Review: Startenders

I’ve just finished a particularly busy shift in Startenders; there’s an empty liquor bottle tipped over on the counter, cocktail umbrellas are strewn across the floor or my bar cubicle, and there are several garnishes dotted here and there. Most of the drinks I served on this shift required so many steps to complete, by the time the drinks were placed in front of the customer they were grumpy from waiting and I was throwing empty bottles behind me, smashing them rather than placing them back in storage. Hell, I got paid and they got their drinks, no matter how long it took.

I felt largely proud that I got through the shift. I’ve trained my hands to focus on particular jobs; my left hand is cleaning glasses and pulling ingredients from the storage, my right hand plucks bottles from the shelves and rotates handles on a myriad machines. 

Sometimes my hands get confused and I knock over drinks, spilling the contents, which results in my needing to remake them. At one point I was very frustrated from spilling a complex beverage, the customer was quietly complaining and I lost my cool. I threw a bottle at them and they asked politely that I not do it again, I was laughing so hard the spilled drink no longer mattered.

These small anecdotes all sum up Startenders nicely. It’s a game balanced perfectly between needing a good level of skill and delivering comedy moments of clumsy physics. It’s a game that puts you in the shoes of fed-up service workers across the universe.

You play a bartender who has been whisked across the galaxy to serve drinks to various alien species when they get off from a hard day’s work. They’ll wander over to your bar cubicle to catch your eye, you give them a thumbs-up using the trigger and grip buttons, then their drink order appears on a screen above their head. Now you have to make it.

All around the cubicle you’ll find bottles, test tubes, and canisters filled with brightly coloured drinks. You’re responsible for cleaning the glasses, chopping up fruit garnishes, and dispensing mixers from taps to one side. The act of making the drinks is wonderful – each drink gurgles from the bottles, glugs into glasses, and sloshes around when handled. The sound design is as brilliant as the eye-popping visuals, there’s something very satisfying when popping the corks from bottles or smashing empties.

Outside of the cubicle, back on the ship, you’ll find plenty to do. When your shift ends your tips will be paid – crafting drinks correctly, with speed, rewards more money – and this can be spent on new ingredients for the bar, fun objects for your quarters, but most importantly, upgrading machines.

Perhaps my favourite mechanic, aside from the drink making, is building new machines for the bar. Once a blueprint is purchased, we move to a workbench and place components, welding them together before printing the chassis on top. It’s a very calming process; choosing the items, rotating the workspace, listening to the hiss of the welder, and watching it all come together. A lovely touch comes after, from the ship’s fabricator, as a little trophy of the new machine for display.

As the campaign progresses the drink orders obviously get much more complicated, so multitasking becomes paramount. The playing area gets a little busy which can result in annoyingly spills or shattered glassware, but this can add to some of the more entertaining moments.

Perhaps the biggest drawback for Startenders is support for sitting play. I tried playing on an office chair and my sofa, but both were unpleasant experiences. I often found I was having to stretch up too much to reach the soda taps or hoist myself up to fetch glasses from the cleaner. There are handles on all of the work surfaces which adjust the height, but none quite hit the spot sweetly. For me, this isn’t a huge drawback, as I can stand while playing, but it might be an issue for those who require the accessibility.

Away from the core campaign, there is plenty to keep those bartending hands busy. You can pass the headset with a group of friends and serve up beverages, or you can even create your own cocktails. There are fun little mini-games that help ‘train’ your movements and skills, plus you can get competitive with the daily shifts which rotate every 24 hours.

It’s hard to communicate the brilliance of Startenders because much of its excellence is seen in the minutiae; the steam bursting out of the glass cleaner, the fizzing squirt of the beer taps, and even the ambient chatter of the bar. The interactions of the ship’s AI, RILEE, aim for sharp and witty humour and continuously delivers. However, a lot of that excellence is communicated through the core mechanics – it’s a big, bold game full of charming character, sumptuous colours, and clever use of object physics. Not just a must-own VR game, just a must-own game in 2022.