It’s easy to fall in love with Void Bastards. Blue Manchu’s sci-fi roguelike shooter with light strategy elements is the video game version of the stylish punk girl or boy you had a crush on in high school who was way too cool for you back then or—let’s face it—even now. The first time I saw Void Bastards’ comic book style, inventive weapons, and in-your-face title, I knew I wanted it. Like I did with most crushes in high school, I mentally built it up to an impossible degree. And like those crushes, in the end I discovered we really didn’t have that much in common, though I appreciated the time we spent together.
Void Bastards’ basic premise is that you play as a series of expendable inmates working for a corporation that lost a ship in the wrong solar system. Well, “working” is a bit of a misnomer: You’re actually playing as a series of slaves, dehydrated and existing as dust in baggies until the corporation rehydrates them back to life. Your job is to collect the ingredients to build different components that will finally allow your ship to travel faster than light speed and make it out of the solar system. You’ll do this invading a seemingly endless parade of other corporations’ ships that have been overrun by “zombified” citizens of the system. Truly, the real antagonist of your situation is up for debate, but I’ve never met a faceless corporation willing to use prisoners as slave labor and canon fodder who could be considered the “good guys.”
This setup lends itself well to a strategic roguelike game. You’ll navigate the overworld map one space at a time, burning fuel and food each time you move. You don’t have to dock at every ship, but eventually you’ll need to collect those resources so you don’t die in space. Scrolling over each ship will tell you which and how many enemies and unique items are aboard, as well as what type of special rooms you’ll encounter. This lets you prioritize which enemies you would like to face and which weapons to take onboard to make dealing with those enemy types a little bit easier. Deciding if it’s worth facing a Mr. X-style Screw because you need a distended testicle (not kidding) to build a Bouncer while balancing the needs of your ship makes each jump seem significant. All of this can become even more complicated when pirate ships or space whales are bearing down on your position and potentially ruining your best laid plans. It’s a clever system that makes choosing where to land its own metagame.
The micro ways that Void Bastards integrates its narrative into its roguelike elements is systemically satisfying. Every time you die, you play as a newly rehydrated convict, and each prisoner has their own combination of strengths and/or weaknesses. One character might be able to unlock doors faster while also having a smoker’s cough that makes sneaking around more difficult. Another might be short, which makes passing through vents faster since you don’t have to crouch, but they might also be colorblind or more vulnerable to radiation poisoning. This means that once you roll a character that you like, you’ll have a reason for keeping them alive other than just dropping whatever items you happen to be carrying at the time. It also makes cutting your losses and escaping with your life a factor in your decision-making, which can lead to some truly hectic and stressful moments. It doesn’t hurt that your opportunity to explore each ship is limited by your oxygen supply, noted by a helpful timer at the top of your screen, giving you even more factors to mentally engage.
Combat itself is pleasantly retro. There’s no aiming down the sights and only some recoil, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Figuring out which weapons are effective against which enemies is half the battle, and the other half is making sure you’ve got enough ammo to deal with the hairy situations you’ll often find yourself in. There are variations on standard weaponry like pistols, shotguns, and rocket launchers, but the secondary gadgets are where Void Bastards really starts to mix up the combat. Each mission, you’ll have to choose, for example, between robotic cats that will attract enemy attention and explode once they’ve reached their damage threshold or a zapper than can disable enemy turrets, giving you an opportunity to hack them. Later on, you’ll even build a tool that brainwashes enemies into fighting for you, turning the aforementioned Screw from a threat into the most valuable ally you can imagine. Hacking turrets and turning enemies show flashes of BioShock-level genius, though Void Bastard’s randomized and temporary approach to each stage means that you later might wish you still had the resources you expended on a previous ship.
While these roguelike elements give the game a compelling sense of strategy, where a thoughtless jump can lead to you unnecessarily draining resources, they don’t exactly make Void Bastards stand out amongst its peers. Where the game sets itself apart is with its art direction. The comic book aesthetic isn’t necessarily something we’ve never seen before, but Void Bastards doesn’t just rely on cel shading to give it a fresh look. The enemies themselves look like 2D animated sprites while also retaining their proper dimensions regardless of from which angle you’re looking at them. Sound effects rendered on screen as text not only add to the game’s visual flair, but they also give you an idea of which enemies are lurking beyond the next closed door. The music will change depending on whether or not you’re in combat, and helpful sound cues will note when you’ve taken down an enemy, which is especially convenient if you’re trying to Bushwack one that’s hanging out around a corner. The enemies’ voice lines also bring to mind another roguelike, ToeJam & Earl, with healthy doses of comedy and satire.
Given all its pieces, Void Bastards has the potential to be an instant classic, but it unfortunately never comes together in a narrative sense. In this way, Void Bastard’s roguelike, randomized elements are actively working against it. The goal of each “chapter” is to find three specific parts that you can use to build the item that will then get you to the next chapter. This structure resists, almost cynically, the kind of narrative world that could really fill out Void Bastards and give your trials and tribulations a sense of meaning. This overall laziness in narrative structure, and the randomized but repetitive environments you explore, make the 12-hour campaign seem much longer and duller than it should. You can keep playing even after the credits roll, but there’s little motivation other than building the few tools you might have missed, and there’s no NG+ to let you bring your better weapons and higher HP to the earlier stages. There probably isn’t a good way to combine Void Bastards’ compelling roguelike elements with a more traditional narrative direction, but the game doesn’t even try to make the payoff rewarding.
There’s ultimately a trick to truly enjoying Void Bastards: Take it in smaller doses. Unless you really love fighting the same eight or so enemies in environments that seem mostly the same for hours at a time, breaking up the monotony with shorter sessions will let you best appreciate all that Void Bastards does well. It’s a game that I wanted to binge, because so much of it is so compelling, but play for too long and you’ll realize that all the satire, humor, clever mechanics, and strategic choices are as empty and cold as the universe you’re navigating.
Between its compelling art direction, surprisingly complex strategic decisions, and inventive weaponry, there’s a lot much to love in Void Bastards. Unfortunately, its overall structure and narrative will leave you feeling empty by the end. That’s not to say you shouldn’t let yourself enjoy all that this charming, stressful game has to offer. Just don’t expect to feel totally satisfied once you escape to the right nebula.
M - Mature
|Void Bastards is available on Xbox One, PC. Primary version played was for Xbox One. Product was provided by Humble Bundle for the benefit of this coverage. EGM reviews on a scale of one to five stars.|