Void Bastards is a first-person science fiction shooter set in the Sargasso Nebula; a messed up corner of space that mutates those trapped within. As successive hapless, reconstituted clients (read: prisoners) you have to hop from ship to ship, scavenging for food, fuel, parts, and ammunition, all the while avoiding radioactivity, automated sentries, and a bevvy of angry mutants. Void Bastards has plenty of random elements all colliding together, and it's up to the player to carve out a small strip of order to get to the end. Feels a lot like writing conflicted game reviews.
The first thing most notice about a game is how it looks and Void Bastards is beautiful. Comparisons to Borderlands feel unfair because Void Bastards' lines are clean; the cartoony halls of the spaceships you plunder are crisp even when you're stepping over toxic spills, trash, and the glowing splatter of mutant entrails. Characters (well, hostiles) are sprites, not 3D models, and it works great, allowing for clear detail that you can't always get with polygons. The threadbare story is told as a literal pulpy comic book in the same art style, whether setting up the story, telling you that you have to get more stuff, or in the navigation and crafting menus in between raids. There's also a clever, comic book-style way to know what might be in the next room because many sounds are verbalised in floating text, and we wish this was used for all the sound effects in the game as it made for an interesting way to experience audio cues.
Each ship is a network of modules, with different classes containing different modules. Various corporations organise the modules in different ways, with randomised hazards (oil spills, radiation, fires, smoke), defence turrets, security cameras that activate roving robots, and mutant enemies and the condition they're in. Naturally, there's also loot hidden in powered containers (if the ship is unpowered you'll have to find the generator room and switch things on), with loose items scattered about, sparkling like vampires.
Player characters have a bit of random too; each time you die you get a small "care package" of randomised ammunition that applies to whatever weapons you have as well as other things you've unlocked, and the characters themselves have positive or negative traits that affect how you'll play, from stature changes and map assists to tunnel vision and the compulsion to shout "yahoo!" every time you pick up an item. On gene therapy ships these traits can be adjusted or eliminated; on medical ships you can heal (which otherwise only happens when you eat in between raids); on luxury liners there is plenty of food; on ships with helms you can get a map of all items in containers, including "parts" which are needed to build upgrades and plot-relevant items; and ships with engines will have fuel. There are plenty of ship modules to figure out, and the game does a good job of giving you a growing awareness of these systems and what you're going to find, and what to ransack before you're blasted to death or your oxygen runs out. It's important to emphasise just how novel it is to have a randomised game still have discrete logical places to find things, which makes map strategies one of the game's strengths.
As you build more equipment you'll get a gun that captures and teleports creatures, silent radiation guns that spread debilitating poisonous molecules between targets, robotic decoy kittens that explode when they expire, and an arm-mounted deflection shield, among others. The weapon variety is quite nice, and the need to hunt for certain modules to increase the chance for needed types of ammunition or materials helps you to feel clever when planning where to go next. Not all of the weapons feel equally useful, though, and some enemies necessitate so specific a set of tactics that a long string of ship visits may leave some weapons unused and ammo supplies for others exhausted.
When your character dies, because you only get a smattering of ammunition, you may not be equipped to handle what is nearby, while the farther you go the more likely you'll run out of fuel and drift, requiring a lot of food to avoid losing health between points. Either that or you'll run out of food looking for a place to raid, or, having found a place to raid for the right ammunition, you may get run off before you find any because the enemies are set up in a way that makes it a deadly situation. If you die, the task of stockpiling ammunition (and fuel, and food) will start anew.
One thing you do retain from character to character are parts, upgrades, and crafting materials, with the latter used to make new weapons, new gear, and give you other advantages. Parts can be immediately assembled, and if you lack the parts, you can gather enough basic elements together and fabricate what you need. If you have too many parts that won't make anything (and this begins to happen quite a bit), you can also break them down for a fraction of their components. In the midgame the crafting is fun, giving you objectives you can set for yourself so you can choose to raid certain ships to better your chances of nabbing the stuff you need. A lot of the game is navigating the nebula, balancing fuel, food, ammunition, and components. The midgame, once you get a handle on systems, is a blast to experience. But it's the crest of a wave that crashes far too soon.
Early game is a lot of death, figuring out the game's tendencies, what enemies do, learning when to give up, when to accept death, when to use stealth, how to best use different weapons loadouts, and when to risk running in and blasting everything. Once you're past that you've made quite a few bits of equipment and are getting on top of things, discovering new branches in the development tree, learning more about what sorts of ships are best for what sorts of needs, accumulating currency, and avoiding spaceborne hazards. Depending on how frequently you've pursued the game's insistent quests, however, you may have already ended the game. If not, if you're like us and wanted to complete a good section of gear before tackling the end bit, you've sort of reached what felt to be the peak experience. You reach a culmination point and then you either can fill out the tech tree, or do a few more plot quests and the game suddenly ends. It's a bit of a bell curve, with the middle feeling freest when you're still running into novel ship conditions and configurations, new character traits, and different weapons. But with the novelty expended, the game runs out of oxygen. We grew tired of some of the enemies (there are ten or so, with harder versions of early enemies the farther into the nebula you go), all of the upgrades we bypassed to get to the ones we wanted were the only concrete goals remaining that weren't plot related or about basic survival, and the plot itself strings you along with a few vignettes of somewhat familiar bureaucratic-hell humour, then looses the guillotine.
It's rare to see a game's estimated play time actually match up well with one's experience, but their 12-15 estimate is fairly on target. If all this still sounds cool and you want to try, we recommend you set the difficulty to just harder than is comfortable and stick with that, as it will prolong what is probably the best part of the game. Once you've seen most of the elements that go into ship generation, ships begin to feel too similar, and gathering supplies is a chore, especially when you've lost a long-lived character. Whether more variety in a game that already has a fair bit would have helped is hard to say, since that tapering off of both novelty and self-assigned goals would still occur.
There's also the feel of combat, which for an FPS is an important facet. While responsive enough, you don't feel quite as limber as you would in an older shooter, nor as finely tunable as you would in a more modern one. You don't have iron sighted aim, relying instead on reticules, and you can sometimes bump into scenery or fumble with a door switch long enough to get shot full of holes (the latter feels justified if sometimes frustrating, but the former sometimes feels like you're wrestling with the game itself). What's more, you have no melee option, so once you run out of ammo you can only watch helplessly as characters swarm around you and hope that you can run away in time. While they can make combat less than satisfying at times, none of these issues are deal breakers, but given how particular FPS expectations can be they're worth mentioning.
We enjoyed some of our time with Void Bastards, but not all of it. On the cusp of finishing the game you may look at the array of derelicts, supply drops, space whales, and pirate ships and find it hard to want to keep playing. The game benefits from short bursts of play rather than a marathon. If you can take a step back, then take in the sights, get into some scrapes, and then set it aside it might be a better balance, but eventually, you'll feel the game taper off before it boots you out the airlock. Taken for what it is, Void Bastards does many things better than similar games do and has accomplishments we hope will inform future designs. Yet we can't escape the feeling that the exuberance it encourages comes at a price; push its novelty too hard, and it will break.
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