Minutes into Void Bastards, it’s clear what kind of experience it’s going to be.
“Don’t worry,” it shows as my character is overwhelmed by enemies. “The game expected you to die.”
During a hectic opening sequence, this tone is quickly established then permeates the latest work from Australian indie studio Blue Manchu. It’s a genuinely funny game, a shooter strategy hybrid set in space presented as a science-fiction comic book come to life. The basis of its humor is the setting: a bureaucratic galaxy with friendly robots, invading aliens and tons of obnoxious legal paperwork. However, like its endless lineup of player characters, certain parts wind up being expendable.
Its attempt to mix genres and influences occasionally works, as I had a good enough time in short sessions though not nearly all the time. Void Bastards is part first-person shooter, strategy sim, survival game and roguelite, the last of which being a more focused genre within the broader “roguelike” such as character perma-death plus random or procedural levels. Based on there being less than a dozen folks at studio Blue Manchu, this was clearly an ambitious task. I commend the effort, even if I wasn’t dazzled by a few of its parts.
One of the team’s main designers Jonathan Chey co-founded Irrational Games and was instrumental in System Shock 2 and BioShock, obvious inspirations here. Picture one of these games, remove the engaging story and fascinating lore then add strategy elements, a cumbersome crafting system plus survival gauges and this is essentially the result.
The player takes control of an escaped prisoner, the titular “bastard” from the void. A random felon that hijacks an intergalactic vessel with the intention of leaving the Sargasso Nebula. Upon creation, he or she is assigned characteristics such as being fast on their feet or even colorblind. When that person meets an untimely end, it’s replaced by a new one. Items and materials are lost however upgrades and crafted items remain. Which is a smart design decision, as the game is punishing enough already especially on higher difficulties.
The basis of its humor is the setting: a bureaucratic galaxy with friendly robots, invading aliens and tons of obnoxious legal paperwork. However, like its endless lineup of player characters, certain parts wind up being expendable.
Starting with my first character, a smoker with a random cough that alerts enemies, it actually takes me a couple hours to get my bearings. To understand what my goal is. The beginning requires one to search for crafting parts to a piece of futuristic technology. Perhaps I missed a story or dialogue prompt, I wasn’t exactly sure where to go or what to do. Better on-boarding (pun intended, as expected) or a tutorial area would be welcome.
Though this carries forward into later game as well, feeling of aimless despite possessing a star-map. Based on the developer’s description, this is because the player gets to pick where to go. Even so, it’s overwhelming. Progression is driven by crafting pieces of the spaceship that will allow faster-than-light travel, in an attempt to leave the local nebula.
The major stand-out feature of this Humble Bundle-published title is its artwork. It truly resembles an interactive comic. Space crafts feature stunning, colorful 3D spaces. It’s easy to be distracted by the most minute of details, such as in-game posters or gadgets strewn about the area. Its semblance of a narrative is conveyed in a manner that looks like a visual novel, complete with animated panels and dialogue bubbles. I found myself stopping to admire this art design constantly, and hovering on the story panels as if to soak up the style.
Another strength is, intriguingly enough, its voice acting. Super creative, even subtle at times. Robot AI named BACS (for the British tax-collecting organization) works as a narrator along the journey, and is especially humorous during downtime between boarding ships. The player character is speechless, though enemies will quip and react to one’s presence. On-board intercom messages continue despite stations being empty, many of which are quite clever and give a sense that the world which existing previously certainly had its share of issues.
“I bet you are wondering what happens when you die?” BACS presents, appearing philosophic.
“Others will enjoy what you leave behind.”
Downtime here is where the strategy simulation kicks in, plus the player has an opportunity to craft from the materials collected while exploring ships. Time is spent plotting a course across the cosmos then building stuff to help make it easier. Deciding where to go based on the descriptions of each ship, which detail what sorts of enemies or resources are present. The cool part here is that there are virtually no loading screens, it moves quickly between the different menus. The transition from map to gameplay is seamless.
