Playing Void Bastards is like changing a bad habit: Randomly frustrating but it can be rewarding.
There is a major difference, however.
Changing bad habits will allow you to notice things you wouldn’t normally have noticed, so it will seem like life is throwing personal struggles at you every now and then.
Void Bastards is randomly frustrating because the fake randomness (video games rarely use actual randomness) is often cruel and unforgiving.
There’s still quite a bit of fun to be had in Void Bastards, though.
Void Bastards: The Setup
Void Bastard is a cel-shaded first-person rogue-like. This means that it has comic-style graphics and that the gamespaces are randomized – there aren’t standard maps, just a bunch of randomly chosen/created maps.
The goal of the game is to use your spaceship to leave an interstellar cloud called the Sargasso Nebula. The strategic part of the game takes place on a nebula map that vaguely resembles a randomized game board. Some of the tiles are lootable locations (spaceships or spacestations), some are simple resource drops (such as food or fuel), and others are more destructive (they might remove all your food). There are also random hazards such as space pirates, which will follow you about and enter any combat maps with you (by which I mean ‘against you’).
Combat happens in first-person perspective, by controlling one of an infinite number of ‘clients’. ‘Client’, in this case, is a corporate buzzword (the game is full of corporate speak because it leans heavily on a satire vibe) meaning ‘a prisoner who is hoping to shorten their sentence by working for the corporation’.
With the exception of the very first two clients, clients’ traits are randomized. Your first ‘client’ will die – it’s a scripted (unavoidable) event.
As for your next client? They’ll probably die too. And the one after that, and the one after that, and so on.
This is possibly the most realistic part of the game, because corporations don’t care about people.
Void Bastards: I Am Not A Number
Diffrent ‘clients’ have randomized gene traits. The phrase ‘gene traits’ is a bit of a misnomer – some traits aren’t genetic, such as Smoker (the client coughs are random intervals, thereby making stealth difficult) or Airlock Tech (the client can leave the map via any exit, not just the one they entered through).
Apart from these traits, the prisoners are all identical, gameplay-wise. The prisoners can be male or female, but that doesn’t affect the gameplay (as opposed to many of the Elder Scrolls games). It can be fun in a macabre way to see what each prisoner did to land in prison. I don’t know if this is just my game, but half of my prisoners have been guilty of tax fraud. If that was on purpose it’s genius – if there’s one thing corporations hate, it’s losing money.
The player could, of course, not care about prisoners and treat them as disposable – you know, just like in real life.
But when you get that one prisoner whose gene traits match your playstyle, you’ll try your hardest to keep them alive. The game, however, clearly doesn’t want that to happen.
Void Bastards: In Space Nobody Can Hear You Swear At Your Screen
This probably all sounds fine and dandy so far, so let’s examine how frustrating the game can be at times, because I don’t want to you think this whole thing is just a spacewalk in the park.
Unless you actively search for it, you’re not going to find much ammo. There are upgrades you can unlock which will increase your ability to collect ammunition, but you’ll be hours into the game before that happens. This means you need to use stealth, which is actually more like stealth-lite for a modern game. There’s no ‘lean’ ability, and attacking someone while you’re hiding doesn’t let you do any bonus damage to them.
There are also various turrets (Gunpoints, Boompoints) and cameras (Peepers), randomly placed throughout the map. The turrets take so much ammo to be destroyed that it’s often not worth attacking them.
There are also many environmental hazards to deal with, such as oil slicks which will make controlling your client difficult for about 10 seconds, and broken electrical cables which will damage you if you stand on them. Thankfully, most environmental hazards can be dealt with simply by jumping over them.
It’s also possible to enter a ship only to find out that the power is out, meaning all the doors are open. This matters because locking doors is a major survival strategy. The only cure is to power up the ship by locating and using the generator console. If there were more ammo, you could just ignore that. But there isn’t, so you can’t.
The worst hazard though, in my experience, are the rifts which allow enemies to spawn in. These rifts cannot be destroyed, so you really can’t run around shooting all the enemies, which brings us back, yet again, to whole ‘ammo is in short supply’ thing.
Void Bastards: Get Creative
The game feels like it wants to be a shooter, but the actual gamepaly itself is more akin to a horror-survival game. It’s a lot like the original Thief series: Sure, it has combat in it – but you’re better off avoiding combat as much as possible.
To me, this is where the simple genius of Void Bastards comes into play: It’s incredibly important to be creative with your gameplay.
You could waste all your health and ammo trying to destroy a turret, or you can throw a bushwhacker (a sticky bomb) at the turret and then shoot the bushwhacker and destroy the turret much quicker and using less ammo. You could also, if you have the required equipment and upgrades, choose to stun the turret and then hack it so it’ll fight your enemies.
You could waste all your ammo trying to kill a Screw (the toughest standard enemy in the game), or you could trick them into walking through environmental hazards – or even just trap them in a room (because you can lock and unlock doors).
The lack of a reliable ammo pool forces the player to be creative – at least until the player realises one particular fact: Every new client gets a ‘care package’ which includes some ammo.
This means that, as a corporate overlord, you’ll probably never get too attached to any one client because that’ll just make it harder to use up their precious resources and then replace them after you have no need for them.
You know, just like in real life.