Void Terrarium manages to achieve the impossible; it makes the apocalypse and the end of human civilisation really cute. Forget Skynet, The Red Queen and the War Operations Plan Response, the AI that finally rids planet Earth of humankind in Void Terrarium is so darn loveable that you just want to give it a great big hug. Well, you would if the factoryAI hadn’t already accidentally killed you and all your family and friends.
And that’s how Void Terrarium begins, with the end of mankind. Although, if everyone is very dead, then how does that explain the lone girl that’s just been found alive by a discarded janitorial robot? It’s a compelling storyline hook and one that kept me playing despite the arduous roguelite mechanics of Void Terrarium – these would usually have seen me quit and play something else quite quickly. The player takes on the role of Robbie the Robot and, with the advice of a repentant factoryAI, must do whatever it takes to keep the girl, Toriko, alive and well.
This involves two distinctive game mechanics. The first sees Robbie search the wasteland for valuable resources in a top-down turn-based action RPG (a genre that just rolls of the tongue; I can absolutely see the TDTBARPG catching on). The second is best described as an advanced version of Tamagotchi, as Robbie must convert the resources he gathers into the means to keep Toriko alive. This means crafting suitable food, medicine and other mundane but necessary devices essential for living. It also means building fun stuff, providing plants, furniture, even stuffed animals to decorate Toriko’s vault. Now, one of these gameplay mechanics works very well, the other left me wishing on Armageddon to wipe it from existence.
The exploration and combat elements of the game undoubtedly fall into the latter camp. Robbie must explore a limited selection of environments far too many times in his mission to help Toriko. Whilst, on first impression, Void Terrarium would appear to be a fast-paced action fest, every element is measured in a turn based system that revolves around Robbie’s finite endurance meter. Everything the player does, from movement, to attacks, to the use of special abilities, uses up the endurance meter at a frankly terrifying rate. Robbie will meet enemy robots and mutants on his travels and they’ll all politely wait their turn before battering Robbie into scrap metal. This will happen a lot because Void Terrarium is unnecessarily hard.
As Robbie explores each floor of each generic level he’ll use up endurance with every step he takes, until he runs out of fuel and must start the whole thing again. Occasionally you’ll find a battery pick-up to recharge your meter, but these popped up far too infrequently through the randomly generated levels. I had many, many runs where there was barely a battery to be seen – how I found myself longing for a pack of reasonably priced AA to appear like a mirage in the desert before me. Adding to the player’s woes, is that fact that your enemy are horribly plentiful and packs of them patrol the corridors. Apparently solely to appear at the most inconvenient time. The turn based gameplay often leaves the player with no chance at all, they’ll have too little endurance to unleash any special attacks – frequently I knew that I had no chance but had to wait for the battle to play out anyway.
Each time you die, Robbie is flung back to the home hub to try again, losing every level-up and power-up he’d just gathered. Now, I’m not a fan of roguelites at the best of times, so please take that into account when considering my critique, but the grind in Void Terrarium was almost unbearable. Again and again I threw Robbie into the metal grinder, again and again he was reduced to scrap, and after each expedition I didn’t feel like I’d made any overall progress. Sure, the items I’d found where converted into resources to provide for Toriko and in doing so it ultimately boosted Robbie’s stats, but this all happened at such a slow rate that my progress felt absolutely glacial. It, quite frankly, sucked.
And then, something rather odd happened. Despite my burning and palpable desire to set fire to my PlayStation 4 and send it out to sea, I kept on playing. And that’s when I realised that as lousy as the expeditions, combat and exploration mechanics of the game are, the Tamagotchi-inspired elements are excellent. All of the endless resource grinding is almost made bearable thanks to the delightful relationship that begins to develop between Robbie and Toriko. To see her interact with the small world you’ve built for her inside the terrarium provides so many magical moments. It is all brought to life by the visually compelling and very cute 2D visuals that stand in stark contrast to the rather bland aesthetics found in the top-down perspective.
Your need to help Toriko also adds more pressure. Toriko’s well-being is represented by a retro looking ‘Pet Nanny Hub’ in the corner of your screen as you explore the world. She’ll get hungry and she’ll become ill, so once you’ve gathered what she needs on a level, it’s often best to return to her immediately, rather than push on to the end. It all adds to that parental instinct for Toriko, but it is also runs the risk of being yet another obstacle that just adds to the slog like pacing of the game. Add to that the stupid invisible status traps that can only be found by repeatedly pressing the attack button everywhere you go and it’s clear to see that the developers have made it far too hard for the player to enjoy the heart and soul of Void Terrarium – the relationship between Robbie and Toriko.