The story of Astroneer is a remarkable one, and one this reviewer (hello!) has been following since the very beginning. Back in 2015, this charming little teaser trailer was released, showing a spaceman traversing lonely, low-poly alien landscapes. It wasn’t fully clear what the game was, but it was instantly appealing nonetheless, and when the game came out in 2016 in Early Access, its Minecraft-meets-No Man’s Sky sandbox charmed the spacepants off its players.
Seven years later, Astroneer is finally landing on what is arguably a perfect platform for it: The Nintendo Switch. Some games are so well-suited to the portable handheld experience that you hope against all odds that it will be ported over, even though the game is several years old; this time, those hopes actually paid off.
Astroneer’s story is simple: You are a very cute little astronaut, who has landed on an Earth-like planet called Sylva. Although there are no real objectives — you can do whatever you want, really — a Mission Log will gently guide you towards the game’s wider story, which involves activating mysterious purple structures around the planet, and eventually venturing to the other planets in your small solar system.
The core game loop is all about crafting, and you’ll soon find yourself naturally drawn to exploration to keep feeding this loop. By using the terrain tool (a gun that extracts resources from the ground), you will be able to find everything you need to start building up your base. Building up your base will grant you access to new tools and crafting modules, like a Soil Centrifuge that can turn useless dirt into valuable resources, or a shuttle that can take you into space.
That loop is, for the most part, incredibly satisfying — and the terrain tool helps with that satisfaction, feeling pleasantly chunky in your hands as you slurp up the treasures beneath the earth. It’s a very dynamic, hands-on approach to crafting, which is compounded by having to smelt, shred, condense, and combine a bunch of rarer elements on top of just finding them naturally occurring in the wild.
If you’re not paying attention, the resource dependencies can really pile up — like a tech tree branch you forgot to fill out — and you’ll sometimes find yourself feeling a bit like you just walked five miles carrying groceries only to realise you didn’t pick up milk. Still, it gives you purpose in this sandbox world; you’ll just feel like a bit of a numpty traipsing back to a distant planet to grab the one resource you forgot to get.
Back in 2016, when Astroneer came out on Xbox One, this reviewer (hello again!) gave the game 7/10, citing its janky physics, obtuse tutorial, unforgiving hazards, and its unpredictable deadly windstorms as the reasons she couldn’t get fully on board with it.
Luckily for us in 2022, those issues are mostly no longer the hurdles they once were: Astroneer’s tutorial, while sparse, will give you just enough information to get you on your way, which means learning how to use the controls, the tethers and the terrain deformation gun. Once you’ve mastered those, the world is your space-oyster, really, although you’ll still find yourself wrestling with the camera and controls from time to time.
The deadly windstorms were patched out a long time ago, so you don’t have to worry about getting bonked on the head by a big floating cube of dirt. Hooray! Likewise, although deadly flora still exists, and fall damage or suffocation is always a threat if you’re not being careful, you can largely stay alive via a combination of luck and diligence.
But the janky physics are still there, and they can almost entirely ruin your day, especially when vehicles are involved. At one point, driving a large rover into the centre of the planet, we got stuck on a gravity-altering triangle, making it impossible to escape without being repeatedly flipped upside down. To make it worse, the camera — which is always in third-person, even when driving — kept getting stuck in the ground, or behind the rover, or somewhere else that made it impossible to see. It was like trying to fix a sink from across the room with trash grabbers for hands, and also someone keeps turning the room upside down.
Troubleshooting this frustrating issue made it clear that we were far from the only ones, and that the solution to almost every problem was to either literally dig yourself out, or to harness the janky physics to fling yourself free. In the end, we spent what felt like an hour trying to extricate ourselves from the situation. It was not fun.
Still, this version is, in almost every way, vastly superior to that 2016 release. There’s a glut of new content that makes the game’s tricky mechanics easier to use and learn, and the latest update even added some extremely adorable alien pets. Co-op exists, too, and there’s honestly nothing more fun than building a base and exploring with pals (which we didn’t get to try out on Switch yet, but works great on the PC version).
There are a fair few technical issues, which we’ve come to expect from certain games on Switch — we experienced a couple of crashes early on in our playthrough, although the relatively generous saving (which is done automatically whenever you enter a shelter or vehicle) meant that we only lost 20 minutes of progress.
There are frame catches every now and again, especially when entering a busy area full of resources, and the pop-in is very noticeable in handheld mode, with items and foliage popping into existence almost right in front of you. To be honest, it didn’t bother us all that much once we got used to it, but if a little jank bothers you, Astroneer probably isn’t the game for you anyway.
This may sound like a lot of caveats, and it is, but over time Astroneer has become one of the all-time greats of sandbox crafting adventures. It balances its jank with a heaping space-bucket of charm, and a gather-craft-explore loop that’s incredibly moreish. This reviewer has been playing this game since 2016, and still demanded to review it on Switch — and found it just as compelling and rough around the edges as ever.
Astroneer is a wonderfully scrappy game that’s been polished up since initial release in 2016 to become the best version of itself yet on the Nintendo Switch. It will, at times, frustrate you with its genial jank, and wrestling with its unpredictable physics and easily-distracted camera might suck some of the joy out of it, but if you love Minecraft, Terraria, No Man’s Sky, and Subnautica, you’ll surely love this, too.