Startenders is brilliant.
There you go, there’s your review, now bugger off so I can get back to mixing drinks. I’ve got a queue of Grondians standing three deep, and those Screaming Organisms aren’t going to make themselves. No? Not good enough for you? Very well, get to the back of the line, and I’ll see if I can mix you up something a little more to your liking, but I’m warning you, buddy… you better leave a tip.
CHUG! CHUG! CHUG!
Startenders is the VR debut from experienced indie developers Foggy Box Games. For their first foray into the medium, the team have created an all-new spin on the niche market of time management gaming. Offering an arcade-style bartending experience set in a world beyond the stars, Startenders is unlike anything yet seen on the Quest.
The game sees the player embody an inadvertently kidnapped earthling who has been beamed aboard a galactic bar ship due to an unfortunate clerical error. Aboard this ship, you will meet your robotic companion RILEE and reluctantly begin your new life as an Academy bartender…or rather, Startender. With a brief tutorial under your belt, you’ll be ready to get behind the bar start washing, pouring and shaking your way into the folklore of cosmic inebriation.
Early in the game, you encounter a nameless hacker bent on breaking you out and returning you to Earth, provided you buy pieces of the machine needed to teleport you home. Continuing as a Startender, you work shifts at various intergalactic bars. All the while, you’re hoping to earn enough to complete the task and earn yourself a one-way ticket back home.
Like almost everything else in Startenders, the story is well delivered, well suited to the game’s character, and gives a nice sense of depth and polish that supports the core mechanics. Do you really need the story to enjoy the gameplay? Nope. Does it detract from the experience in any way? Absolutely not.
SOMEWHERE TO SLEEP IT OFF
You begin the game in a Hub that contains so much more of this polish that it deserves its own honourable mention.
In most similar games, you would start in an area that gives you access to a rudimentary UI system designed to get you into the game quickly. Not Startenders. The game’s hub area has so many little features and such thoughtful design that it endears you to the game world in a truly commendable way.
From checking the ingredients list at the bar shop to upgrading your equipment at the interactive crafting stations, every element in Startenders is delivered with VR at the forefront of its design. Where other games would have you press a button, Startenders will almost always default to using a physical action. For example, all of your equipment is upgradable, but rather than just clicking on an ‘upgrade’ button in a menu, Startenders has you head over to a crafting station and weld the pieces of your new gadget together. These seemingly innocuous design choices make the game an outstandingly immersive experience.
There are also a series of mini-games that not only allow you to kill time but that are primarily geared towards improving the essential skills that you need to get good at the game. Anyone who has ever worked a cocktail bar will tell you that being good isn’t having fast hands but rather having a great memory. There are mini-games throughout the hub designed to help you memorise the recipes for each of the game’s fantastic cocktails. This means that rather than having to work from the visual cues every time, you can see orders and just get busy making them by heart.
It’s a fantastic touch, and for people who go deep down the Startenders rabbit hole, these mini-games will become essential training.
Once you’re ready to begin your career in interstellar hospitality, you find yourself behind a bar in a bustling space cantina. Customers will approach the bar and when you’re ready to serve them, just give them a thumbs-up. Their order will appear above their head, both by name and via a visual representation of the recipe.
You need to use various devices to process the increasingly complicated orders your patrons will demand of you. These range from glass washers and juicers to garnish slicers and even a machine that allows you to set a drink on fire for that extra special flourish.
You have a range of taps to pour from, various fizzy mixers and an entire wall of spirits at your disposal; each is clearly labelled and easily identifiable at a glance. There is also a selection of alien-looking fruits and slightly more interesting items like anti-matter cubes that will repel everything they get close to until prepared correctly. There’s even a weird little bug creature that you have to feed a specific fruit to before squeezing it out into a drink.
In addition to the classic gaming metric of scoring you on how quickly you prepare drinks, there is also a Flare Metre that allows you to earn tips by impressing your clientele. Performing moves like throwing your bottles around, high pouring, double-handed pouring, and shaking cocktails will impress punters, and they’ll pay extra for style. It’s an excellent addition to the basic gameplay. It adds a whole extra layer of skills to master and really sells the sense of serving in a busy bar.
