Boy is it fun to be a bastard
I haven't finished Void Bastards, but I need to talk about it to someone.
I don't play a lot of roguelikes, or roguelike-likes, or whatever it's been decided to call them at a given moment. The excellent Rogue Legacy is truly the only other game of this kind that I can identify as being a fan of, thanks to its persistent upgrades that guaranteed no matter how badly I played, I was making some kind of progress. That goes a long way to making an extremely challenging game doable for me. Enter Void Bastards.
Void Bastards is a first-person shooter with a terrific premise. A prison ship carrying a million inmates loses its FTL drive in the Sargasso Nebula, a rather dangerous and crowded region of space. Mysteriously, the entire crew of the ship has died, leaving the prisoners and the on-board AI the only survivors. The AI decides the best course of action is to begin sending the prisoners out one by one to scavenge for parts to save the ship.
The first man out the door is Chester Stevens, the only character aside from the tutorial prisoner who is not randomly generated. Everyone who comes after him is a draw from a hat, and every prisoner comes with their own randomly generated traits that can positively or negatively affect gameplay. One character might have Long Arms, which allows them to push buttons and grab supplies from a greater distance than normal. Another may be a Smoker, coughing randomly which can alert nearby enemies.
You take these prisoners and their personal quirks out into the nebula via the beautifully rendered star map, which conveys a lot of information. Every node on the map is a ship, a hunk of supplies floating in space, or just plain emptiness. Every ship can be boarded, but before you suit up, it's important to closely examine the situation you're about to put yourself into. The game helpfully reveals important details about every ship you look at, giving you an idea of the supplies that are on board, the enemies you'll face, and the randomly generated traits that the ship itself has. These can be anything from deadly radiation leaks to lax security. Of course, the game leaves just enough details out of this information panel to surprise you.
Before boarding, you select a primary weapon and two gadgets to bring with you. Pairing the right items together can be crucial once you begin encountering tougher enemies that require unique solutions. The early game can be blasted through without much hassle, but some of the enemies encountered deeper in the nebula make it harder to play the gunslinger without getting creative. Thankfully, there are plenty of options in the way of explosives, stunning devices, and distractions to get the desired outcome in an encounter. The actual gunplay takes on a sort of DOOM-feel, complete with frantic sidestepping and circle strafing around enemies while firing from the hip.
Understanding the layout of each ship is just as crucial to winning fights. The first stop I tend to make is the helm, where I can download ship data to get a sense of where loot and enemies are located. I then check to see if the ship has an oxygen room, so that I can refill if needed. Crucially, not every ship has every type of "room." In some cases it's a good idea to board a ship that has a specific piece of equipment when you find it, like a medical station, or else it might be a while before it comes up again.
Torpedo bays are especially valuable, because you'll also encounter enemies while navigating the star map. Roaming pirate ships and ghoulish void whales float through the nebula in search of prey. If you've collected a torpedo during a mission, it will automatically destroy a threat that occupies the same node as you. My dealings with pirates when I don't have any torpedos have had a 100% fatality rate. It's very important to have torpedos.
Some of the other items you'll loot on these ships are parts used to create and upgrade new gear, ammunition, and bits of junk that get recycled at the end of the mission. This junk turns into basic materials that can be used to create parts, which in turn create the gear and upgrades. It's a confusing system at first, in part because the layout of these menus is actually quite overwhelming. But the game will indicate when you have enough materials to create something, and helpful popups clearly spell out what exactly a part can be used for.
Eventually there's a bit of repetitiveness to exploring these ships throughout the nebula, though the game layers on some visual and musical details here and there to give each ship its own identity. There's actually a surprising amount of musicality to Void Bastards' presentation. Each ship type has its own theme music that changes dynamically when entering combat. I especially like the quirky, twisted jazz number that kicks in aboard the luxury ships. And I really dig the music notes that play when selecting nodes on the star map. It's a great sounding game, and a phenomenal looking one as well. Void Bastards' comic aesthetic carries through every inch of the experience, from the cel-shaded character models to the onomatopoetic words that accompany sound effects.
This being one of Those Games, Void Bastards has permadeath, though all of your upgrades and acquired gear will be available to use for the next prisoner in line. In some cases death can be a blessing, as was the case when an inmate I took control of had a resourcefulness trait that pulled more materials from recycled junk. It's not uncommon to get a prisoner, however, that you're better off casting to the wolves on the first ship you board to get a better roll on the next one. It's best not to think about that part too much.
Void Bastards is successful at presenting new and exciting combat and resource challenges. Should I go in guns blazing, or try to create distractions? Often when up against the wall I'll take what I've come to affectionately call the bastard approach, which means to sprint through all the hazards, taking unbelievable damage while also causing mayhem with grenades, and grabbing as much as I can before hitting the airlock. Even at its most heartbreaking, when I thought I had a golden opportunity to acquire a much needed resource only to be obliterated by a security bot, it's impossible to get upset at a game this cool. And some of its best surprises are better kept secret, like the weapon I built after 10 or so hours of play that completely changed the game. Shoutout to B.A.C.S, the robotic AI who takes a humorously cold, corporate approach to human mortality. I've got a million prisoners to put through the grinder in this nebula. One of them has to get the job done.
All images taken from the official Void Bastards website. This game is too frantic to fiddle with the Xbox One capture system.