Void Bastards has been quite the ride. There are not a lot of games out there that grab me and get me into that “just one more round” mindset; I’m generally a story-driven gamer. Void Bastards did just that, and the two times I streamed Void Bastards during this review process, both times, I looked up at the clock to see, “Oh, it’s midnight, I should probably wrap this up…okay, but let me do one more run…”
That really should end my Void Bastards review right there, but obviously, it’s a tad light on the objective details, so let’s start to unpack it here, shall we?
So, the crazy people over at Blue Manchu Games, who you may have heard are some of the ex-developers over from Irrational Games, the people who created System Shock and then Bioshock. These guys know their way around games. Their first at-bat from 2014 was Card Hunter, a play off of the collectible card/turn-based strategy game which did fairly well for itself, but their sophomore effort with Void Bastard is a real charmer.
It’s important to go into the history of the studio behind Void Bastards because it makes sense based on the games that Blue Manchu (as Irrational) had ties to. Void Bastards is a first-person shooter that feels like a throwback to both the late-90s (System Shock), with a taste of cell shaded graphics from both Borderlands and XIII (there’s a deep cut for you).
The game’s story is told through an interspersed series of comic book style fixed-image cutscenes, with you simply hitting the space bar to advance to the next panel. While the gameplay is fluid and moves quickly, the enemies have a surprisingly few numbers of frames of animation. It’s almost laughable, giving gaming’s fight for “tightening up the graphics on level 3” (insert link), it’s funny to see these hand-drawn enemies floating around as almost one or two pictures, their attack animation as a separate picture…and that’s it. You’re almost fighting pictures of enemies. Look, it’s weird, but it works.
So what is the story behind Void Bastards? You start as a packet of dehydrated powder.
Yes. In the future, inmates of intergalactic penitentiaries run by corporations are dehydrated into packets of powder for storage capabilities. And you are one of these criminals. Turns out your prison ship, the Void Ark, has drifted into the Sargasso Nebula, a wasteland of ships that have been overrun by ghostly murderous apparitions. You, dear prisoner, have been randomly chosen by the Void Ark’s AI, BACS, to scavenge the necessary parts from surrounding vessels to restart the Void Ark and fly it to safety. However, starting the ship isn’t the easiest of tasks, and the prison ship isn’t exactly built to have any random prisoner fly it, so you are sent on a variety of scavenging missions to get all the parts you need to get the authorization to start the engines and get the hell out of there.
If the premise sounds a smidge silly, this is par for the course. Void Bastards firmly has its tongue planted firmly in its cheek, and bureaucratic silliness is on the menu. Strangely, many of the jokes around the game are based in paperwork and office cubicle shenanigans, whether many of your weapons being repurposed office supplies or even the ghosts of the Sargasso seem caught up in it. The “Scribe” style ghost enemy floats around, yelling about you being late for your “interview” and how he doesn’t appreciate Barbara (obviously from some office HR somewhere) and her sense of humor. The “Zec” style school teacher ghost floats around and chides you for being in unauthorized areas…before firing explosive bolts at you from behind a front-facing shield. When security robots are dispatched to find and murder you, the voice on the loudspeaker is sure to remind you that they are on their way to “end your life shortly” and to not mind the inconvenience.
As you progress, scavenging dismembered organs and discarded “foons” (in this offshoot universe, sporks are instead called foons…think about it), your weapons and inventory tree grows, as well as your ability to handcraft quest items you need. However, death is inevitable, whether your ship getting eaten whole by a void whale (it happened), you getting murdered by ravaging space pirates, or the “citizens” (the ghosts on the derelicts are called citizens) stomp you flat, life is not precious, and the Void Ark AI BACS is quick to take another dehydrated packet of prisoner and push you back out to find the necessary pieces to continue. However, death does mean you do lose everything that you hadn’t made back to the ship with during that run, while items you exit with are transferred safely to the Ark, and carry over to future runs.
