Lost in space is your plight. You are a Void bastard! Can you find freedom within the Sargasso Nebula. Read on to find out..
Genre: Action, Strategy
Developer: Blue Manchu
Publisher: Humble Bundle
Release Date: 29 May, 2019
Inspired by BioShock and System Shock 2, Void Bastards is a revolutionary new strategy-shooter that will test your wits as well as exercise your aim. Can you lead the misfit prisoners of the Void Ark through the derelict spaceships and myriad dangers of the Sargasso Nebula?
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.
Is that you Gary?
Before I go deep into my review of Void Bastards, I’d like to draw a line under the whole “whats a roguelike, what’s a rogue-lite kerfuffle” This game doesn’t need to be drawn into a petty squabble about semantics and definitions of genres. It’s above all this white noise, which should be left in some dark corner of Reddit, for keyboard warrior pedants to argue about. Now I’ve got that off my chest I feel cleansed and ready to describe my feelings towards this title.
Coming from some of the folks who gave us classics such as BioShock and System Shock 2, Void Bastards has a lot to live up to. The games mentioned are landmark titles, which introduced many concepts with are now staples of any good modern game design document: inventory management, crafting and exceptional voice work. These features should hopefully be the core components of this new project. Thankfully the Irrational studios DNA is alive and kicking, even after a few minutes into this space adventure, I knew I was going to a have a good experience.
You ‘orrrible little man!
The meat of the story is pretty straight forward. You are a freeze-dried convict. Your mission is to navigate the cluster of spaceships in the Sargasso Nebula to gain your freedom. This is far from easy. You start off with the bare minimum in terms of weapons and supplies. By warping from ship to ship you can scavenge items and replace your dwindling stocks of food and fuel. Death comes quickly to the unprepared and unfortunate. luckily, this is a non-issue in this game. As a void bastard, you are expendable and your numbers are limitless. Each run is not futile. All the weapon upgrades and scrap items are saved and returned to the prison ship. So each new jailbird has a bit more of chance in gaining his or her liberty.
The sheer amount of RNG regarding the character composition is wonderful and inventive. Each new lawbreaker will have positive and negative traits. The good abilities are quite pedestrian. Faster speed, better shooting accuracy and so on. The bad or flawed attributes are hilarious and very imaginative. My first con was a smoker! This meant that he would occasionally cough. I found to my displeasure he would do this at the most inopportune times, whilst sneaking past guards. On clearing his throat, all hell would let loose. His time in this adventure was short. I feel this is a great advertisement for the perils of real life tobacco consumption.
My next felon also had a tricky trait which on the surface did not seem to be so severe. Prone to forgetfulness, she would often bring the wrong weapon loadout when boarding a new vessel. This was ok when she had a limited arsenal, but it soon got problematic when she had several guns to choose from. One mission She picked the empty staple gun instead of a fully loaded pistol. The time spent aboard the rusting cargo ship had to be in pure stealth mode as all she had to defend herself was harsh language and a couple of mines.
I’ll lastly describe probably one of the silliest and downright belly laugh-inducing episodes I ever had in all my years as a gamer. After a particularly bad run with a witless convict, I returned to the prison ship to get another hapless volunteer. The character that was generated had one defining attribute, they were very short. In fact, so short that their criminal mug shot was just a pair of hands holding a nameplate. This had me chuckling straight away due to the sheer absurdity of the entire situation. Warping on to the first ship, the player viewpoint was virtually on the floor, reaching for door controls was a bit of stretch. The one saving grace was I didn’t need to use the crouch button when navigating small utility conduits. Alas, my short felon didn’t last too long as he was not very good at the “running away” tactics I’d employed with other larger criminals.
As soon as you board a new vessel you are presented with a top-down floor plan of the entire craft. Peeps familiar with FTL will know the reference when they see it. All the ships share some fundamental basic departments such as a helm(bridge), engine rooms, security sections and living quarters. Adding flavour to the proceedings is the actual role of the craft. Some are Luxury vessels complete with dining halls and swanky bedroom suites. Others are more utilitarian such as frigates or massive freightliners chock full of cargo
The occupants of these floating hulks are a motley collection of misfits and scallywags. Ranging from small to big, you may have the misfortune of bumping into tourists, juves, janitors and the real big daddies, delightfully called “screws”. Tourists are dippy gelatinous blobs replete with daft fedora hats. They act as mobile proximity mines much like the Minecraft Creepers. Carefully timed shots can cause a chain reaction taking down anything foolhardy to be in the blast area. Screws are the top end of the food chain, they are the alpha predators. They are to be avoided at all costs due to their fearsome attacks and massive health reserves. Deeper into the Nebula, more intelligent and complex foes appear. Spooks can blindside you with their ability to warp around the arena of combat. Peepers( surveillance cameras) can summon a security robot if you fall upon their gaze for too long. Developing strategies to counter all these foes is key to progressing further into the campaign.
