Game review: Void Bastards is a sci-fi comic book brought to life

The director of System Shock 2 turns his hand to a considerably less serious deep space adventure in this compelling strategy shooter.

Considering neither game was much of a financial success it is astounding how much influence the two System Shock titles have had on gaming, directly inspiring everything from BioShock to the Prey reboot and writing the book on what are today called immersive sims. We wish they weren’t called that though, because it’s a stupid name (what’s a non-immersive sim?). Unlike Void Bastards, which is an amazing name. And not at all the sort of thing we’d expect from the director of System Shock 2.

Void Bastards does have some small similarities with System Shock, in that it’s a first person shooter set in space, but while there’s certainly an important strategic element to the gameplay it’s not an action role-player. There’s also very little story and the shooting is surprisingly simplistic, some would say archaic. It’s also a roguelike, except one that’s surprisingly generous about the punishments for failure. And then there’s the graphics, which feature 2D sprites for enemies and the best use of cel-shaded graphics since Zelda: The Wind Waker.

It’s a heady mix, that’s certainly not going to appeal to everyone, but the whole experience reminded us of something from the Amiga era, with a clumsy but ambitious combination of ideas and a very British sense of humour (even though the developers are mostly Aussies). 2000 AD is also a clear influence in terms of the tone and artwork, as you battle your way through a gas nebula full of Scottish space pirates and Scouse juvenile delinquents.

What little backstory the game has is also very 2000 AD, with a smattering of Brazil style bureaucracy and callousness. You play as a desiccated captive aboard a prison ship stranded in a dangerous nebula and are rehydrated under the strict understanding that you will venture out to retrieve the various parts needed to fix the ship. It turns out the nebula’s pirate problem has left it with dozens of other stranded vessels, and so you must move from one to the next looking for the necessary parts and other equipment to make your journey easier.

Preventing this from turning into an impromptu shopping trip is the fact that each ship is filled with ‘citizens’ who all seem to be imbued with some variant of energy projecting superpower. Since the game isn’t a role-player you don’t gain anything from killing them, except the occasional loot drop, but there are limited stealth mechanics, or simply a swift jog, that can help avoid them. Which is helpful not least because ammo can be in very short supply.

Most of the time though it all comes down to a gun battle and you’re able to employ a variety of fairly standard first person weapons, as well as more unusual gadgets such as an exploding toy cat, poison darts, and a mind control gun. The combat is very straightforward though and there’s no aiming down sights of any kind (the left shoulder button is run), as you simply aim and shoot. Which sounds unnecessarily simplistic, but we still found very satisfying thanks to the excellent gun feedback.

The items you need for the prison ship are very rare but most ships also have at least one common item which can be used to make new weapons, gadgets, and special equipment like an extra life. You can also pick up random items like severed fingers or ballpoint pens that can be broken down into one of five resources and used to create items that you can’t find in the normal manner. All of which creates a very tight gameplay loop, as you board a new ship, search for items, and decide how much you can get away with in terms of looting the rest of the ship. Health can’t be regained while on a ship and so many away missions end up with you frantically legging it to the airlock with your ill-gotten gains, pursued by numerous angry enemies.

Because this is a roguelike each ship’s layout is randomised, as is what enemies are on it and things like whether the power is off when you arrive or if there’s lots of environmental hazards like exposed electrical wiring. The game gives you a good idea of what you’re going to run into before you dock though, so there’s some important tactical decisions to be made not just in terms of which ship you pick but what weapons and equipment you take with you. You also have to weigh up how much fuel and food you have left and which route you take through the maze-like nebula, to avoid moving obstacles such as pirates and space whales.

If, or rather when, you die you go right back to the beginning of the nebula and its layout is randomised. This is only a relatively minor setback though, as you get to keep all your equipment and resources and a new prisoner is rehydrated to take the old one’s place, replete with a randomised buff and/or debuff, such as a smaller appetite or the tendency to drop ammo when reloading.

Visually, even though it’s just a random collection of sci-fi corridors, the game looks fantastic, with a bold use of cel-shading that makes it look like a 2000 AD strip come to life. It’s far more distinctive and appealing than Borderlands and even though we’re not 100% convinced that the 2D sprites were a good idea the look of the game really helps to make it stand out from the crowd.

The sound design is terrible though. Almost all the voices have some kind of post-processing and at least half are completely incomprehensible as a result. It was even worse before a pre-launch patch, when we were convinced we were missing out on a lot of funny lines. The patch revealed they were less amusing than we assumed though, and while your ship’s computer can be quite funny the rest of the script probably could’ve done with a bit of punching up.

Void Bastards is not a game without issues, and it’s surprisingly expensive for an indie release, but despite our usual reticence about roguelikes and procedurally-generated content we thoroughly enjoyed it, and as soon as we beat it immediately wanted to start again on a harder setting. The action may be simple but it’s rewarding, and the freedom you’re given to engineer your own escape is highly compelling. All of which ensures Void Bastards is more than just a great name.

Void Bastards

In Short: A very compelling mix of roguelike and first person shooter, with highly distinctive visuals and pleasingly difficult tactical choices.

Pros: Highly addictive gameplay loop where every ship hides a new secret and the potential for advancement or horrible death. Excellent use of cel-shaded graphics.

Cons: Inevitable repetition in ship layouts and enemies. Poor sound design and not as funny as it first seems. Quite expensive.

Score: 7/10

Formats: Xbox One (reviewed) and PC
Price: £24.99
Publisher: Humble Bundle
Developer: Blue Manchu & Farbs
Release Date: 29th May 2019
Age Rating: 16

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