Void Bastards: Scrapheap Scrounging
Void Bastards is as weird as the title suggests—but in a delightuf way. In it, you board spaceships, shoot stuff, watch “foomp”, “whizz” and “mumble” comic effects, loot even more stuff, and get the hell out of there. Chances are also high of dying from radiation, oxygen shortages, or just a hail of missiles. Not to worry in that case: there’s always another anonymous captive convict (against their will?) waiting inline to rinse and repeat. That’s Void Bastards in a nutshell!
I spotted the game on sale at our supermarket last year. The cartridge was only
€14.90, the box contained the label Humble Bundle, and I knew that Jon Chey was somehow heavily involved in this strange game—that same Jon that helped produce System Shock 2 and Freedom Force and directed SWAT 4 and BioShock. I have very fond memories of all of Jon’s games so this one should be a no-brainer.
Of course, it’s hard to compare a high profile game like BioShock to an indie game with a limited budget such as Void Bastards. I think that is one of the reasons they must have gone for the roguelite route. There’s little storytelling involved here: you’re a space convict, the mother ship is in dire need of a FTL (“fix the hyperdrive!"), so a twisted AI ships you off with nothing but a meager care package—a handful of bullets, energy, and sandwiches to survive in the Nebula. The rogue loop goes like this: hop from spacecraft to spacecraft, in search of a specific item, thereby consuming fuel and food, craft more potent stuff to defend yourself, and get back to work.
The screenshots serve as perfect advertisers for the game: Void Bastards oozes comical charm. It is reminiscent of XII’s cel-shaded graphics that also successfully brought the comic to life. WHUMP!s, THUD!s and FLAKK!s fly all over the screen when things explode, HOVERrrrr indicate a nearby enemy behind a closed door, and the big BOOOM speaks for itself. When not hunting for parts in space, the intermission screens like the workshop and the cut-scenes after dying literally consist of animated comic book frames that beautifully unfold. There is no denying: when it comes to graphical charm, Void Bastards can proudly stand up for itself next to other comical big hits like the aforementioned Freedom Force.
It’s not only the graphical prowess but also the comical nature of the game that makes you smile—and I mean that literally. The game is very funny. The AI that serves as your guide can’t stop making ironical comments on your 125th death. General announcements blasting through speakers in certain spaceships poke fun at your attempts to restore the power, and the gunk you collect to disassemble and hopefully turn into something useful is delightfully weird.
But I haven’t mentioned the best part yet—the enemies and the guns and trinkets you use against them. There are “janitors” with luminous heads, small “tourist” blobs with heads that explode into nuclear waste as soon as they see you, “spooks” with long raincoats that turn invisible and run, … Even though the enemy variety may not be that large, every enemy type is carefully designed to fit into this weird world.
One of the first guns you craft yourself is called a stapler. It shoots… staples—and acts as your go-to close-range shotgun. Then you have a chaingun-like device called a riveter that turns out screws at a rapid pace, vacuum cleaners that suck up life using ammo called “void packets”, or how about a rifter, a gun that lets you displace enemies and plop them into hazards such as fire? Gadgets are present as well: exploding kitty robots, stun guns, “bushwacker” cluster grenades, and more weird stuff.
As you are about to enter a ship, you’ll need to make a conscious choice as to which gun and trinket to bring along: the enemy types that are present in that ship are known, and you’ll want to avoid getting in a gunfight with some of the more stronger ones. You can only carry one gun, one explosive device, and one other utility with you.
And now we get to the bad parts. As this is a roguelite, you lose all your carefully built up ammo, food, and fuel if you die. Luckily, crafted guns and devices do not disappear. The problem is that certain ships contain more of certain goods, and you can become a “staple hunter” that ups the chance of finding ammo for your stapler on certain ships. However, ships are randomly generated and presented in a graph—if you see something that interests you three nodes away, you’ll first have to gather enough food and fuel (each jump consumes one) and make your way through the space pirates and void whales that cause all sorts of trouble.
For some runs, I found myself carrying plenty of screws for my riveter but barely enough explosives to take out the bigger baddies. For other runs, I had a few hundred conventional bullets for the useless pistol you start out with but only ten or so staples. The resources you pick up in ships are randomly generated as well so you might get unlucky—and if luck is truly against you, a few space pirates come barging in ruining everything, as they pack a punch and are impossible to kill with only ten staples.
I find that the randomness of roguelikes and roguelites eventually kills the fun in games such as these. After a while, ships start to look alike: the layout of these is also generated. You have your helm (where you can download item and enemy locations), a security section, power and waste recycler, the cafeteria, etc, but they all look alike. And even if the thing you’re looking for is something different—a mouse ball, a mattress, cooling liquid—the modus operandi doesn’t change: enter, pess
A on every green lit cabinet, drawer, or locker you come across to loot it, shoot stuff that’s in your way, and make it back in time before your oxygen supply runs out.
You could mix up strategies if you wanted to. Void Bastards tries to put emphasis on stealth: if you don’t run and kill security cameras on time, you’ll encounter less enemies, you can lock doors, and even hack certain bots. But at the same time, the clock is ticking, and I happen to like pressing the fire button or releasing that destructive kitty robot, so in the end, my approach converges to entering and exiting with a bang. After a few hours, you’ve seen everything the random generator has to offer. Granted, the workbench has plenty of unlockables to offer: each gun and trinket can also be upgraded a few times, and these unlocks are permanent.
Still, there was little incentive for me to keep on playing, as the feedback loop is the same. Yes, in Diablo II, you also do the same again and again, but there, there’s the multiplayer aspect, the unique item hunt aspect, the difficulty aspect, the skill tree and classes aspect, … Void Bastards feels much less expansive—even though space is indeed big. But even navigating space gets boring after a while: instead of in level 1 or 2, you’re staring at a graph of level 3, which is exactly the same, only modifiers (the occasional fire in ships, no lights, …) make things more challenging.
The thing that really killed it was my mistake of buying it on the Nintendo Switch. There’s no gyro aiming and I stand by my statement: playing FPS games without keyboard and mouse is hopeless.
I had a blast—literally—for as long as it remained funny and engaging. Unfortunately, it didn’t for too long, and the lack of an engaging story makes it hard to revisit the Void.