Void Bastards is a fun name to say, and a hard game to classify. The best way to describe it would be a procedurally generated first person shooter rogue-lite space exploration game with resource management, crafting, and mild elements of horror. It’s a bit of a strange concoction of genres, but it coalesces to create a very unique, weird, and fun experience.
The story is equally strange. Void Bastards takes place in a far flung future where we apparently just have space prisons now, and everything operates under a dystopian, bureaucratic, and very British government. You play as a series of prisoners who are stuck aboard a spacecraft known as a Void Ark, that's somehow gotten lost in the deepest recesses of space. The cartoonishly evil British A.I. that controls the ship sends you all on what are essentially suicide missions to retrieve items you need to get your stranded prison ship back to civilization.
To give you a better idea of just how weird the universe of this game is, your prisoners aren’t just waiting around in their cell. Instead, all prisoners have been turned into packets of freeze dried powder as if they were oatmeal. Just add water, and you got yourself an instant prisoner.
Void Bastards is going for the kind of humour you’d find in a BBC show from the 80s or 90s, like Red Dwarf, or the writing of Douglas Adams. Everything from the descriptions of your prisoner, to the interactions with your ship’s A.I., to even the things your enemies say all carry a kind of dry, British wit about them. In most games if you’re found by an enemy, they’d likely make a quick sound followed by a music cue. In this game you know you’ve been caught when a bad guy yells “I can see you, dickwad!”
You travel from abandoned ship to abandoned ship gathering parts to create new weapons or gadgets, while also trying to grab any food, fuel, ammo, or crafting materials you can salvage. If your prisoner dies, you lose all the stuff you gathered, but you get to keep the things you’ve crafted, so the rogue-lite elements are somewhat forgiving. There are harder difficulties where that’s not the case, but I’m not a masochist, so I didn’t try those.
The game is basically broken into two parts, with an overworld map where you can decide to go next, as well as a menu where can craft new gizmos, or weapons to help you on your various excursions. The other part is going into the derelict ships, retrieving anything you can find, and fighting off various accented baddies along the way. From there, you can either shoot your way through, or try to stealth your way around the vessel.
There are certain factors to keep in mind though. When an enemy shoots you, your health doesn’t regenerate when you get back to your main ship. You can eat food to get some of it back, but if you run out of food during trips, you lose health, and you can starve to death. You also need fuel to power your ship as it jumps around, and you need ammo so you can shoot your way out of bad situations. Run out of any of that stuff, and you’re going to have a bad time. You also only have so much oxygen, and if you don’t watch your O2 meter, you die.
Each prisoner has different genetic traits that either help or hinder them. Some may be really good at unlocking doors, while others may breathe too heavily and expend their oxygen faster. If your character dies, you get a new prisoner, with new traits, and have to start back at the beginning of the map.
It’s a fun loop, and venturing deep into the ships can be a pretty rewarding experience that borders on creepy at times. The game obviously is going more for laughs than scares, but there are times when an enemy can sneak up on you, and catch you by surprise. The tension tends to come more from you realizing you’re being overwhelmed, or that some of the enemies are just too tough for you to kill right now, which leads to panic because you’re about to lose all the progress you just made.
The combat feels pretty good, although I had to fool around with the sensitivity a bit to get it just right. Shooting everything won't always be the best solution however, and sometimes running away from enemies, or stealthing your way through a room is a better course of action. The stealth can be kind of iffy though, as you don’t really get an indication of how hidden you are, and it seemed at times that it was very easy to be seen by the various monsters wandering around the ships.
The ships themselves can be full of surprises, as most rooms have things you can use to survive your stay onboard. Some rooms may have a machine that can rewrite your DNA, giving you new genetic buffs, or removing negative genetic traits. Some rooms have tea dispensers inside that can boost your speed and damage for a short while. Alternatively, some rooms can also be chock full of various security drones that can blow you away in an instant.
One major issue with the game is that it starts off a bit slow. You begin with just a pistol, and then you have to find the parts necessary to build everything else. As a result, you mostly spend the first hour or so without many tools at your disposal, which can be a bit tedious. Once you find more crafting parts though, you’ll have a bunch of new toys to play around with, so you can plan out a better strategy on how to tackle a ship. It’s one of those games that opens up more as you play it, but it takes a little while to really get going.
The visual style of the game is probably the first thing people talk about when Void Bastards is brought up. It’s an entirely cel-shaded world, with every single aspect designed to look like it came right out of an old comic book. The game even goes for that feeling in its main menu and cutscenes, framing everything to look like comic book panels.
Enemy and ship designs, though, can be a bit dull. It seems like every enemy is some variation of a glowing blue skull that floats after you while shouting British witticisms. The ships are procedurally generated, although there are only so many kinds of ship layouts, and the same ones will pop up from time to time.
That being said, they do have certain modifiers to change things up. Sometimes a ship will have random power outages, sometimes they’ll have tougher enemies, sometimes they’ll mostly be on fire. There’s enough to change things up, so it doesn’t get too repetitive.
Overall, the core gameplay loop is pretty addictive. If the stealth was a little bit more intuitive it would be dang near perfect, but that doesn't detract too much from the experience. The feeling of dropping into a dangerous ship that’s full of things that want to kill you, running around and grabbing as much as you can as if it’s an episode of Supermarket Sweep, and then hauling out of there can be a real adrenaline rush. This game proves that sometimes it can be fun to be an absolute bastard.
Void Bastards is available now on Xbox and PC. A PC copy was purchased by TheGamer for this review.
4 out of 5 stars