I’ve played BioShock 27 times, to completion. It was an obsession during my early high school days, when long summers and a minimum wage job meant staying in and playing a game I’d beaten to death was a fiscally responsible decision. I knew every voice line, every corridor, every encounter, and yet I still went back to it with the same fervor months and years later. I wasn’t playing it for the story, that’s for sure – I already knew it beat for beat. I know now that it was for the feelings of tension, the moments of exploration and preparation that lead up to a culminating battle, and the ways in which I knew I could make the game bend using its own systems against it. I was infatuated with its atmosphere, and exploring Rapture — even for the twentieth time — always held the promise of finding something new.
I know this now because Void Bastards encapsulates these same feelings while stripping away the fat that made replaying BioShock less enjoyable. There are minimal cutscenes, and your only goal is to explore derelict spacecraft for key components that progress the story. It’s simple: you’re essentially trying to contact the HR department responsible for your wayward prison barge that’s full of “dehydrated” inmates. But the moment-to-moment, when you’re stepping foot onto a new vessel or planning your route using the star map, is entrancing. There’s this feeling of forward momentum in Void Bastards that gives it a gravitational pull of its own and constantly gave me the itch to go back for more.
Void Bastards is created with the obvious intent of distilling the “immersive sim” genre down to its core basics. You gather junk and components to upgrade and craft new gear, and you’re constantly on the lookout for important resources like food and fuel. You’re guided by a dapper robot voiced by Kevan Brighting — of The Stanley Parable fame — who humorously nudges you in the right direction. You’ll gather key components to craft objects that advance the game’s sparse narrative, and otherwise embark on expeditions to buff your existing gear and stock up on supplies.
Gear ranges from explosive Kitty Bots that distract enemies to the Scrambler, which turns hostile foes friendly. There is a myriad of guns, like the shotgun-esque Stapler that works best on bureaucratic ships with extra office supplies laying around. My favorite, the Riveter, fires Gatling-style rivets at foes. Crafting an upgrade allows these to be found en masse when destroying security cameras or turrets, meaning ammo became less scarce. There are also upgrades that allow you to override these security elements entirely at the cost of some merits.
Even with all these upgrades and weapons, I never found myself getting stuck in a rut when it came to choosing a loadout. Some ships were filled with the Friendly Tourist enemy, who bumble toward you politely before exploding. These take a few shots of a pistol to defeat, so I didn’t waste any heftier ammo on these outings. Radiation damage does wonders against the front-shielded Zek enemies, so I was sure to carry my Rad Spiker along when they were lurking about. As more gadgets and enemies appear later in the game, you’ll have to more carefully allocate resources to get what you need from each ship. It’s a rewarding give-and-take, and the masterful balancing meant I always had just enough ammo to make things work.
Between dockings, you’ll choose destinations on the star map, which resembles FTL’s choose-your-adventure style mission structure. Do I want to go on a medical vessel whose lights are out to try to heal using its operating theatre? Or do I want to take the safer route and board a frigate with security systems that are friendly to me? Carefully considering where each route leads — and avoiding deadly hazards like Void Whales — is almost a game in itself.
A huge reason I feel Void Bastards has made such an impression on me is its aesthetic. Made to look like a graphic novel, it uses 2D sprites for enemies, much like DOOM or old Build Engine games. The simple stylings of the environment, from the hard shadows to the bold colors that suit each ship’s theme, are like visual meditation. More importantly, this makes the action readable. Making split-second decisions during combat is easier when you can see exactly what you’re up against, without visual fluff getting in the way.
Void Bastard’s art style suits the gameplay in another particularly ingenious way: the use of onomatopoeia. Like those found in comics, words like BLARP appear when enemies die, but they’re also used to convey enemy movements. Take it from me, “STOMP STOMP STOMP” and “WHIRRR” both mean very different things about what’s on the other side of a closed door. There are many variations of these, and they’re all specific to each enemy type. In the absence of line-of-sight, these can give a clue as to how best to prepare for (or avoid) each room. When I saw – or heard – the heavy footfalls of the terrifying Screw, I locked the door and ran the other way.
Exploring ship after ship for upwards of 15 hours per playthrough sounds repetitive. It should be repetitive or at least start to feel a little mundane, but it never did. The only time I started to glaze over was when I was fully kitted and farming for the last few components I needed to finish my workbench upgrades. Somehow, developer Blue Manchu has managed to cram enough hand-crafted ships and modifiers into this thing to keep it engaging from the first airlock to the last. As you progress, ships become larger and more varied, but there are motifs that begin to become overly familiar — like the gambling hall and connected suites of the resort ships.
Of course, it’s not just the ships’ increasing complexity or the more dangerous foes of the deep nebula that keep things spicy, but your own hard work paying off in the form of new gadgets. When I first saw a dead-end airlock, I thought they were pointless and would go largely ignored. But when I crafted the Rifter, which allowed me to zap an enemy out of existence and plop them down, say, behind the locked door of an airlock, they become invaluable. Soon I was hoarding every foe on the ship into a (literal) monster closet, rendering them harmless. It’s these learning moments that can completely re-contextualize how you view the environment, and building on these drives the momentum that makes Void Bastards so addicting.
It’s hard to explain the core gameplay loop of Void Bastards without doing it a disservice. Star map, explore ship, return, craft. There are traders, mutation-inducing anomalies, pirates, and more, but this very simple loop forms the core of the game, and it’s the micro-decisions you’ll make in every moment of this loop that makes Void Bastards so satisfying. Choosing to forego exploration to get off a threatening ship is a difficult decision, but it’s one that had me sprinting for dear life to an airlock more than once. There’s a constant tension that builds on each of these miniature adventures, and you’re invited to make it as dangerous and rewarding as you want it to be.
This review is based on the PC version of the game. A copy was provided by Humble Bundle.
Void Bastards is a pure, crystalline distillation of the immersive sim genre - all the feeling with none of the fluff. Full of variables, it invites the player to experiment and be experimented upon.