Void Bastards is a visually striking strategy-shooter that has you exploring the vast Sargasso Nebula as a ragtag band of prisoners, scavenging enemy vessels in search of supplies, and doing everything in your power to remain alive. This unique game is heavily inspired by BioShock and System Shock in a number of ways, which is unsurprising as the studio Blue Manchu is headed by none other than Jonathan Chey, the former design director of the aforementioned titles. Thankfully, Void Bastards charts its own course, delivering you a bizarre space adventure unlike anything you’ve experienced.
Void Bastards blends the space simulation of a game like FTL with the fast-paced action of a game like DOOM, mixing in the perfect amount of sci-fi atmosphere and bizarre characters to really make it its own. The game opens with gorgeous comic book-style panels giving you a bit of context to the story before throwing you into a mission to retrieve an item. Little do you know, this tutorial level is designed to introduce you to the basic mechanics of the game, opening doors, unlocking doors, looting items, and more, without the use of your gun—which is unfortunately out of ammo. At the end of this scripted mission, you encounter some rogue space pirates who quickly gun you down, prematurely ending your newfound space adventure. Upon returning to the Void Ark, the main hub of Void Bastards, you find out you are just a disposable means to an end. Another prisoner—cordially referred to as “clients” in this game—is immediately “rehydrated,” by taking an instant mix solution and adding water to it. And, just like that, you’ve got another character ready to take on the challenges of the galaxy.
If all that sounds a bit bizarre, then strap in, because Void Bastards is full of quirky British humor and unorthodox methods. Each client you take control of comes equipped with a small supply of fuel, one of the main resources used to travel, and food, a consumable resource that keeps your client’s health up as you navigate the cosmos. You also get a handful of merits, the currency used in-game to purchase items and authorize transactions aboard the various vessels. On top of that, you get a random assortment of ammunition, dependent on the weapons you have unlocked up to that point. The most interesting aspect of the clients, however, is that they are randomized, both in appearance and the traits that are assigned to them. Traits can be positive or negative, and affect the way you play through each run. For instance, the first character you get has the Smoker trait, which means they will periodically cough, alerting enemies nearby to your location. Other traits you may encounter are Colorblind, in which your character can only view the world in black and white, and Shallow Breather, which extends the oxygen supply you have aboard each ship, allowing you to explore for a longer period of time. There are dozens of unique traits that can be assigned to clients, and certain ships allow you to modify your genetic makeup and add or remove traits to your character, something that feels very reminiscent of a game like BioShock.
As you explore the Sargasso Nebula, you’ll encounter over 20 different enemy vessels. Each vessel has a specific type, like an Ambulance ship, which has a medical room on board to replenish health, or Luxury Cruise ships, which have a dining hall packed with food. Every different vessel type has a unique layout that is persistent throughout every run, but the enemies aboard, as well as the loot, are randomized each time you board. This means that the more you play through Void Bastards, the more you’ll feel comfortable navigating each ship, locating secrets, and finding the optimal route through. Most of the loot you’ll find aboard can be used to craft specific items and upgrades at the workbench aboard the Void Ark, which you can access after each mission. There is a large skill tree that allows you to build and unlock new firearm types, indirect items such as grenades and traps, and devices, like the Zapper which can stun enemies or the Kitty Bot, a robot cat that distracts enemies before exploding. In total, there are almost 50 unique weapons that can be equipped, with many containing multiple unique upgrades. At the beginning of each mission, your client can equip a single firearm, indirect item, and device. Depending on the enemy types aboard and layout of a given vessel, there is a lot of strategy in configuring your loadout.
Once your character is killed in Void Bastards, they are gone for good, losing all the fuel, food, ammunition and merits you’ve collected along the way. A new client is rehydrated, given a new randomized set of traits and care package, and the journey begins anew. Thankfully, any items you’ve crafted and materials you’ve collected carry over, adding a bit of roguelike elements to the game. This is where the game hooks you. You play through missions, collecting important items to ultimately build and restart the Void Ark’s FTL drive. The is the extent of the story, however, as it becomes just one long fetch quest for certain items. As you journey deeper into the nebula though, enemies become more difficult, and the stakes get significantly higher.
There are a number of different enemies you’ll encounter during your intergalactic adventures. Many of the same core enemy types aboard the ships get recycled a lot, with some as simple as a palette swap and new abilities, which does get a bit old. Some enemies are easier than others to deal with, and once you learn their movement patterns and attack types, you’ll feel more confident taking them on. All of the enemies have a certain “floatiness” to them, which is a bit odd at first, but doesn’t really pose an issue. What does get annoying, however, is the banter and voice lines used for the enemies, as each type usually only has a few different phrases. If I get called “buttface” one more time, I swear I’m going to lose it.
At the core of Void Bastards is the gunplay, which unfortunately doesn’t feel all that good when compared to other modern first-person shooters. First, there is no way to aim down the sights, making your shots far less accurate. Couple this with the overall floaty feel of the game and combat can become downright infuriating at times as enemies hitboxes seem wildly inconsistent. Even though the guns and equippable items are vastly different in type and ability, many of them feel gimmicky and generally not useful. I found I was using the same core set of weapons and items for most of my playthroughs. However, because ammo is a scarce resource, sometimes you are forced to use other items and vary your gameplay.
Visually, Void Bastards is stunning, employing a flat, cel-shaded look similar to a game like Borderlands. The heavy outlines on everything makes you truly feel like you’re walking through a comic book, and the various ships you enter all have a different color palette and look to them. Sound effects, such as certain enemy footsteps, are visually represented by floating text like, “tap, tap, tap” and really make the comic book experience feel authentic. Enemy design is good, albeit very similar in many cases. But, when they die, they explode into a goopy blue explosion that looks and sounds amazing. Overall, this is one of the best iterations of a cel-shaded game I’ve ever seen.
If you’re looking for a game that you can easily sink some hours into, Void Bastards is worth your attention. With a campaign that lasts for roughly 12-15 hours, there’s plenty to explore and experience. Each new run you’re met with a new set of challenges that await you, and there’s always something to collect or upgrade. The lack of a true story is a bit of a letdown, as the atmosphere, characters, and world-building in this game makes me eager to learn more. Gameplay-wise, the game has an outstanding hook of looting ships, upgrading your gear, and progressing further into the Sargasso Nebula. The roguelike elements add a ton of replayability to the game, as each new character is given a unique set of traits that alter how you approach each run. The only real drawback is the actual gunplay, which doesn’t feel as precise or fun as other modern first-person shooters. Graphically, this is one of the best-looking cel-shaded games available, with a unique comic book aesthetic that is absolutely stunning. While there are a number of nods to the games that paved the way for it, Void Bastards is a uniquely different experience that will undoubtedly sink its teeth into you early as you journey deep into the cosmos.
Void Bastards is available now on PC and Xbox One. A review copy of the game was provided by Humble Bundle, and did not influence the review score in any way.