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Void Bastards Review – A Charming Bastard

You have to admit that as names go Void Bastards is a pretty good one. It captures your attention, just like the striking graphical style does. Once you’ve been successfully reeled in by the cool name and pretty pictures, though, what exactly does Void Bastards offer up? British accents, spaceships, tourists and lots of stuff to craft. That’s what.

Without a shadow of a doubt Void Bastards is one of the best looking games of recent years. Splashes of rich color, loads of neon, lots of contrast and strong lines all combine to create something unique. For the first while each new ship you board is a chance to soak up the graphics. The magenta of the luxury cruise ships, the blue glow given off by an enemy as it gets ready to attack, it all looks amazing. I’ve seen other reviews compare Void Bastard to a comic, but as an avid comic reader I don’t see it. It feels unique to Void Bastards.

Platforms: PC, Xbox One
Reviewed On: Xbox One X
Developer: Blue Manchu
Publisher: Humble Bundle

As it turns out you’re actually a prisoner on-board an automated starship. The prisoners on this ship have all been turned into a powder via a special dehydration technology. But with the ship now stranded the friendly British A.I. has decided to rehydrate you in order to fix the ship. Don’t get too attached, though; your prisoner is entirely disposable. Get killed and you’ll simply step into the shoes of another rehydrated prisoner with their own name and a very short description of their crime. More importantly, each prisoner comes with specific traits, some of which are practical and others that are…not so much. My personal favourite was a trait which let you know the first name of every robot, enemy and camera. Hey Phil, sorry about having to shoot you in the face. There’s even special ships that let you add or remove traits, like letting you detect nearby enemies or everything turning black and white.

Unlike most rogue-likes, though, death really doesn’t hit you hard in Void Bastards. Rather than lose everything you get to keep all the items you’ve crafted and instead only lose your Merits (cash) and current supplies of food, fuel and ammo.

The voice of the A.I. who rehydrated you (he was also the narrator in The Stanley Parable) politely gives you an objective: fly out into the void and collect parts to fix the ship. This is the narrative height Void Bastards is capable of reaching. As soon as you retrieve the first batch of the parts the A.I. chucks you out the airlock to go find more. Void Bastards is essentially one long hunt for parts.

In other words, this is not a story-driven game. There’s no overarching narrative to think about or twists or turns which will shock you to the core. You just shoot stuff, grab loot and head toward the parts you need.

Which isn’t to say that there aren’t a few fun pieces of world-building going on. For example, all the ships floating out in the void have been overtaken by mutated “citizens” who appear to have been former crew, tourists and passengers. Now, strange portals spit these beings out. Weirder still, these odd citizens appear to be very, very British. Ambling around the corridor it’s perfectly normal to hear one of the Juve’s calling you a butt face, or for a Scribe to panic and run away.

On the map of the Nebula you get to choose where to head next, always moving from left to right and never going back. Each move you make costs fuel and food, so inevitably you’ll need to dock at one of the dozens and dozens of ships that litter space. Ships will provide a brief idea of what they have onboard, as well as the enemies you might run across. Other than that, it’s up to you whether to board them or not.

The actual layout of each vessel is pieced together randomly using different modules. The helm, for example, will let populate your map with all the loot locations, while visiting the security room can let you briefly switch off cameras and such. The first thing you’ll probably do when boarding a new ship is quickly check out the map to get the lay of the land. It’s important to find out where the oxygen supply is, too, since you’ve got a limited amount in your suit.

Not only can you restock on food and fuel at these ships but they are also littered with various bits of junk that you need to craft new tools. Void Bastards has a pretty expansive crafting menu, from upgrades to your existing gear to new stuff. A drill and chain, for example, can be turned into a machine gun that spews nails. I attempted this in real life and after my fingers were stitched back on I was amazed to discover that combining a drill and chain did not work. Anyway, the point is the desire to craft new tools is more of a driving force than scouring for the parts needed to advance the storyline. There’s always the allure of an upgraded pistol or better armor.