Unfortunately, it’s a shooter where the shooting is serviceable at best, flimsy at worst. I know it’s not the sole mechanic, though as the primary interaction with the game space, it is noticeably inconsistent. And desperately missing a melee attack.
Its semblance of a narrative is conveyed in a manner that looks like a visual novel, complete with animated panels and dialogue bubbles. I found myself stopping to admire this art design constantly, and hovering on the story panels as if to soak up the style.
In terms of enemy, combat and weapon variety, it’s solid enough to keep engaged in the short-term. There aren’t actually that many enemies. For instance, the Zec are alien humanoids with shields, while Patients are a set of floating severed heads that require precision shots. Stronger versions appear deeper in space. This makes sense because it’s made by a smaller studio, however this fact doesn’t break the monotony of seeing them so frequently.
Weapons and explosives are much better. The player unlocks more powerful, varied instruments of combat through a crafting tree. One of my favorites is the Kittybot, a cute killer that distracts foes then explodes on a timer. The other is the Rifter, a gun that captures enemies then spits them out on command. This allows for unique engagements, like locking opponents into vacant rooms or dropping them directly into an environmental hazard.
Even though the game implies stealth is possible, mainly on surfaces like carpet, I was never successful in hiding my presence. There’s a smart design in how the game signals enemies are around, at least. Phrases show up in the world, like Batman’s fight-words style, then increase in frequency when approaching a baddy. These pop-ups also show up with more pizazz during combat.
As mentioned earlier, the character trait system is a major feature. Especially since once a character dies, it’s gone forever. It’s an intriguing system, though can be frustrating depending on which combination pops up. “Diminutive” stature is an example, which means the camera shifted accordingly. It’s like playing as the shorter Oddjob in GoldenEye 007.
The downside of procedural generation and random attributes is one that’s more general when I play the genre: fear of missing out. The only way for me to see all the traits is by failing constantly or seeking out gene banks, which are areas in certain ship types that allow for swapping of traits. No matter how my character is built, I know there’s likely an even better ability that I’ve never seen.
Then, boarded ships have mostly the same features throughout. Jumbled up depending on which type, such as a medical vessel or fuel stations. This gets tedious in later stages, to the point where exploration feels a chore when it really should satisfy curiosity. Combine this with survival parts like juggling hunger, gas and oxygen levels, it’s easy to get bogged down in laborious mechanics.
Perhaps this is nitpicky, I find controller options to be paramount for shooters. There’s only one configuration I could find here on console, no sort of mapping or reworking controls. There also isn’t a way to turn off elements of the HUD, which would be fine if not so invasive. Lastly, the crafting system is messy. Forces the player to cycle between screens and constantly guess at how spending one set of materials will impact the potential for building something else. Multiple times I built one item not knowing it would set me back in my progress for another.
A question before wrapping up, this from Nick at The Inner Circle. Has there been any game I’ve played like this? It’s a tricky one to answer, as I’m admittedly not a strategy enthusiast. I made the above comparisons to “Shock” games, though a series I feel has the same vibe is, wildly enough, Toe Jam & Earl. The action-adventure from the Sega Genesis days doesn’t take itself too seriously, features random characteristics and was an early example of procedural elements on console. Plus there’s the whole space ship building part!
All of this together means Void Bastards is much better in short bursts than long sessions. Tedium sets in while boarding yet another ship with the same rooms, inhabited by enemy types seen before. Especially when facing them at higher difficulties, without the necessary resources to succeed.
There’s some cool possibilities in the game’s overlapping systems, though it’s far from a revolutionary genre-blend that it has the potential to be. I had enough fun with it to warrant at least checking it out, though not near enough to maintain my attention over a long haul. Let alone a trip across the galaxy.
Title: Void Bastards
Release Date: May 29, 2019
Developer: Blue Manchu
Publisher: Humble Bundle
Platforms: Xbox One and Xbox Game Pass, PC (Steam, Humble Bundle)
Recommendation: Solid enough to try, especially for strategy enthusiasts and those with Xbox Game Pass, albeit not good enough to drop everything and play right away or stick with over time.
Disclaimer: Xbox One review code provided by Humble Bundle.