Suicide Squad meets The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy as roguelike FPS Void Bastards comes to the Nintendo Switch.
Blue Manchu’s Void Bastards has a simple premise. Revive a rag-tag bunch of freeze-dried prisoners stored aboard a transport vessel called the Void Ark, and send them into action on a series of derelict but dangerous spaceships. The mission is simple. Salvage the materials required to power the Void Ark for its final Faster Than Light jump home.
Each ship – which is procedurally generated from a set of common parts – is populated with a cornucopia of beasties, mutated citizens, and security systems. Limited health and a slowly depleting oxygen supply provide the impetus to make your raid as swift as possible. But, a tantalising assortment of loot on each ship tempts you to stay longer than is necessary.
If – or rather, when – you die, another prisoner is “rehydrated” and deployed. Each one can reuse any weapons and gadget upgrades you’ve obtained, and continue the objective of retrieving the required FTL parts. It’s a roguelike. You get the idea.
I’m always excited for science fiction games. I’m from the generation that grew up with the original Star Wars, Ridley Scott’s Alien, Logan’s Run, and the homespun charm of the BBC’s Blake’s 7. Any game that evokes that style – and the feel of British sci-fi comics – immediately has my attention.
The flip side is that I’m not a particular fan of games that use procedural generation to create environments and levels. I like to see the artist’s hand at work, whether it’s in the design of a space to provoke a specific action, or in a beautiful vista composed to generate an emotion. It’s the main reason why No Man’s Sky never quite took off for me. Those magical, mathematically created worlds are always impressive, but part of me is also always wondering if the next planet will be even more impressive, or the next, or the next.
Void Bastards manages to avoid this problem with its procedurally generated spaceship layouts. In part, it’s a virtue of the universal truth that sci-fi corridors are sci-fi corridors are sci-fi corridors.
Crucially, Void Bastards has just enough variety. Some ships have specific purposes. Medical ships, for example, echo the design of Sevastopol Station in Alien: Isolation. Lux Cruise vessels are decorated with plush furnishings, chandeliers, and ionic columns, with flavour added by the occasional robot maître d.
Bold changes in colour and lighting also make each ship feel different. It fittingly recalls how 1970’s Doctor Who would reuse and reconfigure small sets to create a larger sense of space. Not that there’s ever time to stand still and admire the surroundings. The moment-to-moment tension of exploration, combat, and looting never lets up.
Void Bastards’ balance of risk and reward is perfectly judged. On almost every occasion, death is the result of pushing yourself a little too far, of being a little too greedy, or a little too curious.
Even when death comes, the game has mastered the art of making the player want “one more go.” Developer Blue Manchu has cited the influence of Bioshock and System Shock, and it’s in this satisfying and repetitive gameplay loop that it’s most evident. It never gets boring.
Each run is also kept fresh by a range of prisoner attributes, buffs, and de-buffs. For example, one prisoner might have a slow walking speed or a General Grevious-like cough that attracts enemy attention. That might be offset, however, by a high percentage chance of finding ammo clips, or the ability to always find a biscuit in a ship’s break room. (Which is more helpful than you might think.)
The thrill of reaching the evacuation point with loot intact, a horde of enemies on your tail, and a single point of health remaining is consistently rewarding. And if you make it to the end of the game – which is no easy feat on normal difficulty – you are treated to a joyously bleak payoff.
An extensive arsenal of weapons – which can be modded and enhanced – also helps to keep the game varied. Identifying the best loadout for each type of ship and enemy type is an enjoyable exercise of testing and refinement. And noodling around on the workbench or galaxy map – which is also procedurally generated – to plan the most effective route is its own strategic pleasure.
The only aspect of Void Bastards that doesn’t always click is its humour. The game has a particularly British tone, or rather, tones. At one extreme you have the delightfully droll witticisms the Void Ark’s computer. Kevan Brighting’s sparkling performance evokes the work of Peter Jones as The Book in The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. There are also numerous references to corporate bureaucracy, finance, and employment law. They range from P45 Prisoner requisition forms to the Void Ark’s computer being a BACS Unit. A gag for fans of payroll systems, we assume.
At the other extreme is alien dialogue that frequently resorts to terms like “dick-wad” and “twat-face”. It’s a touch of vulgarity that strikes one of the game’s few bum notes. The incessant screeching of the enemy Juve – voiced by The Stanley Parable’s William Pugh – is another. Sorry, William.
Thankfully, none of the game’s visual splendour appears to have been lost in the move to Switch. The comic book visuals look bold and crisp – in both TV and handheld modes – and the frame rate is 99% rock solid. Font size can be an issue in some menus, but it’s a beautiful game that plays to the strengths of the Switch.
- We have a feeling that someone at Blue Manchu must have played the classic ZX Spectrum game, Rescue.
- Ryan Roth’s soundtrack is superb. A sublime fusion of ambience and guitar twinged electronica.
- Those menu fonts really are small.
- Completing the game unlocks a fun challenge mode.
- The game’s enemy design is wonderfully bonkers, from the Trilby wearing Spooks and Glowtrotters, to the mop-topped Outpatients. Top marks.
- And every game should have Kittybots.
Platform: Nintendo Switch (Reviewed), PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One,
Developer: Blue Manchu
Publisher: Humble Bundle
Release Date: May 7, 2020