Jonathan Chey, one of the brilliant minds responsible System Shock 2, is behind Void Bastards. That’s a huge deal for many people, myself included. Someone with that sort of development mind created a first-person shooter roguelike? Count me in!
Even without a name like Jonathan Chey behind this project, just looking at the game in screenshots or video sells it 100%. I first saw Void Bastards courtesy of some retweeted video that instantly caught my intention. But names and visuals only go so far, the game is going to have to actually play well in order to make an impression.
Void Bastards (PC)
Developer: Blue Manchu
Publisher: Humble Bundle
Released: May 28, 2019
Void Bastards puts players in a random space-prisoners’ shoes as they go in search of a series of parts in order to rebuild a broken FTL (faster than light) drive for a spaceship. That’s about the extent of the plot — as one completes objectives they’ll learn that something else is still missing and it’s time to venture out and get it. The System Shock comparison falls flat for me because while some of the “feel” is there, the complete lack of engrossing plot places Void Bastards in the “wishes it was System Shock” category. While some details in the world help create a sense that this is an established universe, there is nothing concrete that really draws anyone into any sort of lore.
The game melds together three distinct elements: traversing a star map, exploring ships, and crafting items. The loop involves moving from ship to ship via the star map all while inching towards that new item needed for the main plot to move forward. In doing so, they explore the ships, looting items and killing enemies. When returning, the items looted can often be turned into new guns, armor, or accessories. It’s a solid enough loop but can start to feel tired rather quickly.
A large contributing factor is the sameness given to many of the ships. It becomes very clear early on that the ships are randomly combining rooms into a layout. New rooms are occasionally added into the pool, but so much of every ship feels the same that it does little to temper the familiarity with each ship. There are random modifiers added to most levels, which helps make them feel a little more unique. There are positive and negative modifiers, and any level can have any mixture of them.
The atmosphere on the levels is top-notch, however. The music, combined with the visual style and small details, makes each level a joy to explore. Again, it’s impossible to shake a sense of deja vu, and this definitely ain’t no System Shock level of care and attention, but it’s dang impressive — especially for a game in the roguelike genre.
As one continues to explore the star map, more dangerous enemies begin to spawn within the ships. A handful of these enemies have interesting designs that change the way one must approach, though some do so by causing frustration. The enemies within a ship are displayed beforehand, allowing people to bring the appropriate weapons into the mission. That being said, guns all use separate ammunition so there may be times that preferred weapons are unusable due to a lack of resources.
There are other resources to manage, too. Each movement on the star map takes food and fuel, both of which can be found in missions and other various locations. Food can also be consumed on the star map to recover health (without moving). The game essentially forces us to constantly be salvaging as much as possible on each mission in order to continue.
Other junk is used to create new weapons and gadgets: and up to three different types of weapons to take into each mission. The typical pistol and shotgun are represented, but there are unique and interesting designs as well. For example, there is one device that instantly makes an enemy disappear, and firing it again will place the enemy back on the level where the avatar is pointing. I’ve used this to take away a HUGE threat on a level and then plopped them right into some fire. Booya.
There are actually a good amount of interesting interactions that one has access to. A simple example would be to throw the proximity mine and then shoot it to kill stationary turrets. Another might be to lure enemies on top of exposed wires before blowing their face off entirely. As the player gets deeper in the depth, more environmental hazards are added and there are often more opportunities for creativity.
After death, a new prisoner is provided with new traits. This new prisoner starts further back (but not at the very beginning) on the star map. This feels particularly punishing after gathering a lot of food or fuel and it can feel a bit disheartening to have to acquire a lot of those materials again. Luckily, most of the important stuff that goes towards making new weapons and gear is kept, ensuring there is always a sense of progression.
On top of all this is the excellently crafted visual style. I can’t say enough how good this game looks. It is essentially a comic book come to life. The animations are not smooth, but instead go from one major frame to another. The textures are flat and the colors pop. Void Bastards is easily one of the best looking games I have ever played.
Void Bastards is interesting because it never gave me the “one more run” feeling. This isn’t an addictive roguelike in the same vein as Spelunky or Rogue Legacy. Sometimes I truly felt like I needed a break due to a frustrating combination of events and had basically zero interest in “resetting.” In general, there isn’t a lot of unique elements in any individual run that normally keep the player’s interest. While each survivor has specific traits, it is not very common that more get added.
In general, I’m not sure what the driving factor is supposed to be at any given time. I suppose unlocking new weapons or upgrading them is a major draw, but I never felt the same drive and interest in any given run. The plot is literally just “oh we need this fixed now, please get it” so that’s not pushing anyone’s interest.
Void Bastards is a good game. It plays just fine and looks amazing, but it lacks some of the “hooks” that many roguelikes drive in. It has great atmosphere, but doesn’t do much to really encourage those who are experiencing it to soak it all in. The visual style is some absolute magic, but that sense of amazement does not translate into gameplay.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game purchased by the reviewer.]