GLASS HALF FULL
As with all good things, there could always be better. The only criticisms one can reasonably level at Startenders stem not from what the game does but what it does not. The greatest missed opportunity in the game is the lack of levels with competitive leaderboards upon which to compete.
While daily challenges are available, these are frozen moments in time, and the omission of score-chasing is a weakness for a genre game. The ability to challenge yourself against your previous best and compete for a vaunted space on the scoreboard is one of the main driving factors that keeps people coming back for more. I worry that without this feature, Startenders shelf life might become considerably less than it should be.
The second missed opportunity comes in the lack of any multiplayer options. The core mechanics of Startenders just naturally lends it to multiplayer. A slightly expanded bar with perhaps one or two additional machines and recipes, and I could see gamers putting on a show flamboyant enough to make Tome cruise and Bryan Brown jealous.
By the same token, a head-to-head mode where competing Startenders try to outdo each other performing against the same orders would have been genuinely addictive. Unfortunately, the latter seems technically out of reach at the moment, so we will all have to accept that for now, we will be left slinging suds solo.
THE VOMIT COMET
In addition to the classic “shift” mode and daily challenge mode, there is also the really excellent addition of the Free Mix mode. Free Mix mode lets players try their hands as interstellar mixologists, using the full range of ingredients to create their own cosmic creations. These are then “priced” based on their complexity, named by the player, and can then be ordered by customers in the main game. It’s an absolutely excellent touch, and it is thoroughly enjoyable to see customers ordering the bizarre concoctions that you’ve created and named.
This lets you utilise some of the wackier secret ingredients the developers have snuck into the game. A little experimentation leads you to discover, for example, that you can actually make yourself vomit. If you so choose, you can even use the vomit as an ingredient in one of your creations. Little touches like this make Startenders a wonderful celebration of perfectly developed character and functionality.
In fact, absolutely everything in Startenders just works fantastically. The physics are brilliantly executed, lending a sense of weight and presence to the world. The mechanics are fun and intuitive, and the design of each item and how it is used is both creative and thoughtfully delivered.
In short, when it comes to the niche of time management games, Startenders is an absolute masterclass in what makes the genre enjoyable.
IT’S YOUR ROUND
Graphically, Startenders is exactly on point. With a clean and crisp cartoon-like visual style, the game offers an overall aesthetic that is as endearing as it is engaging. Everything looks beautiful, is easily identifiable and just reeks of character. The art design is top-notch throughout and perfect for the environment that Foggy Box Games have created.
The visual language that the game communicates with is perfect. Recipes are easily identifiable, products are clearly and distinctly labelled, and visual cues to tell you if you’ve succeeded at your task are easy to distinguish. The ingredients are quirky and full of character, and the drinks you produce look genuinely appealing.
The audio is just as well matched. The sound effects perfectly deliver the ambience of a busy shift behind the bar. Machines whizz and whirr, crowds bustle and grumble, and bottle tops pop with convincing energy. The voice acting is very well delivered, including a cameo from VR YouTube sweetheart Cas (from Cas and Charry).
I will say that Startenders could have used a few more iterations of the customer banter, as those lines do get a little stale after a while. I would also have loved to hear the customers actually order their drinks by name, as this would have made the process even quicker for those who take the time to learn the recipes by heart. But these are very, very minor gripes.
ONE FOR THE ROAD
Startenders is an absolute joy to play and is impeccably well designed and delivered on every metric worth mentioning. As an enthusiast of the genre, I can unequivocally recommend it as the best in class currently available on the Quest. Offering about 3 hours’ worth of gameplay to complete the story campaign but a virtually endless loop of intoxicatingly fun gameplay after that, there are countless hours of enjoyment waiting behind these bars.
A usual review for a time management game would come with the caveat that only gamers who appreciate the niche will find it of value. However, Startenders is so well made that it transcends genre preference. It has something to offer for just about everyone. In fact, it feels like the most appropriate way to finish this review is exactly as it began –
Startenders is brilliant.