Review – Void Bastards
Back in the days when FTL first came out, I remember getting lost within its novel take on space exploration. The rogue-lite elements combined with random encounters and its addictive “one more go” game play loop left me obsessed for weeks. I was enamored by how expansive it felt and its nearly infinite replayability. The brilliant combination of survival and exploration was too enthralling to put down. But one thing that FTL could never give me was the feeling of invading enemy ships myself. Sure, I could send my pixel crew to wreak havoc on some unsuspecting vessels in my stead; but I would just sit on the sidelines admiring from afar like the pompous and zealous captain I was; cheering my team to victory while I sat comfortably at the sound of Wilhelm Screams coming through my intergalactic speakers. I was envious of those mantis aliens shredding my ship to pieces and destroying my best laid plans. Why do they get to have the most fun? For the longest time I thought I was alone with my space pillaging fantasy.
Seven years later enters Blue Manchu, the creators of the cult classic Card Hunters, and unbeknownst to them, they create one of my dream games. Void Bastards is unlike any first person shooter you’ve played. It’s a combination of space exploration, roguelite, crafting, and pushing your luck all to the styling of your favorite graphic novel. If this sounds like an early commendation, that’s because it is. This is easily one of my favorite games in the genre. Hard stop. If you’ve been curious about this game and have a feeling you’d dig it, do yourself a favor, stop reading this and go out and buy it right now.
If anyone is still here (no idea why that would be), I now have a singular mission: do my best to capture what this game brings to our wonderful hobby and, hopefully, recruit another client into the fray. Now, sit down, strap in and let me take you on an interstellar spaceship ride.
Void Bastards is a first-person roguelite shooter focused on exploration and adaptation. You are part of a motley crew of prisoners stranded in the Sargasso Nebula, seemingly condemned to live out your sentence aimlessly drifting through space. Your mission is to get back to the SOM Mothership by fixing your ship’s FTL drive by scavenging derelict vessels in the surrounding area. However, nothing is ever that straightforward. You’re a prisoner, you don’t have the permissions or necessary documentation to get these repairs underway. But not to worry, the helpful A.I., B.A.C.S., is there to help you navigate the hot pink tape and guide you through the bureaucracy. Sounds simple enough, right?
Although the premise of the game might sound restrictive, its execution is anything but. Like its main inspiration FTL, Void Bastards is all about freedom of choice and accepting the consequences of your decisions. You are thrown headfirst into the thralls of a deceptively treacherous space map. From here you are able to choose where to go and if you’d like to dock there. This decision is not one to make lightly since each ship you explore can either extend your run or end it prematurely. However, you’re always given some information about the ship your considering, either what materials are on it or what dangers lurk inside. Sometimes you may not even have a choice. Every time you jump to a new ship you spend valuable resources. If you run out of these you’ll either die of starvation or lose control of your ship. It’s like you’re juggling incredibly sharp knives that may cut you to pieces at any moment, but it all feels surprisingly manageable. Which is where Void Bastards main hook lies. The game invites you to plan as much as possible and witness your strategy crumble in cel-shaded glory. It never feels as you’re being stepped on for taking a calculated risk. On the contrary, you are continuously rewarded throughout. You may not leave a ship alive, but you may help the next prisoner that comes after you.
Roguelites are all about repetition. You push as much as you can to make it somewhere new and learn what hides in the depths regardless of your survival. What keeps things fresh is the procedurally generated levels and your ever changing character. That’s not necessarily different in Void Bastards; heck, it’s expected in the genre. With that being said, the way these seemingly different pieces were designed and how they fit together in this game is nothing short of brilliant.
As mentioned before you’re a prisoner, and every time you die…you die. Your character doesn’t come back, but your gear does. This means that the next prisoner that follows your bloody footsteps, is that much more prepared for the dangers you encountered. This prisoner isn’t just different in name, but in their abilities, their features, and their quirks. Your first character may have been a kleptomaniac grabbing everything around him without you needing to press any buttons, but the next character you control might have butterfingers and drops things you’ve worked so hard to collect. These stark differences make every run feel wonderfully unique. On top of that, some of these traits even have broader game implications like being able to open doors automatically or by having bad lungs alerting enemies of your presence at random intervals. It feels like your characters are alive, and you’re just a spectator in their unfortunate reanimated lives.
However, they all have a common aspiration: to help whoever comes after me. Most of the items and materials you collect are used for fabricating new equipment and items to help you. These crafted tools are not just available for your current character, but for all those that succeed him/her. This steady progression grounds the experience and gives the players purpose to push as much as they can. That’s not to say that losing is inconsequential. Every time your current prisoner perishes so does all your progress on the space map. Trust me when I say, that being one jump away from the last material you needed to start the next chapter and dying due to a bad decision, is woeful.
Starting from the beginning of the chapter isn’t the end of the world thanks to the fantastic world building and beautifully rendered spaces you get to discover all over again. Each ship you’ll explore will be made out of a series of randomly put together rooms in almost infinite combinations. You may visit the same class ship multiple times in a run, but they might not have the same layouts or rooms between them. On the other hand, it’s unfortunate that the ships you’ll be visiting again and again don’t have the same uniqueness that your characters do. After a dozen or more runs you’ll begin to see rooms that feel vaguely familiar. There’s differences here and there, but they aren’t impactful enough for me to feel I’m in a completely new and personalized ship. Some of the room layouts feel recycled from other ships I visited early on, breaking the illusion of randomization.