Considering the game does point out that stealth can be as good an option as an all-out assault it’s disappointing that almost all the gear you can build is focused combat. There’s only one true stealth weapons which shoots poison darts. These darts take time to kill the enemy, though, which can be awkward when your oxygen supply is constantly draining. But really, it’s the layout of the ships and enemy placements that stop stealth being a true option. Sure, you can sneak around and sometimes it’s effective, but for the most part Void Bastards pushes you toward a much more aggressive playstyle.

So how is the combat? The blunt answer is that it does the job and nothing more. There’s a reasonable choice of weapons from the Stapler – which acts as a shotgun which literally fires a hail of staples – to the cute kitty bot which draws the attention of nearby enemies before exploding. You’ll be using them against a very small selection of cool-looking enemies, such as the Spook who likes to vanish and then re-appear behind you. Void Bastards could have done with having more enemy types to do battle against, but the ones it does have are at least visually memorable, if not memorable for their combat styles.

The big issue with the combat is how it typically boils down to pulling the trigger until either you or the enemy is dead. Dodging incoming attacks is nigh on impossible, so aside from ducking into cover there isn’t much to the firefights. Some of the environment can be clambered over, but a lot of it can’t be and trying to figure out which is frustrating.

I had hoped that since Void Bastards markets itself as a strategy-shooter that the raft of craftable items might provide plenty of fun experimentation. Sadly there’s very little in the way of cool things to figure out. About the most inventive thing is to hack a turret and then use the handy teleporter gun to carry the turret around with you, popping it back into existence wherever you like.

Outside of this, though, there aren’t many strategies in this strategy-shooter. You shoot stuff and you blow other stuff up and that’s it. Some spice is thrown into the mix via environmental hazards like fire, smoke or electrified cables, but it’s not enough to make the combat interesting.

But I did very much enjoy the way that doors work in Void Bastards. I know that sentence sounds a little odd, but out in space doors are quite important. Most doors can be closed and locked, and the strange citizens roaming the ship typically don’t understand how to deal with such a complex concept. Locking doors becomes a useful tool, letting you imprison enemies or quarantine the void portals that spit more foes out.

There’s no way to heal yourself up when other ships outside of a single module that appears quite rarely. This is one of the things that genuinely excited me about Void Bastards; your health carries over. Opting to rest when on the map consumes food and regenerates some health, but not heaps of it. It forces you to keep a wary eye on the health bar, and makes things more tense when you’re running low.

A few other options appear on ships if you’re willing to spend Merits, Void Bastards’ equivalent of cash. Turrets can be hacked, your oxygen supply can be extended and your map can even be updated to show all enemy locations. Or you can save Merits to unlock lockers and drawers that will give you a special part. Oh, the choices!

Void Bastards can be a lot of times, and sucks you into its gameplay loop with ease. Board a ship, shoot some stuff, hoover up all the loot and then bugger off to another ship. But after a few hours that same loop does start to lose its appeal. There’s too little visual variation in ships and too few enemy types to encounter. After an hour or two you’ll have experience everything Void Bastards has to offer. After six or seven hours you’ll probably feel like you’re done.

Luckily ramping up the difficulty helps a lot. On the standard setting Void Bastards is a pretty easy time, but on a higher difficulty resources become more careful, stealth is more useful as a way to grab important parts without taking damage and running through ships just isn’t smart. While you can’t become more creative with how you tackle things you do need to become more thoughtful about the risks you take.

While Void Bastards may not be on the list of best games in 2019 it’s still a lot of fun. The fact that it’s available on the Xbox Games Pass is a massive bonus, so if you have Games Pass there’s really no excuse for not playing Void Bastards. Outside of Games Pass the asking price of £24.99 is reasonable for this charming indie game and its gorgeous graphics.

3 out of 5

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