Review: Hardspace: Shipbreaker

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I am endlessly fascinated by the gaming phenomenon wherein the absolute drudgery of the work world is somehow turned into compelling experiences. People will pay to drive trains, power-wash walls, and even unpack boxes in their free time, all because there are developers out there who understand how to make engrossing gameplay from things we hate to do in our real lives. Hardspace: Shipbreaker is an interesting entry in this field, and not because of its sci-fi trappings. While pulling ships apart and moving up the ranks of cutters is plenty more fun than you ever thought possible, it’s the story holding your work shifts together that threatens to spoil that fun.

The LYNX Corporation is ever modern executive’s wet dream: an interstellar conglomerate that dominates the salvage industry with their EverWork technology, which makes their workers immortal. It’s perfect for those tough jobs like ripping a hot reactor out of its casing raw, and it allows LYNX to stick their employees with a billion dollars of debt to work off, all in rentals and fees for joining the EverWork program. You just so happen to be the newest mark to sign on with LYNX, faced with a lifetime of salvaging starships to pay off the debt you incurred by daring to find a job. Fortunately, you’ve got some terribly helpful (and chatty) co-workers to help you learn the ropes, navigate the perils of shipbreaking, and maybe, just maybe, improve working conditions ever so slightly.

You’re here to break ships, of course, and I’m here to tell you that breaking ships is an absolute joy. Every job drops you into a work bay orbiting the Earth, alongside some kind of craft to be reduced to its component parts. Ships contain three kinds of materials, which must be separated out and deposited in the right parts of the bay. To do that, you’re armed with a multi-purpose grappling beam and a modular cutting tool, enough to chop hulls into chunks, rip consoles and lights off the walls, and send salvage pinballing off the walls of your work bay. The game features a pretty impressive segmentation system for cutting surfaces and objects apart, though in truth you’ll usually be severing cut points and pulling pieces away, rather than blendering the entire ship. Your scanner will help you locate these key cut points, as well as valuable components, specialized ship systems, and more.

The first few ships you break will be small and simple, really just boxes with engines that you cut apart, tear out the computery bits, and feed the hull into the processors. However, as you rank up by hitting salvage goals, you’ll start getting more complicated ships with more complicated components. You’ll have to contend with reactors, fuel lines, electrical systems, coolant, and the real killer, explosive decompression. Progress through the game will echo the real-world mastery of challenging professions in a very gratifying way, as you go from sweating bullets over yanking a reactor to popping them like candy later in your career. Mistakes can be costly, though, as explosions can junk valuable components and blow large chunks of hull into tiny bits that are a pain to clean up. You’ll want to salvage every bit you can from every ship, because hitting your salvage goals will reward you with upgrade tokens for your gear, and rank increases that let you access larger, more valuable ships. Midway through the game, you’ll also get another meta-progression system tied to the story that I found especially compelling, because it added a nice scavenger-hunting element.

I guess we’d better talk about the story, now that it’s come up. Hardspace traces your career with the LYNX Corporation, starting with the crushing debt they saddle new employees with and your introduction to your fellow shipbreakers. Each salvage station is only manned by one person, so all of your interactions with others will be over the radio. They’ll be one-way conversations, too, because you happen to be a mute, agency-free protagonist. This is the crux of my problem with the story, because it obviously delves into workplace abuses and corporate culture that is more relevant than ever in the modern world. I fully support the message and themes of Hardspace: Shipbreaker, but the way they’re conveyed honestly makes the story more of an annoyance than anything.

As you work your shifts, your comrades will radio in before, during, and after to let you know how they’re doing, what they’re thinking about, and what’s going on across the company. Obviously the tone takes some turns as LYNX cracks down on its employees and some start pushing back, but you experience this all entirely passively. As talk of forming a union and taking collective action against your oppressors happens, you’re just dragged along for the ride like you’re on some Marxist Disneyland ride (as if that could ever exist!). Unions are powerful, essential drivers of worker’s rights, and the efforts to form them are some of the scariest, most challenging decisions their members ever face. But in this game, it just happens around you. There are no choices to make, no hard bargains to face, you just wake up every day and do your little salvage dance, and the world changes outside your window. It makes the whole thing feel pointless, especially because it sits in this awkward place between satire and straight commentary. The writing is too silly and outlandish for real drama, but not clever enough to match the humor found in other games like Void Bastards and Going Under.

Is the story enough to drag the game down? No, unless you’re one of these bizarre degenerates who absolutely relishes the taste of corporate boot. I found myself more and more annoyed by the dialog interludes the further I got into the game, but a big part of that was because I just wanted to get back to the shipbreaking. Also, the story does get a point for setting up a ridiculously fun final mission that I was not expecting. Really, though, you’re going to be here for the gameplay, which hits a wonderful mix of zen and stressful as you come to understand how each new ship needs to be torn down. And there are even race and free play modes for folks who want more or less stress, so as long as the concept sounds fun to you, you’ll have a way to enjoy it fully. Hardspace: Shipbreaker is a true gem with its unique and thoughtful gameplay, even if the details don’t quite live up to their promise.

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