Conversely, this does give the game a certain strategic factor. When going into a new ship you’re able to identify what areas may have what you’re looking for. Need food? Go to the cafeteria or the banquet hall. How about fuel and supplies? Take a quick stroll to the engine room and the FTL. This familiarity helps players create and plan routes before stepping into the ship. The repetition of some of the room layouts are definitely noticeable after extended playthroughs, but they do not at all hamper the experience. Especially when veteran players begin to associate each type of room for a use and not for its visual qualities. This is all further incentivized by taking a look at the map that always shows players where each room is and how to get to it. But making it there is a whole different story.
Naturally, these ships are not completely abandoned. Many of them are inhabited by a series of nasty enemies that will push you to adapt on the fly. There’s a good amount of variety and you’ll have to practice how to deal with them. They all have completely different behaviors and powers, some may fight you head on while others may shoot and run for the hills. The wide range of enemies felt refreshing and always kept me on my toes never knowing what to expect when encountering a new foe.
For that reason, you’re given options to face these new threats. The way that ships are constructed give players a lot of options on how to approach each encounter. You can decide to face them head on or sneak your way around them. Depending on the traits you have and what you do, enemies may or may not know you were ever there. It all depends on your decisions and how you prepared before boarding. Every tool, gadget, and upgrade you craft will become essential for your survival the deeper into the nebula you go. Enemies become increasingly difficult and certain pairings are downright deadly. As a result, planning and strategic crafting is quintessential in progressing in the game.
The tools and upgrades you’ll be able to craft fall generally into three categories: weapons, character upgrades, or interactive gadgets. Each play a critical role and it’s up to you to decide when you need something. Some materials are very difficult to come by and a lot of the options you’ll have to craft require that same piece. You have to make choices that reflect your play style and that will help you push even further. Although there isn’t a terribly expansive list of craftable items, I always felt I had something to look forward to. Moreover, this crafting tree is one of the main incentives in Void Bastards. The creativity and options that each of the weapons and upgrades bring adds so much to that basic loop of: explore, fight, and gather. Just when you think you’ve mastered a particular weapon, an upgrade or a new option becomes available making it feel fresh all over again. It’s safe to say you’ll have plenty to experiment with during the 15-20 hours the main campaign offers.
If I have one gripe about the game, is the lack of some of the single player staples a lot of players have come to expect. For one, there is no option to aim down the sights. This can become a problem when precision is so important in a room filled with multiple mobs. There were times where I had immense difficulty aiming and groaned in frustration where I missed a shot that cost me a great run. This is slightly improved when playing with mouse and keyboard, but in general the aiming felt a bit imprecise. Also, there’s no punching. If there’s an enemy that honestly doesn’t require valuable resources to take down, players don’t have any other options than to shoot. I understand that this is likely due to the emphasis on resource management, but I felt that adding that ability wouldn’t have hampered the gameplay in anyway and would made a lot of encounters that much more enjoyable.
With that being said, I can’t end this review without speaking to the incredible artwork and fantastic sound design that are put into this. The art style is so visually impressive, that you’ll likely stop to admire all the small details and try to figure out how in the world Blue Manchu made a comic book come to life. The dichotomy of 2D enemies and 3D cel-shaded environments is surprisingly non-existent. It gives the game a totally unique style that I personally have never seen before. The way that characters turn and move feel almost like pieces of paper, but it just works so well. Everything from the comic panel sequences to charging down a corridor with speed lines flashing on the screen makes Void Bastards feel special. In addition, the voice over, humor, and sound effects pair perfectly with the games crisp visuals. The reverberation of walking down a small hallway or the shuffling of enemies behind a door adds a lot to the atmosphere. The music, although not transcendent, is also well done. I’m not sure if Void Bastards will win any awards for its art direction, but god knows this game shouldn’t have been made any other way.
They say no one can hear you scream in space, but Blue Manchu definitely heard me. Void Bastards made me experience what it was like being those small pixel crews I sent unwittingly into harm’s way in FTL. What I wasn’t expecting was the excellent combination of genres being interwoven so expertly. Void Bastards keeps the same intrigue and replayability that FTL brought to the scene back in 2012, but adds its own ideas and flavors putting it into a category of its own making. Comparisons will probably be made eternally between both games, but rest assured that Void Bastards is an experience that you’ve never seen before. It’s no wonder that the same minds behind System Shock 2 and Bioshock are responsible of one of my favorite games of 2019. Hell, probably of all time. My mission here is done. If I’ve not convinced you that this game is something you should be playing right now, I just hope that the reviewer that comes after me does.
You’d be hard-pressed to find another game that tried to merge such different art styles together and managed to get away with it perfectly. Void Bastards is a beautifully weird game.
Tense, frantic, and downright bizarre. Void Bastards is everything I hope to see from indie developers. Combining the exploration centric approach of FTL with simple yet rewarding first-player shooting.
Eerie yet crunchy space tunes accompany you into every ship. The ambiance is spectacular with well acted voice-overs and stellar weapon and environment sounds.
Void Bastards is downright addicting. I dreaded getting to the end because it meant…it would be over. I had a blast with this title. Now, if I can only forget about it all to play it all over again…
Final Verdict: 10
Void Bastards is available now on PC and Xbox One.
Reviewed on PC.
A copy of Void Bastards was provided by the publisher.