a level, and then move into another, and then another, until the last room reveals the pad that delivers the winning orbs. Then in the next level, the puzzle is all in one room, and a minute later, the astronaut is headed back to his little island to free another butterfly.

The last couple of levels, however, required me to interact with several elements rapidly, and it’s almost like the developers forgot that people are playing this on phones or tablets. Even though I knew exactly what I had to do, fumbling with the controls to make the astronaut run to the right switch or valve meant I had to cuss my way through a lot of failed attempts.

Once the game is complete, a new mode is unlocked, Flow. It’s…half baked. Some of the puzzles presented in the sandbox are neat, but even more of them fall flat for me. It gets back to the same problem as the final levels, where fiddly phone controls make a seemingly simple task way harder than it needs to be. Again, I’d like to cite examples, but that would spoil the solutions. So you’ll just have to take my word that some of the end-game puzzles are better than others.

Setting those aside, I do appreciate what Starman does, especially for what it doesn’t do. It plays by its own rules and won’t even give you the slightest hints when it decides to rewrite those rules. It doesn’t make things hard to sell a digital cheat. It just wants you to use your head and suss out the answer. You know, as a puzzle should.

Missteps aside, I’m giving Starman 4 stars and recommending it for fans of puzzle games who want to feel a little challenged before they can feel smug for a few seconds at a time.