Enter the void.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way – Void Bastards looks exceptional. Taking the cel-shaded aesthetic and running with it, it’s the closest thing to a comic book made flesh I’ve seen in a game. 2D sprites and 3D models are effortlessly blended to the point where it’s hard to tell the difference from a static image. Every single screenshot could be a frame from a comic book, but to see it in motion is where it truly shines.
Void Bastards. Because you’re in a void, and there are bastards. You’re a bastard. Everyone’s a bastard. With me so far?
The game is delightfully amoral. Each playable character is a ‘client,’ a rehydrated convict shoved into space to find the parts necessary for repairing the Void Ark – the prison ship you’re being transported on. You’ll find the required scrap on various derelicts that litter the void nebula, along with the food, fuel and ammo you need to survive. All of these are guarded by the twisted forms of the ship’s former crew, corrupted and given strange abilities by the nebula’s void energy. The AI wastes no time pointing out that it’s probably fine to murder them, because they’ve taken on an unauthorised aggressive form, whilst also making sure to refer to them as ‘citizens’ at every opportunity.
Each playable client has one or two genetic traits, ranging from beneficial to humorous to disastrous, and sometimes all three. Some are able to recover extra scrap from stolen loot. Some can open doors and hack turrets from a distance because they have really long arms. Some are so excited by the prospect of loot that they’ll scream out loud every time they pick up an item. My most recent character was just incredibly short, making it easy for him to hide, but impossible for him to reach a sandwich on top of a locker.
There’s a decidedly British sense of humour running through the whole game. The cast includes The Stanley Parable’s Kevan Brighting as the Void Ark’s morality-free AI. His writing is impeccable, at times reaching Douglas Adams-esque peaks. For me, though, the star of the show is the incidental enemy dialogue. “Not you again,” moans the cowardly Scribe as it attempts to flee, while “Spunky McFuckface!” is one of the less rude names the Mancunian Juves shout at you as they charge into combat. Despite the void energy coursing through their bodies, each citizen retains something of their former personality. This, of course, makes murdering them all the more fun.
There are a variety of ship types, each with their own distinct style. This is evident in everything from the colour scheme to the room availability and even the types of loot you’ll find onboard. A Lux cruiser might have a casino and a dining room with plenty of food to be found, whereas a bureaucratic CNT ship (best spelt, rather than said) is the best place to find the forms you need to requisition certain items.
The strategy layer has more factors to consider than its closest comparison, FTL, yet never seems overwhelming. You’ll need to balance finding food, fuel and ammunition with salvaging crafting materials and objective items. You’ll also need to dodge pirates and ship-devouring space whales, or find some alternative means of dealing with them.
Reward lies in survival and the crafting materials that come with it, rather than combat. In fact, it’s usually only through upgrades that any loot can be found on enemy corpses at all. This actively encourages alternative approaches to encounters, making it much more likely that you’ll use all the fun tricks at your disposal.
Randomly generated levels mean that Void Bastards lacks the authored complexity of a Bioshock or Deus Ex. Instead, you’ll need to learn to improvise, using what you’ve learned about different enemy types against them. The Patient, for example, is a swarm of floating heads. They can be shot down one-by-one, but this would use a lot of ammo. Far better, then, to simply chuck a grenade in the room and shut the door – they won’t be able to open it and escape, because they don’t have hands.
Portrayed as something akin to an angry schoolmistress, the Zec has a permanent shield floating directly in front of her at all times. This ensures that a head-on assault is pointless, making alternative tactics mandatory. Stealth could work, if you can get behind her for long enough to do lethal damage. Maybe you could bounce a grenade off the wall behind her, or try to position her between yourself and a hacked turret in such a way as to guarantee a kill. Perhaps you could avoid her entirely, lock her in a side-room and move on. Oh, by the way, these are all decisions you need to make while she is screaming in your face, flinging void rockets faster than you can run.
Maybe I like the Zec so much because she epitomises the depth of planning that characterises Void Bastards. Each mission – with a few important exceptions – shows you exactly what you’re going to be facing before you dock. By the time you’re regularly encountering tough enemies, you’re probably going to have unlocked a significant amount of the game’s arsenal. You’ll have favourite weapons for dealing with each enemy type, but you can only take one from each of the three categories.
If you get in trouble, you usually only have yourself to blame. Which weapons you choose – and how well you use them – can make the difference between a casual jog back to the airlock and a mad dash past fifteen absolutely fucked-off bastards. The game serves up such ‘oh shit’ moments frequently, and they are thrilling without exception.
Complains are few and far between. For example, quitting the game mid-level results in the death of your current client. This isn’t awful, because you get to keep all of your upgrades, but it’s certainly annoying. As with all roguelikes, there’s also an inevitable point at which you feel like you’ve seen everything, that you have nothing else to learn. For me, it was only towards the last hour or so of a nine-ish hour campaign that I started to feel like the game had little left to throw at me. This is such a minor complaint though, especially when put into context of the ridiculously good time I’d been having up until then.
Void Bastards is a hyper-polished work of art. If the only complaint I have is that there should be more of it, they’re clearly doing something right. I’m very excited to see where this developer goes next.
[Reviewed on PC]