Last year, Void Bastards won one of my GOTY awards for its fantastic visual style. It wasn’t only the visuals that impressed me either; once the gameplay loop sucks you in, the game is a lot of fun and extremely addictive.
It’s been about a year since I last touched the game, so I figured it was time to dust off my [digital] copy and see if it still holds up. I’ve played a bunch of fantastic roguelikes since then, so perhaps it won’t feel quite as special as it once did.
Guess it’s time to be a Bastard one more, and head back into the Void.
Void Bastards presents its rather simple story via cel shaded comic strips (a style that has become quite popular as of late). Set aboard a prison ship, ‘The Void Ark’, the ship’s AI has selected you – one of the prisoners – to restart the ship’s FTL drive, which is currently non-functional. Unfortunately your citizen card gets shredded by mistake, meaning you’re not allowed to operate it. That means that you’ll need to scavenge the pieces needed to make a new one. Thus follows a string of hilariously bureaucratic red tape as you try to perform what should be a straightforward task.
The game has a strong opening tutorial section which shows that the beautiful visuals aren’t just restricted to the cutscenes; in fact, I’d argue that the visuals are far more impressive in-game. Everything retains that same comic-book look, right down to the sounds which are punctuated by bold zany text. It’s stylish, but also functional too: every enemy has its own unique sounds, making it easier to figure out what’s lurking around each corner. The game shows off a few of the early-game enemies in this tutorial, albeit safely behind locked doors. That safety doesn’t last for long though, as you’ll soon be met with death – something the game advises you was unavoidable.
This death introduces you to the main mechanic of the game: it’s a roguelike! Don’t let that put you off though, as its influence is relatively minimal. Following the initial criminal (or ‘client’)’s demise, the AI grabs another poor soul out of confinement pile to take over the duties of their predecessor. You can keep the items and gizmos acquired from before, so your journey will continue up until you run out of either food or fuel. Items are crafted via salvage, and there’s a pretty deep crafting system going on. You can use raw materials to make parts, and you can use those parts to make items. If you have a part you don’t need, you can always recycle it into materials that you can use for something else instead. All the items are useful, ranging from guns and body armour, to gizmos that allow you to hack turrets or make your shoes slip-proof. Considering the vast majority of the game focuses on scavenging and crafting, it’s great to see that there’s so much on offer, and it’s not all lost if you kick the bucket.
Clients act as more than just extra lives, however, as each one has a key trait that makes them quite different from the last. There’s a wide variety available, and I’m still finding ones I haven’t encountered before. My latest fella was super tall and could only just fit through doors, which made hiding a bit of a problem. Other traits can offer you advantages too, such as one that has a small appetite and consumes far less food than the others. It’s a lot of fun seeing what you’re going to get next, as most tend to be a little on the silly side.
Regardless of the client you’re stuck with, you’ll find yourself exploring a randomly generated nebula, hunting down randomly scattered parts. Flying to a new ship will cost fuel and food, and you can only travel forwards – meaning you’ll sometimes have to make decisions on where you’d prefer to go. You get some basic information on the ship, including what key parts you can find and the enemies you’ll encounter; however, as the ships are randomly generated, you’re in for a surprise as to how things will be laid out… but probably not much of one. You see, whilst ships are indeed randomly generated, the type of ship you enter will always contain the same key locations. Medical ships always have an operating theatre and a mart; LUX ships always have a restaurant, as well as a long corridor full of bedrooms for the residents; Military ships have torpedo rooms (where you can steal torpedoes for your own use!), and so on. They’re all technically different, but each type of ship does generally feel the same. Certain additional random conditions can mix things up slightly, such as having allied enemies or power cuts, but they only provide a small amount of additional spice.
Enemies can certainly help make things feel more exciting as you go about your journey, as there are a multitude of types available. Early on you will mostly encounter simple enemies such as Janitors and Tourists. The former wander around slowly and are pretty unobservant, but will become extremely aggressive when they know you’re there. The latter, on the other hand, are just cute little blobs. Cute little blobs that explode. There are many more to encounter, and the further depths offer harder variations of existing foes. They’re all extremely well designed, but the game doesn’t give you much help with knowing how to handle them – meaning that trial and error experimentation will be your best approach. That being said, a large number are probably best running or hiding from as direct combat can be a pain sometimes without the lack of gyro assist. If you’re in a pinch, most doors can be sealed shut too, which is useful for the toughest of foes like Screws and Zecs. There’s a variety of options available to deal with foes, so it’s worth taking note of your environment and playing around with what you’ve got to hand.
Of course, being a roguelike means that when your job is done, things are not over. For starters, there are a multitude of tweakable options that can make things harder or easier. Iron Man mode will make it so that one death results in a game over; whereas a crumbling nebula causes the universe to disintegrate over time. Take too long and you’ll be stuck in the vast nothingness of space. These options really help make the game as easy or hard as you want, which is very much welcome for gamers of all skill levels.
More interestingly, beating the game unlocks a bonus mode called ‘Workplace Challenges’. These offer new ways to play the game, and successfully completing them will reward you with ‘brownie points’ that can be used to unlock further challenges. There’s quite a few available, ranging from simple and fun to hard as nails. One encourages you to play the game stealthily, as enemies won’t spot you unless they’re close – however they’re also far tougher opponents, so if they do cotton on to your presence you’ll be in for trouble. Another removes parts, forcing you to craft everything you need from raw materials, which gives the crafting a very different feel. These challenges are a nice touch and if you like the core gameplay loop, they give you another reason to come back for another run.
How long you want to keep playing though, will depend purely on how fun you find that core loop. For me, I had a few playthroughs before setting it down again for a while. Revisiting the game now had me play through a couple more. I still love the game as much as before, but I can also see myself putting it back down again for another year or so before going in for another run. But I will definitely come back. The game certainly has a decent number of enemies, ships, and craftables to keep you entertained for a while – but it doesn’t have quite enough variety to keep you hook you for the long term. It doesn’t help that ship randomisation is generally pretty safe and never feels particularly different to the last one you entered. Small things like colour changes, room layouts, etc could have helped, but I think the game really just needed a bit more stuff. There’s DLC available that certainly helps to add a little more into the mix, but not enough to alleviate the problem.
GraVoid Bastards is as stunning as when I first played it, and offers a rather engaging gameplay loop based around scavenging and crafting. It’s held back a little by not having a huge amount of variety, but there’s certainly enough there to encourage at least another replay or two. It may not be something you’ll want to jump on at full price, but it’s certainly worth wishlisting and picking up on a discount at the very least. Not only is it like playing inside a comic book, but it’ll make you feel like a real Bastard.