Review: Void Bastards
Barring any huge missteps, games that center on collecting loot will always do well. We have some kind of lizard-brain attraction to gathering junk, whether it be festively-colored weapons or health kits to mash into our faces or literal junk to craft slightly more useful junk from. Void Bastards takes inspiration from a very specific and very gratifying sort of looting, that of System Shock 2 and similar 0451 games. Building a roguelike gameplay loop around this technical, thoughtful scrounging of bullets and tubing is honestly nothing short of genius, and framing it with incredible comic book visuals and intensely British humor cements it as a game that can hook you hard.
The Void Ark is a massive private prison ship, currently set adrift in the Sargasso Nebula. Its A.I. caretakers can hardly leave it in this state, but with no living crew and no FTL drive, there’s not much they can do on the software side. What they can do is re-hydrate the frozen pris-er, clients one at a time, outfit them with weapons and sustenance, and eject them from the ship until they bring back the components needed to get it up to code again. The Sargasso is an utter wasteland of derelicts stuffed with useful tools and garbage, so you’ll have your pick of hulks to loot. Just watch out for their ravenous mutated crew, their merciless security systems, ruthless salvage pirates, and the occasional massive starship-devouring space whales.
Void Bastards works off a simple combination of premises, when you boil it down. The strategic level has you navigating your pod through the maze of drifting hulks in an always-forward-never-back progression. This means you need to hit the right nodes to line up with the ships containing the parts you want, with an eye on your food and fuel to make sure you don’t run out of either if you’re skipping past nodes. There’s a mess of ship types, each with a set layout and predominant loot types but with randomized loot locations, enemies, and modifiers like locked doors, power off, or everything on fire.
Once you’ve set your heart on a hulk to pillage, you get dropped off at the airlock for some good ol’ fashioned skulking and snatching. Everything you have in Void Bastards is either scavenged from ships or kitbashed together from junk you steal. In addition to ammo and merits (currency used to buy from stores or authorize access to systems), there are two kinds of salvage. The basic kind recycles down to five crafting materials that can be used to craft the more advanced kind, which are usually found one per ship and are the main objective of your ingresses. There’s close to a hundred of these, from metal pipes and nozzles to bodily fluids and power drills, and they’re used to make your weapons, gear, and story items that get you ever closer to escaping the nebula.
So your primary concern is getting junk to make better gear, and you’ll need to dodge all kinds of threats to do it. The folks that got left in the nebula are a bit of a mess now, mutated into bloated, blue-skinned Brits that hurl insults at you along with plasma bursts. You’ll contend with exploding tourists, vanishing spooks, and nigh-unstoppable screws, and to even the odds you’ll have an assortment of guns, explosives, debilitators, and passive buffs from the gear you craft. There’s also plenty of opportunity for stealth, locking foes behind doors, overriding security to work for you, and using environmental hazards to your advantage. But you’ve got a limited oxygen supply on each ship, and if there are any rifts then enemies will keep pouring in, so whatever you do might need to be done in a hurry.
All of these factors combine to produce a game where new challenges and surprises wait within every ship you come across. Those challenges also grow more creative and more deadly as you descend further into the nebula in search of rarer parts. As a roguelike death is ever-present, though if you’re well-equipped for your depth you can get pretty comfortable ransacking ships. Dying forces you into a new client, losing all your ammo, merits, food, and fuel, but retaining all your crafted items and crafting materials. It’s a good compromise, forcing you to rebuild your tactical supplies without harming your overall progression, and if you want to put that on the chopping block there is of course an ironman mode. There are quite a few ways to increase the challenge, including difficulty levels and conduct restrictions like no crafting or no guns.
As good as the looting and risk management is, it’s the presentation that steals the show. The comic book aesthetic is near flawless, with colorful, cel-shaded characters and surfaces in the ships and wonderfully stylized 2D art in the menus. One fantastic touch is that important sounds like footsteps and muttering is represented visually, with comic book text appearing near the doors where the sound originated. The sound design overall is top-notch, with rich effects and some nice moody tracks for planning and combat. Plus, it has the Stanley Parable narrator to snark at you about following regulations in the most delightfully British way possible. Really it’s just an incredibly complete package built around an incredibly engrossing gameplay loop, and that’s more than enough to make it one of my favorite FPS roguelikes around.