Void Bastards is the realization of a science fiction dream — especially if you were the only kid in class who knew what “42” meant, and thought bureaucracy was the height of comedy before you were old enough to have a job. This is Brazil and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy for folks who want to see a bunch of monsters explode. This is FTL for folks that wanted to punch a flying gorgon.
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More explicitly, Void Bastards is a first-person roguelike about space piracy. You travel through the cosmos, raiding various ships and looking for the tools you need to bring your disabled spaceship back online. Except, technically, Void Bastards is also none of those things. Your character only actually scavenges derelicts after real space pirates have already raided them, scooping up only what they left behind. That includes all manner of weird aliens perfectly crafted to haunt your nightmares. And your spaceship is… Well, that’s complicated too.
Everyone in Void Bastards is expendable in pursuit of a bottom line, and the humor comes from a sentient cog being forcibly and repeatedly reminded that it is, indeed, trapped in the machine. Your first protagonist dies almost immediately. That’s when you discover the bodies “you” inhabit are not your own. The mothership you operate from is actually cold storage for hundreds of sleeping criminals. Each of them is fitted with an awful sci-fi backpack. When you die, the device comes alive, dislodges, and hitches a ride home. Then it reanimates a different criminal corpse and forces them to pick up the journey. Each space criminal comes with a set of randomized positive and negative buffs. My first character gained an extra financial unit each time he killed an enemy, but also coughed uncontrollably — alerting security to his presence at the least opportune times.
Systematically, this makes for a very straightforward roguelike (in the modern, post-Rogue Legacy sense). You enter “dungeons” and clear enemies while scavenging materials. You then craft those materials into power-ups that do everything from introduce new weapons, to slightly tweak behind-the-scenes math. It’s a simple loop that will be familiar to many.
The entire experience is presented with a bright, cel-shaded style that reminds me of 2003’s David Duchovny-powered XIII, of all things. I’ll forgive you if you don’t remember it… Comic book onomatopoeia — visible “THUDs” and “BOOMs” — tips the player off to what’s taking place in the next room, while also calling attention to mechanical elements that require your attention. While procedurally generated, each ship you board has a basic set of operational room types (and variations thereof in larger vessels).
You’ll quickly crack a personalized plan for what order you want to breach and clear every section. The helm of each ship contains a computer that can reveal all the loot, and sometimes all the enemy locations in real time. Security rooms can shut down all of the on-board turrets and alarms; the atmosphere room can refill your limited oxygen supply; the gene splicing lab lets you go full Bioshock on your genetic code. It’s a lot.
Scope Out Before You Nope Out
The various anomalies, environmental traps, and bizarre twists on ship design spiral the longer you play. This all builds a lore that offers more questions than answers. And that’s a compliment! Even this far in, I don’t know what causes certain rifts in the universe to spew new problems in my life. A burst wire just poisoned me with radiation, and the smell of trash causes me to enter psychedelic states that are no more strange than the baseline of this highly stylized reality. Once you’ve got a handle on who — and what — occupies this world, Void Bastards springs a half-dozen twists that make your experience weird in a way that only truly great sci-fi does best. It’s not just wacky out of the gate; it’s wacky in a way that you don’t know where it’ll take you next. In the case of black holes, which randomly teleport you across the star map, this is literal.
With all the hacking and x-ray guns and tossing of cute-kitten-robot-grenades, I almost overlooked one of the most effective parts of the game: the enemies. “Citizens” occupy every ship. And these alien beings are never fun or pleasant. They’re all some flavor of floating or lurking ghoul that screams and/or cackles while hunting you. Oh, they all explode on death, too.
Even with my strongest weapons I never felt confident entering any room with more than a few enemies. That goes double for floating bands of tiny Medusa heads that pursue you in groups. I spent a lot of time running away and firing randomly behind me. Running away is one of the most important tools in the titular void bastards’ arsenal. Knowing when to cut and run from a ship, which you can do at any point, is a delicate balancing act between finding great loot and finding certain death. Not since XCOM have I experienced so many missions that, in the first 30 seconds, I wound up audibly muttering “nope nope nope” and fleeing. That’s playing the game right. I think?
Fighting, scavenging, and especially running aside, however, the defining feature of Void Bastards is still the tone.
I interviewed part of the creative team behind Void Bastards back in February. It would be difficult to define the creative angle better here than what they laid out then. Their delve into the history of science fiction, and the way it drills into the human soul, melds well with aggressively Scottish attitude. This is a space adventure that punctuates every death by reminding you you’ve still got daily chores to do. The story milestones involve overly complicated fetch quest, with the ultimate goal of assembling paperwork and various paperwork processing devices. Even your most successful space piracy hauls are piles of garbage that you can hopefully craft into slightly less useless garbage. Everything here is minutiae.
Void Bastards is a singularly addictive experience. I adored every neon and schadenfreude-soaked moment of it. It is pure entertainment with incredible highs and laugh out loud lows. For a roguelike, I never ran into levels or situations that didn’t feel anything less than polished. And the game never stops delivering new surprises that force the player to change everything on the fly. This is a ship-by-ship pirate adventure, where the major call-to-action is a series of unfortunate corporate spreadsheets. I’ve put in just over 20 hours already, but I can see this easily being my first 100+ hour game of 2019.