The droll wit of Void Bastards is baked into its very premise: A transport spaceship bearing an assortment of freeze-dried prisoners (more room that way) is stranded in a particularly nasty nebula. There, pirates roam, monsters devour ships, and all the unfortunate citizens have been bizarrely mutated into murderous, foul-mouthed horrors.
Once rehydrated, prisoners are shooed out into this unforgiving corner of space to scavenge derelict ships for parts until their probable death, after which the next unfortunate soul indicted for a comedically pedantic crime (having too many teabags, entering an office after business hours) continues the work. And so on. The gears of capitalism turn even in these ruins of bureaucratic failure, a sprawl of files and forms and insidiously softened terminology from which the prisoners (who are referred to as “clients”) may cobble together the tools to return home, where things probably aren’t all that different anyway.
As setups go, it’s a cheeky, immaculate framing device for a roguelike, which typically deals in randomized levels, permanent character deaths, and accumulable items. It contextualizes its inherently morbid repetition as, in the terms of this pencil-pushing dystopia, “expendable” prison labor, which allows Void Bastards to start shifting variables as early as the start of every attempt. Since each prisoner is a distinct entity, each comes with randomized traits, like being short (meaning they don’t need to crouch and are harder to hit) or never being attacked by one specific type of mutant. Others might smoke and therefore cough every so often, or shout in joy every time they pick up an item, both of which will alert nearby enemies to their position.
Such interactions between different variables, even as small as the way incidental noises affect stealth, typify the other genre that developer Blue Manchu patterns Void Bastards after: the immersive sim. In the image of System Shock, BioShock, and Prey, you have a variety of options to survive your first-person scavenging. Whether you favor stealth, traps, or running and gunning, the goal is to potentially take advantage of all the different systems at work. You can lock mutants in a room with a cluster bomb, or perhaps get creative with the Rifter, which warps an enemy out of existence until you bring them back in whatever location you wish.
But those same systems can also work against you. For one, a ship with sporadic power outages might mean, at the worst possible moment, that you need to take a detour and give the generator a good kick. Both the roguelike and immersive sim are predicated on happy accidents, unexpected consequences, and the adaptation necessitated by both.
Void Bastards does, though, dramatically simplify the scavenging process to encourage a more frenetic style of play. Rather than fiddle with an inventory screen, prisoners vacuum up every single item inside green storage containers, which are marked on the minimap when you’re in range. This shift turns each excursion into more of an actual run, where you’re skating down metallic corridors, popping open containers, and blasting (or fleeing from) any enemies in the way. From there, the game piles on additional pressure points, like a limited oxygen supply or rifts that endlessly spawn enemies. You can certainly mitigate most of these risks—lock the doors to the rift, visit the oxygen resupply room if there is one—but it will take time, oxygen, and perhaps health if you run into, say, a powerful gun turret on the way.
These scenarios can even create further complications. What if the rift spouting nasty conglomerates of floating heads is in the oxygen room? The game is successfully designed to force you into split-second decisions and rethink your strategies, given the way its different systems interact in pressure-mounting ways. That said, the game doesn’t eliminate the immersive sim’s more meditative qualities so much as shift them to a separate planning stage. Prior to boarding a derelict vessel, you’re given a detailed readout of what to expect and allowed to choose equipment accordingly. It tells you enemy types and the quantity of each, what resources are plentiful, and what complications will arise, like power outages or radiation leaks. You even get a map of the ship in question, with items logically distributed among the named rooms; food, as you might imagine, is most plentiful in the dining hall.
The amount of forethought the game affords you is rare among roguelikes, which tend to introduce things by surprise. It imbues Void Bastards with a greater sense of consequence since you’re not at the mercy of randomization so much as your ability to plan and execute, as well as knowing when to retreat or when to avoid a ship entirely. An ideal run of Void Bastards is about planning, going on a run, and then having your plans upended by any of the different variables at work, requiring you to quickly adapt while coming up with a new plan.
However, this also means that Void Bastards is at its weakest when everything hums along smoothly. The game features a variety of absurd, amusing weapons and its distinctive comic-book art style is pleasing to look at, but a glut of smooth, uncomplicated runs can grow monotonous. The amount of strategy it affords you somewhat hinders its ability to tempt you off the path of least resistance, into the unknown and the sense of discovery that makes both roguelikes and immersive sims truly shine. But beyond this issue, what makes Void Bastards so thrilling is exactly what elevates other great nontraditional roguelikes like Slay the Spire and The Binding of Isaac: for fitting together disparate genres, in this case the roguelike and the immersive sim, so perfectly that you wonder how nobody thought to combine them sooner.
This game was reviewed using a download code provided by Humble Bundle.
Since 2001, we've brought you uncompromising, candid takes on the world of film, music, television, video games, theater, and more. Independently owned and operated publications like Slant have been hit hard in recent years, but we’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or fees.
If you like what we do, please consider subscribing to our Patreon or making a donation.