Blue Manchu's Void Bastards was perhaps the most notable announcement coming out of Microsoft's X018 event in Mexico City, and with its striking visuals and neat gameplay concept, it's easy to see why there's interest. A cel-shaded tactical shooter that draws inspiration from the likes of System Shock 2 and Bioshock, while offering a roguelike game structure where you jump from one spacecraft to the next trying to find materials and advance deeper into space.
"Void Bastards is an immersive sim and a first-person shooter combined into one experience, so you're always balancing the strategy of your own decisions and your own goals that you come up with yourself, like 'what do I wanna do next, how am I gonna achieve it?'," art director Ben Lee told us when we caught up with him during GDC. "You're always figuring that out for yourself in this nebula that you're trapped in in the story, and the goal is to escape this nebula by building enough tools and equipment to equip yourself to devise a way out of this nebula."
One thing that's important to note with Void Bastards is that it's not really a game where you need to loot indiscriminately and amass tons of crafting materials, instead you should focus on getting the materials you need for that weapon you want to craft. Maybe you only really need one thing on a ship, sneak in and get in, perhaps even without alerting a single enemy, and you've completed your mission. What ship to board is an informed decision based on what you'll find there. That said, it supports multiple playstyles so if you're the kind of player who really wants to be thorough and go through every room on every ship you board, you can, but you really don't have to.
Since crafting weapons is a big part of your motivation here, you're best advised to first figure out what weapons and equipment you want to build and use for this particular run, then make your way to the loot you need. Or perhaps even better, figure out your tactics based on what materials are easy to get to first.
We've mentioned System Shock 2 and Bioshock already, but perhaps we should be clear that this isn't a narrative-heavy game like said "Shocks". Instead, Void Bastards is inspired by the gameplay mix those titles offer, the choices the player is afforded and the minute to minute tactical action. There are plenty of traps, alarms, and environmental dangers to consider, along with the actual enemies. The first thing we were told by the developer as we sat down to play was that pausing the game is a viable, if not necessary tactic, as it gives you a bit of breathing room and you can make sure you know how to tackle the threat in front of you, plan out what room to head to next (or escape to), or perhaps plot the quickest route to the escape hatch.
The cartoon stylings of Void Bastards drew us in immediately, and there's nice visual feedback for hits, and things like spawn points are important to pay attention to (basically it's a small portal on the floor where enemies can pop up at any point). The gunplay felt good, but more so than pumping bullets into enemies Void Bastards is all about conserving your ammunition and making use of the environment and specific tools like the Rifter (that shifts the enemy to a different dimension and you can then return them wherever you want to place them) to make sure enemies are dealt with swiftly and efficiently.
It's not just the cartoon look of Void Bastards that stands out, the name itself is fairly different and stands out in a crowd. The story of how it came to be is also the story of how the game evolved during development.
"It wasn't actually our first name," says Lee of the title. "So when we started doing the project the overall idea was very much more realistic, like Gravity or The Martian. It was kind of like a real-world desperate survival. You're a lonely miserable astronaut stuck starving to death. That was our original idea, the more we worked on the game, the more we realised that it was kind of clashing a bit with what we were trying to do and we wanted to make it more sort of richer and more fun and less dry and depressing."
"After we've made this decision to go in the more over-the-top, comic-book, cause originally it more like a serious European comic book, and then later on it was like 'you know what let's do crazy over-the-top crazy 1980s 2000AD, I want to be 2000AD that I read when I was a kid'. And once we'd made that decision it was like 'this title really doesn't work with the energy that we have with the game now'. But we still didn't have one. We had a group meeting where we all, Cara Ellison, our writer, was on the call, and Jon (Chey) and I were there talking about what we could call it. And Cara really liked the word Void, at one point she wanted to call it Void Ark Run, which is the name of the ship and it makes sense, but it's a bit cumbersome and it doesn't really explain... "
"And I was just kidding, everyone was saying Void this, Void that, and I said Void Bastards, I was actually thinking of Inglorious Basterds when I said it. And everyone just stopped, Cara started laughing and Jon went quiet, and I was probably laughing at my own joke, cause we'd been doing this for hours. We talked through it some more and Jon just went 'I don't know if we're going to come up with a better, more memorable name than that'," Lee recalled.
Where Void Bastards will sink or swim is in the variation that Blue Manchu manages to create in their spacecraft-hopping roguelike. While the room layouts, loot and enemy locations can be varied infinitely, there still needs to be that sense of discovery and wonder or it will quickly feel like a grind. It's hard to tell if the variation is there from a quick session, but it certainly seems to be in terms of the weapons and tactics you can employ.
How long is a playthrough? It really will depend on the player. Speaking to Blue Manchu's Ben Lee he offered a vague "50 ships" as a guideline, but basically, there are 5 sections to pass through in the Nebula and you have to achieve certain victory conditions to progress from each section. There is a bit of FTL: Faster Than Light to the design here when moving from ship to ship. Some players will likely farm a few extra materials to craft better equipment and take a little longer getting to the finish line, but we're likely talking about more than a handful of hours for most players, that is unless you perish and have to start over.
Void Bastards is being pushed pretty hard by Microsoft, and it will be featured day one on Xbox Game Pass, and speaking with Blue Manchu it seems that the release isn't too far off. If it's well supported with new content over time, it could well be one of those games you play every now and then when you get the itch over several years.