BY ALEX WAKEFORD
In space, no one can hear you starve to death (because you ran out of food after your last jump and the derelict vessels before you offer only fuel to keep your ship going – you hope your imminent successor will fare better)…
This week, Universally Speaking looks at Void Bastards and why it’s widely considered to be one of the best games of 2019 thus far.
Nebula Depth: 1
The WCG Tomb Hulk appears on the viewscreen, a smallish vessel with scans revealing that it contains a wealthy supply of ammunition, but no fuel. You cannot pinpoint where its salvage will be, nor will your minimap be of any assistance on-board.
Worse still, this derelict scrap pile is playing host to a compliment of Screws, against which none of your weapons will suffice – their armoured environmental suits will prove too strong against your three remaining bullets.
The star map reveals a bountiful supply of resources ahead, but this is the only ship currently in-range. Your food stores can sustain you for this final stretch and no further; you don’t even need to look at your bio-monitor to know that the wounds from the previous raid have not healed.
One way or another, death is inevitable.
All you can hope to do is make things easier for your successor – perhaps BACS has already begun their rehydration process…
But perhaps some miracle yet awaits you on this ship.
This is Void Bastards.Developed by Blue Manchu, published by Humble Bundle, Void Bastards is inspired by the likes of System Shock 2 and BioShock as a ‘strategy-shooter’ which combines FPS gameplay with the rogue-lite elements of FTL and the cel-shaded art style of Borderlands… and the narrator of The Stanley Parable.
“Forget everything you know about first-person shooters: Void Bastards asks you to take charge, not just point your gun and fire. Your task is to lead the rag-tag Void Bastards out of the Sargasso Nebula. You make the decisions: where to go, what to do and who to fight. And then you must carry out that strategy in the face of strange and terrible enemies.” [Void Bastards, Steam store page]
You play as a number of prisoners held aboard a penal vessel called the Void Ark. A quick tutorial walks you through the essential mechanics and objectives – everything from scavenging, to combat, to dying…
Yes, you’ll be doing a fair bit of that throughout the game. The Void Ark carries 1,000,000 “F-dried penal clients,” meaning that every time you die you will resume the role of another prisoner who is ‘rehydrated’ by B.A.C.S. (the AI voiced by The Stanley Parable’s Kevan Brighting) and made to resume the mission.
The mission itself is simple: you must navigate this cosmic hellscape of unchecked capitalist bureaucracy, scavenging derelict ships and stations, in order to create a series of items that will enable you to restart the Void Ark’s FTL drive.
As a “WCG penal client,” your citizen card has been shredded and that is where you must begin – committing the necessary crime of forging a new one.A single choice the player makes can mean the difference between life and one of many cosmically harrowing deaths.
Is it worth docking with a derelict station filled with terrible variables because it has a particular item I need? Do I have enough food and fuel to jump further ahead? What can I afford to get myself into if my ammo is low? What shall I spend my merits on? What perks should I focus on getting? What will I be up against if I turn this ship’s power back on? How much oxygen have I got left?
These are just a few of the many questions the player has to ask themselves on a moment-to-moment basis in Void Bastards and they do a great job of keeping the experience compelling.
On top of that, when you play as a new prisoner, they have unique traits which can alter the gameplay experience in a variety of ways.
Perhaps you’ll be blessed with the Footpad trait which means your footsteps don’t make any sound, bolstering your stealth; or maybe you’ll be a smoker, where you give away your position by coughing every now and then; or you might be colourblind, or very small, or you’ll receive a merit for every bit of health you lose…
They might even refer to enemies by their last name, or yell loudly upon picking an item up.
All this and more adds a great deal of variety to how Void Bastards plays and gives each prisoner you play as a unique sense of character as you traverse the procedurally-generated locations.
“Move carefully through the dangerous ships, searching for supplies and manipulating control systems. React to what you find – will you detour to the generator to bring the power back online or will you fight your way into the security module to disable the ship’s defenses? Choose carefully when to fight, when to run and when just to be a bastard.”
The visual style is perhaps the most eminently eye-catching thing about this game. Indeed, it got me interested in the game before I knew anything else about it
It very much feels like you’re ‘playing’ a comic, with each part of the HUD having separate bordered panels and the cinematics also being delivered in the same style.
Enemies, too, are 2D sprites – something that’s likely the result of budget constraints, so the rogues’ gallery of foes (‘Citizens,’ as the game refers to them) didn’t have to be modelled and animated… which only adds to the charm of Void Bastards, as it constantly shows the ways in which it ‘finds the fun’ within its limitations.
Even the sounds made by enemies are represented by comic book-esque text pop-ups that can provide the player with useful information about what’s waiting for them around a corner or behind a bulkhead door.
As an aside: this is fascinating for us at Universally Speaking from the perspective of our work with Localisation and Audio, as most games typically do not have an intersection between these two things. In Void Bastards, however, the sounds that are made also have a visual element.
At times, you might even be blessed with a ship where the enemies aboard are allies. In one such excursion, a whole station’s compliment of Janitors followed me around and helped me tackle the security measures once power was restored (a mercy, considering I had completely run out of ammunition!)Where many games out there may look to take control in deciding where, when, and how ‘the fun’ happens, Void Bastards encourages you to find creative ways to deal with its chaotic randomness.
Like all roguelikes, however, this can come as a double-edged sword. After hours of playing, there will most likely be a point where the formula is laid bare and the variety begins to slip away; you find yourself wandering the same halls and scouring the same rooms as you begin to contemplate Stephen King’s statement that “Hell is repetition.”
But that is an edifice we are more inclined to accept – to varying degrees, depending on other aspects of the game – when we see the passion beyond the algorithm.
Void Bastards has that in spades, and offers more than enough unique variety to its character traits, enemies, equipment, and difficulty to hold interest throughout its campaign.
The quick risk/reward decisions you make around almost every corner (while keeping track of your oxygen meter) also ensures that the tension never lets up, no matter what point you’re at – you’ll always be savouring those moments of relief.
The music, too, is another aspect deserving of great praise. Ryan Roth, Ryan Henwood, and Chris Donnelly have produced an absolutely fantastic soundtrack – you’ll be clicking around the star map menu listening to the change in key that accompanies a beautifully atmospheric piece that gives Uncharted Worlds from Mass Effect a run for its money.Despite natural comparisons to System Shock 2 and BioShock, Void Bastards has its own unique feeling to it – a feeling that can be explicitly defined as perhaps the closest we shall get to answering the question “What if Douglas Adams made a video game?”
Between its gorgeous art style, its quirky dark humour, its satisfying gameplay loop, excellent soundtrack, and replayability, Void Bastards is a game we at Universally Speaking wholeheartedly recommend.
We’re looking forward to playing more great games like this when we head over to Gamescom later this month – we hope to see you there!
Have you played Void Bastards? We’d love to hear some of your own unique stories that have come out of experiencing this game!
“Forget everything you know about first-person shooters: Void Bastards asks you to take charge, not just point your gun and fire. Your task is to lead the rag-tag Void Bastards out of the Sargasso Nebula. You make the decisions: where to go, what to do and who to fight. And then you must carry out that strategy in the face of strange and terrible enemies.”
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