Strip away the thematic concepts and storytelling, and a game like BioShock focuses on creative problem-solving. How do I confront and control a space through the use of unusual tools, stealth, and outright assault, and come out the other end better for the exchange? Void Bastards explores that core dynamic with a procedural loop, focusing on opportunities for strategy and improvement, and eschewing characters and story with an almost nihilistic abandon. The result is a relatively pure flow of discovery and mastery for many hours, diminished only by an eventual sense of rote.
Mirroring the darkest corners of Douglas Adams’ sci-fi vision of outer space overwhelmed by bureaucracy, you play a smattering of mostly minor criminals who have been “dehydrated” into snack-sized bags of powder. When a hazardous nebula turns a transport’s crew feral, a mindless computer rehydrates you to get the ship out of danger. The relatively simple task is complicated by inane jobs set by the ship, like the need to laminate an ID card to authorize shipboard control, so it’s off to explore the wrecks of nearby ships (and their mutated crews) to find the requisite supplies.
Borrowing elements from the roguelite genre, each prisoner rockets off with the same crafted weapons, armor, and tools left behind by your last unfortunate expired protagonist. You manage food, fuel, and wandering spaceborne threats like pirates to avoid certain death in the void. Instead, you face certain death onboard the ships on which you’re gathering supplies. If you’re lucky, you return with the parts, only to face another bureaucratic hurdle. The dark absurdist humor shines through, even as the repeated deaths mostly lose their sting, since you’re still consistently progressing broader goals regardless of who you are controlling.
Each ship you visit is a strategic challenge, filled with perverse enemies, helpful supplies, and stations you can work to solve the puzzle. The helm has a map of supply locations, but you need to turn on the power generator in a different room first. The drill you need is in the Hab unit, but you need to deactivate the gun turret in the security room to reach it. Everything is interconnected, and I enjoyed learning the many ways to manipulate the varied ship configurations encountered through the smart procedural generation.
Along the way, the insane and mutated ship crews stand in your way at nearly every turn, each spouting incoherent ramblings that not-so-subtly jab at modern-day society. Matronly supervisors berate you for being late to your shift. Scrambling short-statured “Juves” gleefully scream profanities to see if they can shock you. Spooks sneak up behind you and disappear from view as you begin to attack.
Enemies each offer their own challenges to avoid or defeat, and further complicate the riddle of navigating any given ship. Environmental factors like radiation, fire, and oil slicks add yet another layer of complexity. On top of it all, just as you master one enemy type or ship setup, you progress to more potent challenges. On that front, I appreciate the adjustable difficulty; roguelites can sometimes feel calibrated to only welcome hardcore players, but Void Bastards can be customized to welcome anyone from casual to veteran.
A thoughtfully imagined crafting system provides minor player-set goals in the midst of the set tasks that push the adventure forward. With enough recycled materials, you can create different weapons, protective armors, and other helpful equipment. From the shotgun-like stapler to the clusterflak gun, the weapons and explosives are silly and fun to use, even if it’s frustrating to be low on ammo for the weapon you currently need the most.
Void Bastards’ biggest dilemma is in the sense of repetition that emerges after several hours. Even with smart procedural generation, ship layouts eventually begin to feel too similar, and enemy configurations feel like frustrating road blocks rather than meaningful encounters. And while the storytelling does its job of reinforcing a sort of anarchic and cynical view of how meaningless life can seem, that theme doesn’t do any favors to helping a player feel invested over time.
Even so, there is an ending of sorts, and Void Bastards seems to recognize that it’s running out of steam within a few hours after the tedium kicks in. Even in those final hours, I was still impressed by the consistent tone, smart mix of stealth and action, and the tension of managing your characters’ lean chances of survival. Void Bastards is funny, misanthropic, and yet still fun to play, and even after arising from some pretty clear inspirations, manages to feel like its own mutated beast.