Each ship has a random set of starting conditions. These could be no power or limited oxygen supplies. The latter is a telling factor in how you approach your exploration of the vessel. The one saving grace is that time is frozen whenever you view the map. Planning your route with the scant knowledge that the plan displays is critical for a successful mission. Other factors come into play from these circumstances. No power means you cannot lock doors. This adds an extra vulnerability to your character. Doors play a great role in providing a solid barrier between you and many formidable foes lurking around every corner. The ability to corral and cordon off parts of the ship is vital.
Underpinning all this buffoonery and whimsy is a deep tactical experience. Taking a breather out of the real-time shooter is vital by opening the map screen. Here, you can formulate your next move with military precision. Checking ammo and oxygen levels is of paramount importance if you want to make it back to the airlock in one piece. The game doesn’t suffer fools gladly even on normal difficulty. I’m sure the challenge is far greater in iron man mode, for anybody brave enough to take on this hardcore quest.
All these different game mechanics blend well together. No two spaceship expeditions are the same. This keeps the adventure fresh and appealing. The basic combat loop remains the same, but there are enough new items to craft and deploy, as you venture towards the end game scenario. The whole shebang is a riotous hoot. The ridiculous quirks of your characters add a lighthearted tone and bring bags of personality to the title. If you are a fan of crafting there are plenty of oddball devices to assemble. I like games that skew towards the absurd. They suite my zany sense of humour. Fans of Monty Python and other surrealist comedy shows will find a lot to like in the world of the Void Bastards.
BIFF! KBOOOM! ZZZAP!
Comic book aficionados are going to dig the aesthetic that Blue Manchu has delivered. They have absolutely nailed the graphic novel art style and the fantastic use of the limited coloured palette using classic hue combinations. Footfalls and explosion are emphasized with animated popup text such as “Blorp!, Bflatch!! and tap tap tap”. This visual indication of the footfalls is a handy early warning system for dudes on the opposite side of doors. “Taps” are made by the smaller foes but if you see “thud thud thud” then you know you are in the vicinity of a great big “Screw”.
Explosions are animated with great flair. Billowing clouds of smoke dissipate in a smooth convincing nature. There’s a superb rendering of the basic building blocks that make up the innards of a spaceship. The visual architecture is classic science fiction stock. Admirers of Ron Cobb or Chris Foss will see many influences within the spaces that have been created. Company logo decals decorate doors and hallways. Each ship has its own corporate identity, this is displayed with suitable colour schemes and layouts.
You are rendering that scaffolding dangerous!
It was a surprise for me to find out that Blue Manchu is based in Australia given that the voice work has such an English tone to it. Folks familiar with The Stanley Parable will already know Kevan Brighting. His plumy posh accent is instantly recognizable. Even if you are not a big gamer, you will of heard his work on countless TV and radio advertisements. His take on the role of the robot narrator is straight out of the Peter Jones handbook. Think dry, acerbic and fantastically detached from the player’s perilous situation. His deadpan delivery is outstanding. A real highlight of the entire game.
The supporting voice work is equally superb. The bizarre cast of character that inhabits these floating spaceships are given extra personality with a rich range of English dialects. Hulking “screw’s” sound like they have just dropped out of a Guy Ritchie crime caper. Lots of “Oi’s! And Wot’s that?” remarks. The small “Juves” that scamper around the ships are full of mischief. Their shouts and taunts are pure Salfordian. “Hey! Surprise! Knobhead” etc. Being a fellow Mancunian, their accents are spot on. The thick nasally drawl, heavy with colloquial insults, accurately portrays the spotty herberts that live in this rough conurbation of north-west England.
Ickle pet peeves!
No game is perfect and that the case with Void Bastards. There are a couple of minor niggles which could be improved on. For starters, there is no iron sight viewpoint. This is a strange omission, given that shooting is one of the primary gameplay mechanics. The next quibble could be a design choice or show the limitations of the spacial audio engine in Unity. For me, the whole thing sounds muddy. The public announcement calls sometimes come off as mumbled barely audible samples shrouded in too much plate reverb and no top end frequencies. If this was the vibe the devs were shooting for then they nailed it.
During my review sessions, I mainly used a gamepad for ease of use. This can be troublesome in tight situations as the popup button prompt for door controls sometimes obscures the action behind it. Again the missing iron sight mode would have alleviated this problem. It’s a small issue, but it would be nice to be able to disable any prompts from the menu options screen.
The jury must reach its Verdict!
If you are a fan of the surreal and absurd then Void Bastards is a delightful romp. There are bags of personality in the cast of enemies and procedurally created criminals. Add to the mix that every ship you board has a random set of properties further breathes life into this entertaining adventure. Just when you think you have seen all the game has to offer, a new element is uncovered. The main loop of scavenge, loot and upgrade does not get old. Each new run adds a wider gamut of options for the new victim (inmate). This allows you to further discover new challenges as you travel deeper into the chaotic spaceship junkyard that is the Sargasso Nebula. It’s a ripping interstellar yarn that I’d highly recommend to young, old and ex-cons.