As I play Void Bastards, I’m reminded of several of my favourite games. There’s something about it that just feels very reminiscent of Bungie’s Halo predecessor, Marathon (a game series that was vastly superior to Doom, don’t @ me), there’s some of the comic book stylings that remind me of XIII, and the way that your prisoners are disposable and how you’re constantly balancing risk and reward reminds me of the steampunk heisting of The Swindle. To another mind, and indeed the minds of the developers, you might not see those games. Instead Blue Manchu describe Void Bastards as the logical successor to System Shock in an alternate universe where its gameplay became more influential than its storytelling.
“The approach we took to the game was deliberately evoking 90s shooters,” explained Game Director Ben Lee. “That’s why we don’t have zooms, that’s why the enemies are sprites, and all the rest of it. There’s other reasons for all these things, but whenever we’d worry about if it’d be OK, the answer was that it’s fine, because Duke Nukem and Outlaws did it. Outlaws is my favourite FPS, actually. That was my dream as a kid, to make an Outlaws-like game in high res, and I was lucky enough to do that.”
So yes, this being an indie game developed in the 2010s, it’s a roguelite, but don’t let that put you off so easily. The many ships that you’ll set foot on are dripping in atmosphere as you carefully pace their corridors and enter rooms that might feature weird and unusual enemies wandering around. The inspiration of 2000AD comics is clear to see in the humour and comic book cutscenes when you die, and more generally with the cel shaded graphics and the comic book style “KBOOM!” that accompanies some explosions, or footsteps and thumps given visual form as you approach a door to a new room.
You’ll never quite know what to expect, thanks to each of the ships being randomly generated with new layouts and different enemies, and that helps to keep you on your toes. The Tourists squelch around without sight, exploding if you get too close or shoot them, while Screws are aptly named for how screwed you’ll be if you get in the way of the ice shard blasts too often. The same can be said of the Gunpoint turrets that activate if you get spotted by cameras and can tear you up. It all gets even trickier if you step in a puddle of hallucinogenic gloop that makes all the colours pulse psychedelically, or oil that makes you slip and slide more on the floor.
As Ben puts it, “You don’t go on a ship and play it until the game says it’s time to go, you leave it when you want to leave, when you’ve judged you’ve used enough health or oxygen or ammo, and it’s time to bug out. It’s always up to you when you leave the ship.”
This game is hard, and you need to be prepared for what’s coming at you. You can preview the kinds of foes you might encounter and a ship’s special modifiers, such as having enemies from a harder plane of the nebula, or doors that have been locked, but you’ve got your own special traits and a loadout to decide on before you head in.
Being a roguelite, every death is punished by sending you back to the start point, but where most roguelites have got a set protagonist or cast of characters to choose from, here you’re handed a randomly generated convict, replete with their own character traits – Tourists will take longer to explode, you can’t be seen through windows, that kind of thing. Those will be lost if they die, and you can also come across a Gene Twister on the map that give you a bunch of new tricks, which are especially good if you only got handicaps.
One thing that doesn’t change as you burn through convicts is your arsenal. Though convicts die, the Arc Ship is constant, spitting out a bundle of starting food, fuel and ammo for a new prisoner, and with a Workbench to make use of when you bring back goodies from a successful mission. It’s here that you can get a more powerful Stapler, unlock a charge up, zapping Toaster, craft a Kittybot distraction device (which explodes) or get a Rifter that can suck up anything (yes, anything) and then spit it out where you want.
Strategic thinking also plays a big part in the game and considering your moment to moment actions. Ben revealed, “Sound propagation is a big part of the game. Shutting doors makes a big difference to monsters hearing you, and running is bad – well, not bad, but it has the penalty of being noisy.”
That doesn’t mean you have to play a particular way. “Everyone on the team’s got a very different play style.” Ben said. “If I’m anywhere near the helm, I’ll just go there because I hate looking for loot, it really makes me tense, whereas Dean, who built all the environments, basically loots the whole ship, even if it’s a stupid idea. Jay, the level designer, he just runs as fast as he can all the time, despite the fact that it’s disastrously bad for you. What I love about the game is that none of those play styles are prohibited, it depends on how you want to play and how much risk you want.”
You also don’t have to board every ship that you come across, but can identify the ship types, the companies they come from and the resources they will therefore provide. With enough food and fuel, you can happily skip past ships that you feel you don’t need to raid and avoid the risks that would come with, though you will naturally be drawn to the ships with objective pieces that can advance the story.
The star map is built with five layers of ships, with set points where you can move down a layer in the nebula but near limitless supply of ships horizontally. Ben explained, “The ultimate goal of the game is to progress downwards through the depths of this nebula where you get to the bottom and escape. […] That’s how you win and progress the story, and I want to make it clear that it definitely does have a story too, because we’ve seen some people playing the demo and not being sure if there’s much narrative, but there is!”
He continued, “The whole game universe is based on the concept of bureaucracy completely out of control. Weirdly it wasn’t that relevant when we started making the game, but recently it has become more and more, particularly with British bureaucracy!
“I saw Brazil when I was 10 and that had a huge impact on me as a kid, and that’s the sort of perspective we’re coming from. The world outside of the space ships, the enemy isn’t the people, it’s the system and what’s ruining everyone’s lives is the inhumanity of that system. For example, there’s millions of prisoners on that ship, but protocol is that you can only free one of them at a time.”
Though I didn’t actually manage to survive a single level while playing, I can already tell that Void Bastards is my kind of jam. I love the tension that it can provide, the self managed balance of risk and reward, as well as the thought and planning you can put into every ship you board and room you set foot in. As I said that the start, it reminds me of some of my favourite games, but really it’s got a style and attitude that’s all its own.