Void Bastards Review: Across the universe (for crime)

Void Bastards is an independent space shooter produced by Blue Manchu, a studio based right here in Aus. While it borrows liberally from numerous science fiction games, it shares a great deal of conceptual space with roguelikes in the vein of FTL. Indeed, if one were so inclined, it would be easy to view Void Bastards as a kind of companion piece to FTL.

The main thrust of each run is simple: you play a space convict, aboard a vessel called the Void Ark. You will be freed on the condition that you venture into some of the most dangerous sectors of deep space to reach derelict ships and retrieve any valuable salvage that may remain. Progress is hinged on two key resources: fuel and food. As long as you have fuel in the tank and food in your belly, your morally compromised privateer can push on to the next stricken vessel. If you run out of fuel and food, you’ll die and have to start over. The galaxy map has you jumping from ship to ship. The layout and movement pattern is where most of the game’s FTL comparisons begin. It was easy for me to imagine each derelict vessel as one of hundreds of ships I’ve lost in FTL, and now I was coming back to pick the bones.

Arriving at a vessel provides certain information: the enemies you’re likely to encounter, an estimate of their numbers, and any particularly valuable salvage you should keep an eye out for. Though there are similar vessel classes, the floorplan of each one is randomly generated. Broadly, the goal is to sweep through each ship and grab what you can before your oxygen runs out. If you run out of air, you’ll die and have to start over. I found a strong loop of heading directly to the bridge and downloading map data, revealing the choicest available loot (and, often, somewhere I could refill my O2).

Every now and again, however, you’ll find yourself with a problem to solve before you can commence looting — for instance, the ship might be without power when you arrive meaning you’ll have to tromp around in the dark for a bit to find the generator room/intergalactic fusebox. You have to be careful about flipping that switch though — powering up the ship may bring dormant security systems back to life and create a new set of problems. Hacking computers and droids to keep security systems from tearing you apart comes with an economy of its own to manage. As you progress, the ships grow in complexity and the strategies you’ll need to develop to survive will evolve in kind. I regularly found myself wondering if anyone had ever gone to so much trouble to get away with petty burglary.

Anyway, successful runs net you resources that can be used to craft new equipment and weapons as well as spacesuit upgrades for larger health and O2 pools. The more you have, the greater the increase to your overall survivability and the longer you can stretch out each run. Where it diverges from the roguelike trend is that death isn’t the end of the line. The death of your current prisoner means taking over a new one, salvaging whatever your last one dropped and resuming the mission from there.

The interior of each ship recalls the look of games like Duke Nukem 3D, or anything created in the Build engine really. Textures are flat but colourful. Enemy sprites appear and move in three-dimensional space but are rendered on a 2D-plane. It’s all crafted in the style of four-colour comic books, a nostalgic tweak that helps allay the nerve-shredding fear of the void beyond. Still, the art design and the level generator work together to make these spaces feel quite claustrophobic and industrial without needing to go into hardcore Ridley Scott Alien mode to convey it. This is the part of the game where its most possible to feel the hand of Blue Manchu studio head Jon Chey.

Chey is a co-founder of Irrational Games and was at the company during work on titles like System Shock 2 and later BioShock 1 and 2, and the influence of these titles can be felt throughout Void Bastards‘ design. Despite looking a bit like Duke, these are not levels you can simply blow through. Taking a run-and-gun approach will get you killed every time. Careful room-by-room sweeps (with one eye on your oxygen) are the order of the day.

All told, Void Bastards is a bloody good time. It’s got a lot that it wants to do — it wants to make you laugh but it also wants to challenge you, stress you out. It wants to lull you into a false sense of comfort before reminding you that there’s little between you and the black but your wits and will to survive. Fabulous stuff from a local studio to watch.

FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Highlights: Strong design; Huge personality; Australian content!
Lowlights: Random level generator does start to show its weaknesses after a few hours
Developer: Blue Manchu
Publisher: Humble Bundle
Platforms: Xbox One, Windows PC, Mac OS X
Available: Now

Review conducted using an Xbox Game Pass subscription paid for by the writer.

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David Smith

David Smith is the games and technology editor at The AU Review. He has previously worked as a freelance games journalist and critic, appearing on PC World Australia. He tweets at @RhunWords and plays the odd game at twitch.tv/RhunWords when the internet works.