Futility and Looting in Outer Space | Void Bastards Review
An interesting hybrid of looting, shooting, and resource management that’s refreshingly clear about the futility of completing it.
Void Bastards is a really interesting mash-up of lots of different game designs. It takes elements from first-person shooters, space exploration sagas, and roguelikes and blends them together into a package that’s surprisingly dark and fatalistic. Does it work? Do all those flavors taste great together? For the most part, yes! Void Bastards had me hooked once I settled into its unique flow. But after playing for a while, it becomes clear that the game is only the sum of its parts — no more, but certainly no less.
The world of Void Bastards is surprisingly detailed. Tiny elements weave together to create an image of a universe where a sprawling interplanetary bureaucracy runs everything with zero compassion. All actions have an associated form that needs to be filled out. Every process has a strict procedure. It’s as if the machines from The Matrix or The Terminator still conquered humanity, but then decided to run the world the way a corporate middle manager would.
Our story within this world centers on a prisoner transport ship that’s gone adrift in a distant galaxy. The catch is that the prisoners are in a dehydrated form; they’re stored as tiny packets of pink dust that can be rehydrated and brought back to life. The crew of the ship is dead, and the on-board computer has taken command. The ship’s FTL drive (Faster Than Light — perhaps an homage to the game) needs to be restarted, but that requires a citizen ID card, which the computer doesn’t have. But the computer does know that the parts to forge one are located on other, nearby abandoned ships, so it begins rehydrating prisoners one-at-a-time and instructing them to loot the ships and bring back the parts it needs.
You play as these random, rehydrated prisoners. You zoom around from abandoned vessel to abandoned vessel collecting a.) scrap parts that the Ark needs, b.) scrap parts that you need to upgrade your equipment, c.) credits, which can occasionally be used to purchase or unlock things, d.) food to keep you alive, and e.) fuel to keep your tiny ship going. Some ships are chock full of helpful items while others have just a few things you need.
But you’re not just looting, you’re also shooting. Most vessels feature enemies that will either need to be stealthily avoided or destroyed using a limited set of firearms and explosives. Some ships feature easy enemies that go down in one or two shots, while others are teeming with resilient foes. If you die fighting these foes (or if you run out of fuel, I suppose) you’ll restart at the beginning of the process with a new prisoner, but everything you’ve collected or crafted will still be intact.
The core loop of Void Bastards is this repeated flipping back and forth between the travel screen where you take stock of your items and plot your course between vessels and the first person view that you adopt when you’re looking for items on those vessels. It’s an interesting combo. Each element serves the other well — first person looting is much more visceral and satisfying than it would be from a strategy game perspective, while navigating from the travel screen is much more convenient than it would be if the entire thing was locked in first person — but the two halves feel a bit like separate games. That’s what I mean when I say that the game is “only” the sum of its parts. One half of the game doesn’t enhance the other, it simply compliments it.
However, in a refreshing way, Void Bastards seems to acknowledge this. Void Bastards doesn’t try to hide the fact that its only intention is to be a game. It’s explicit that the experience it’s offering is only about managing resources and looting ships. Even the sparse narrative elements reinforce this frank, unspoken agreement by permeating an overwhelming sense of futility. The feeling is best exemplified in the comic book-style scenes that come after you successfully construct one of the items the Ark’s computer has requested. In every single instance (even the last one, to a certain extent — I looked it up on YouTube) you assemble something, but for whatever reason that thing doesn’t work, so it’s back to your tiny ship, back to the abandoned vessels, back to the loop that feels like it will never end. It knows that if you’re enjoying that loop, you’ll keep playing, and if you’re not, that you probably stopped playing a while ago.
Did I enjoy the loop? Sure. I felt I might have enjoyed it a bit more if the shooting was tighter (which I suspect it might be if I was playing with mouse and keyboard instead of a controller), and I probably would’ve stuck with it longer if I was more of a fan of the type of games that the travel-screen, resource management part reflected. But those are minor gripes that are certainly overshadowed by how much I loved the game’s art style and cheeky sense of humor.
Other than all that though, the thing that will stick with me the most about Void Bastards is the way it acknowledges exactly what it’s trying to be. It’s clear that, with this game, satisfaction is going to be found in the journey, not the destination.
That’s the way most games are. But not many are willing to say it to your face.