What is it? BioShock-y FPS where you steal things from spaceships.
Reviewed on i5-3570K, 16GB RAM, GTX 970
Release date 29 May
Developer Blue Manchu
Publisher Humble Bundle
Link: Official site
Ever since BioShock Infinite released and Irrational in its previous form went away, I've gladly played any games that offer a comparable experience. That is, a first-person shooter where you have more at your disposal than just cool guns. Void Bastards is described as a strategy shooter inspired by System Shock 2 and BioShock, and it features the talents of some former Irrational staff that previously made 2013's Card Hunter. It replicates the feeling of the combat in those games in some ways, but also recalls FTL and 2017's Heat Signature, and has its own strange humour that tonally sets it apart.
You are a prisoner, travelling across the galaxy to please the whims of a HR computer that might eventually grant you your freedom. You get across space with an FTL-style map interface, and while most locations are enemy spaceships that you can board, loot and subsequently escape, there are also stores, asteroid ranges and deadly hazards to be aware of. Mostly, though, your time is spent navigating these ships in first-person, looking for specific items to progress, then escaping before you're killed.
Your character has pre-existing perks, both positive and negative, and if you die, you play as another disposable criminal with different perks. A negative perk might be your character coughing every now and then, attracting enemy attention, or being more easily detected by security cameras and gun turrets. A positive one might be better aim, or a higher chance of a critical shot. The levels are partly procedurally generated: the maps of the different ships you'll board stay the same, but walls, enemy locations, obstacles and more will change each time. This means you can roughly learn where you're going on each ship (usually to the helm, where you can download a map of where all the loot is on a given ship), but that you can't really be certain of what you'll go up against.
While there is a stealth element to Void Bastards, it's mostly about shooting weird, British aliens in tight corridors and rooms. The standard immersive sim elements are here in some form: you can hack turrets to fight on your side, take out security cameras, or shut down security entirely from a terminal on the ship. What you can control on each ship is partly determined by a currency called merits, which only last for a single playthrough—so every turret you convert to your side has a cost. You might also spend some merits for a combat boost, too. Some loot containers only open if you spend a bunch of merits, and what's inside is usually worth it.
The crafting system in Void Bastards is excellent, and I say that as someone who usually loathes boring equivalent systems in other games. If you want to craft something specific, a location tool in the game will tell you which ship on the map will grant you the parts to make it. Everything you craft is consistent between deaths, so the penalty for dying is usually just being further away from your main objective, and losing some fuel and food. You could die a whole lot and not reach your goal, then, but your armoury can grow exponentially while you're trying. It's a neat and rewarding power curve, even if starting with almost nothing seems initially gruelling.
Here's the problem, though: I only intermittently enjoyed Void Bastards' actual combat. The tools are great, and often very fun to use, but holy cow there are only a few enemy types in this game that I found fun to fight and not annoying. Some are deliberately overpowered and meant to be avoided in a lot of cases, which is fine. But exploding enemies that sometimes sit near doors and blow up before you ever notice them are not favourites of mine (on-screen sound effects tell you which enemy types are behind a door, but they're still easy to miss). Another enemy type, a collection of flying robots that do major damage up close, is irritating to fight if you're not carrying specific weapons.
It's the NPC barks that really turn me off the enemies in Void Bastards, though. One of the basic enemies shouts 'surprise, buttface/twatface!' whenever you're caught by them, which I can't stand, and the game is rife with enemies barking irritating British things (note: I am British). Humour is extremely subjective, so this might appeal to you, but after the hundredth time of hearing a variant of 'twatface!' I realised they were actually spoiling the experience of playing the game. Generally, the tone isn't too offensive, and some of the out-of-level jokes aren't bad either. It reminds me of Borderlands, in that I'm fighting the tone of the game to enjoy the rest of it.
Sometimes Void Bastards captures the thrilling feeling of being a thief who grabs the objective, gets caught, then escapes in a hail of gunfire. Mostly, though, I found firefights to be a bit of a slog, with some levels jam-packed with enemies that aren't loads of fun to fight in excessive numbers. Some of the pieces of the combat don't quite click together for me. Overriding turrets is a useful way to get them to stop firing at you—especially the deadlier versions waiting deeper into the game—but having them as allies rarely feels that useful in the mostly tight corridors of these ships.
Even with all the tools, only occasionally did I feel like I was using a strategy more nuanced than 'kill everything as fast as possible with explosives', or 'run away'. Using a teleportation gun to manually move an enemy in front of a couple of allied turrets felt cool, for example, but usually there's too much going on to pull off anything that precise, and I'm better off throwing some cluster bombs then legging it.
There are a lot of other things to like in Void Bastards. You can get attacked by pirates, who hunt you down on a ship, and need to be untethered from yours, which is an interesting in-game event. The comic book-style visuals, from art director Benjamin Lee and 3D artist Dean Walshe, are fantastic, and even extend to the crafting menu and look of your criminal character. Lee worked on the Freedom Force games, so it's no surprise the game looks so damn nice.
While the FTL-style space interface is pretty simple stuff—you don't make narrative choices like you do in that game—some of the outcomes are cool. If you loot a torpedo aboard a ship, you can later use it to blow up a pirate vessel and escape, where you'd otherwise normally be tethered to their ship. You have to circumnavigate some giant void whales, too, which can eat your ship and end your run instantly. You can also set off an EMP blast that can knock out nearby threats.
I don't always love Void Bastards as a shooter, even if I really like everything around the shooting—the cadence of unlocking new tools and other rewards has a perfect power curve. It'll take around 13 or so hours to finish a single run, and even after doing that, you can carry on unlocking stuff and taking on harder enemies, or upping the difficulty. I'm considering another run, even though I spent so long sighing at enemy barks, or getting shot at by inexplicably placed turrets, or getting too close to exploding enemies without realising it. There's just something compulsive about arriving on a new ship and finding that next thing you need that Void Bastards nails.