Each prisoner has their own positive or negative traits, and there are no guarantees that you will get anything good. Sometimes, you get a good roll and are able to run faster, shoot better, get more loot, while other times, you have a nasty cough that enemies can hear, making it harder to sneak around, or you are more susceptible to forgetting which items you want to take with you on a mission and take a different loadout (this one was particularly annoying). Fortunately, as you would in Bioshock, there are machines on various crafts that allow you to reallocate traits to add positive ones or remove negative ones if they’re bad enough.
When you’re not shooting or building, you’re staring intently at Void Bastard’s map and plotting a course for where you’re going next. Unlike the game FTL, you have the scan all the ships ahead of you, detect what kind of enemies are on board, what kind of loot to expect, and what kind of positive/negative traits will happen if you choose it. The traits, much like your own traits, are wildly different. Sometimes, there will be no enemies on board a ship, but instead, have generators which will start spitting out enemies at a rate a minute into your search. Other times, all the power will cut on and off, meaning you have to go over to the engine room and turn the engines on again, only to have them turn off when you’re trying to open a locked door. It could be increased hazards on the floor like fires, loose electrical wires, or leaking radiation, or my personal favorite, one class of enemy is actually fighting on your side. But there’s no going back, so once you progress forward on the star map, the ships that you did not choose are grayed out and you can only progress forward, hoping your food and fuel last before your next scavenging run.
Oxygen becomes an issue with Void Bastards as well, and the deeper in the Sargasso nebula you go, not only do the citizens get harder to deal with, but your oxygen levels deplete much more quickly. As you start getting into end game, you never truly feel comfortable going onto your next ship, no matter how much gear you have, because you always have that oppressive oxygen meter meaning you can’t just hang out and hunt for loot. While you can wipe a ship of enemy forces, there are generators that will slowly pump them out over time, so you never really are cleared of a map to allow you to loot to your heart’s desire. I was always short of my favorite weapon’s ammo, and always short on oxygen, so the number of times I would sprint past enemies shooting at me, just to get to the door, turn around and close and lock it behind me got higher and higher as Void Bastard became more…bastard-y.
The only problem is Void Bastard’s premise starts to get stale towards the end. BACS, the Void Ark AI, continues to send you out to find three McGuffins each time, and each time you come back after a dozen or so trips into space with the three critical parts, only to be told that you now need three more parts. You then go back out, do another dozen or so ships…and then it sends you back out to do it again. You apparently do that five or six times over the course of its 12-15 hours of gameplay, and then that’s the end of the game. It gets a little stale having to do the same thing over and over again, no matter how good the basic loop is. There are no real boss fights (that I’ve seen, I haven’t finished it) outside of the occasional “boss citizen” on a ship, that can be avoided for the most part.
The even stranger part is while Void Bastards will tell you where it has detected one of the three critical parts you need to progress (usually in deeper and harder Nebula space), you technically can skim in easier parts of the Nebula, gather materials, and make absolutely everything BACS is sending you out for in the first place. Sure, BACS might need a spiked baseball bat, a dot matrix printer, and a spotlight to create a major quest item…or you could literally move in simple areas of space, farm 100 bio parts, and 100 plastic parts and craft a dot matrix printer with never having ventured into deep Nebula space.
While I appreciate the choice, and it made life far, far easier for me, who was playing on Hard (mistake, don’t do this), it also meant I really didn’t need to grind out a bunch of gear to take on the harder areas. Which is a weird choice, because Void Bastards truly shines when you’re out of ammo, sprinting through enemy intersecting fields of fire, with a security robot hot on your trail, running out of oxygen, but you know that critical piece of gear you need has to be in one of these three areas…
Overall, Void Bastards is a hell of a clever romp. On top of it being on sale over on Humble Bundle, it’s also available over on Xbox Live Game Pass for free. If you have Game Pass, you have no excuse not to load this one up and drink deep from its well of ship scavenging goodness.