It is the distant future and humanity is ruled by megacorporations that have carried the species into deep space. One spaceship is the Void Ark, a prison ship carrying thousands of “Clients” whose crimes range from damaging a rental vehicle to smelling bad near a corporate executive. Clients serve out their sentence by being dehydrated into a powder and stored in foil bags. Things aren’t going well for the Void Ark: Pirates have damaged its FTL drive, stranding the ship in the Sargasso Nebula. The Nebula is a dangerous expanse where ships get stuck while their Citizen passengers transform into feral mutants. The Void Ark’s AI has no choice but to rehydrate a Client and send them out to scavenge parts from the Nebula’s derelicts, repair the FTL drive, and carry the Void Ark to its final destination.
In Void Bastards, I take control of one of the Void Ark’s Clients as they scavenge the Sargasso Nebula. It’s a dangerous job, Citizens on derelict ships having mutated into monsters like Tourists, volatile blobs that explode when nearing a Client, and Screws, lumbering brutes who flood a room with ricocheting shards and take huge amounts of punishment before dying. I can’t afford to pour all my Client’s ammunition into a single Screw as resources in the Nebula are scarce; it is often more prudent to lock a dangerous enemy in a room than try and kill them all.
Thankfully Void Bastards provides me with all the information I need to safely scavenge a ship. Traversing the Nebula in the Void Ark’s transport craft, the STEV (“Steve”), I use limited food and fuel resources to navigate between derelicts.
The map screen tells me which enemies I will encounter on the ship and what unique parts and other resources I am likely to find aboard: Xon medical ships have stations where I can heal my Client, Lux cruise ships carry lots of food, and Krell tankers have lots of fuel. Using this information, I can decide if the resources I will use exploring a derelict are worth the resources I am likely to gain from the visit. It’s a smart idea in theory, but in practice by scouring every room and playing conservatively with hostile Citizens I almost always came out with a net gain on food and fuel. The only ships I skipped were ones that did not offer a valuable crafting part.
It’s not just the Citizens lurking on derelicts which are hazardous to my Clients, sometimes the ships themselves are just as big an obstacle. Some are filled with fire which burn my fragile Clients to death in seconds. Others are depowered, so I must first find my way to the ship’s Power room to restore those systems before I can loot the ship’s resources. Other ships have broken lighting systems, reducing my field of vision to mere feet in front of my Client, while still others have encountered anomalies which summon more powerful Citizens from deeper in the Nebula. Every ship has no atmosphere, so I must keep an eye on the Client’s Oxygen meter, which ticks ever closer to their demise while I fight Citizens and scrounge for supplies before racing back to the airlock. Even though every derelict I explore is made up of pre-built assets, repetition is tempered by how I can never predict exactly what I will run into even in rooms I’ve seen a dozen times.
Every time my Client returns from a ship they are laden with loot I can use with the STEV’s workbench. The broad goal of Void Bastards is to use this crafting table to build a string of items that will ultimately activate the Void Ark’s FTL drive, but most of what I will build here empowers my Clients. They begin their exploration of the Nebula with a single Regulator pistol, but using parts scavenged from the derelicts I can craft: a Rad Spiker, which creates a radiation cloud effective against small clustering Citizens; a Zapper, an electric tool that stuns Citizens and locks down security turrets and robots; a Bullet Hunter, which makes more Regulator bullets spawn on certain ship varieties; and dozens of other weapons and tools that give my Clients more of a chance in the deadly Sargasso Nebula.
If my Client does die while scavenging a ship there are plenty more vacuum sealed on the Void Ark, just waiting to be rehydrated and take the deceased’s place. When the inevitable occurs, the STEV will return to the Void Ark to pick up a new one, passing on all the tools and resources my former Client collected.
Each Client has random traits, some positive and some negative. My first Client, Chester Stevens, is a habitual Smoker who randomly coughs, possibly alerting nearby Citizens to his presence. Later, I get Chester killed by an army of Janitors and his replacement is Marie White who always loses at the slot machines on Lux cruise ships because of her Unlucky trait. Some traits really suck—one of my last Clients was Clumsy and would fail reloads 10% of the time, losing all ammo from the clip in the process—but they can be changed at gene therapy stations on certain Xon medical ships. Rehydrating a new Client subtly changes the strategy I may use, and may even briefly change my short-term goals entirely.
Void Bastards utilizes a stylish comic book visual aesthetic. Cutscenes are framed in white-bordered panels staggered across a single screen, while Citizens are flat sprites with simple animations. It’s an appealing presentation, but where the comic book appearance is most cleverly applied is when it gives me clues on what lurks in the next room. If I examine a door, I can “see” sounds which tell me what to expect upon opening it: A “whir” sound effect means a Secbot-summoning security camera is somewhere in the next room, while “hover” means a floating Scribe will be in the next room. It’s a clever system that uses the visual language of comic books to communicate sound-based clues.
I kept waiting for Void Bastard to become more than it first appeared, for some new goal or idea to emerge. I waited in vain. My first goal is to collect rare parts to craft a tool to activate the Void Ark’s FTL drive; my last goal is to collect rare parts to craft a tool to activate the Void Ark’s FTL drive. There’s no twist that introduces a new element to the Sargasso Nebula. The pirates that damaged the Void Ark in the first place spend more time commenting on my Client’s actions than actually interfering with it. I see all Citizen varieties within a few hours of entering the Nebula. There are no unique boss fights standing between my Client and their destination. I anticipate Void Bastards becoming bigger or deeper than it first appears to be, and it never happens. Luckily, I quite like what Void Bastards is at its outset, but if I hadn’t I would have been frustrated by its homeostasis.
When I think of past experiences with players characters that easily die and are replaced by randomly generated new ones, I remember brutal difficulty. Void Bastards did not feel this way; I completed my repairs of the Void Ark’s FTL drive on my seventh or eighth Client in about ten hours. Diligent exploration of every derelict I came across gave me all the tools I needed to handle every situation that got in my way, my few deaths resulting from new hazards I did not know how to counter. There are multiple difficulty options, including a One-Client-Only Ironman mode, and I regret not choosing a higher difficulty than the default at the outset. There are also post-game Challenges unlocked after my first win which provide additional variations. All of these options, however, suffer from the same problem as the base game: There is no breadth or depth. Void Bastards is exactly what it first appears to be.
Void Bastards is a collection of familiar design conceits from the so-called “Roguelite” genre mashed up with first-person shooter sci-fi tropes and a macabrely anti-corporate sense of humor. Its comforting loop of raiding a derelict, crafting new equipment from claimed loot, then deciding which direction to go next in the Nebula takes only a few minutes, making it ideal for short drop-in sessions. The only concern is that it doesn’t grow or compound its ideas to build to something greater; if you’re bored at the start, you’re going to be bored at the end. But I enjoyed Void Bastards, a smart and funny survival shooter.