I’ve been checking out the latest game to join the ever-expanding genre that is the Rogue-Lite. Void Bastards, developed by Blue Manchu, seeks to inject some comic book style to turn heads in an already crowded market, and based on the the buzz around the game since launch, seems to be succeeding.
Gameplay is a mix of FTL style maps with FPS combat. You choose a path through a randomly generated map, visiting ships along the way which you board to loot. Upon boarding a ship you’re given a chance to pick your loadout from the gear you’ve crafted, then you’re thrown into it. On the ships you’re basically just hunting down loot and fighting or avoiding any enemies you come across along the way. Some of those are mechanical security systems, or ‘Citizens,’ who were seemingly regular humans who have been warped by the nebula into void horrors. You are free to retreat back to your ship at any time so it’s totally a risk reward calculation of how far you want to push it.
Void Bastards utilises the comic book art style better than almost any other game I’ve seen. From the opening title screen looking like a classic cover to the ways enemies animate, it’s a cohesive design that really works for me. The style is incorporated into the gameplay as well, with onomatopoeia pop ups of enemies’ footsteps appearing before you enter a room. Each enemy makes a unique sound as they move so you know what you’re facing before you walk in, adding to the comic book feel.
The ships on the map are broken into different categories which specialise in different supplies. If you’re low on ammo you might want to focus on moving towards the military grade ships, while if you’re desperate for health you might head towards the medical ships, which always have healing bays on them. You’re also given more specific information about the enemies and what special crafting supplies are present. This lets you plot a targeted path towards your next major objective to maximise your chance for success.
The core of Void Bastards’ progression comes from a tech tree. Through the loot you collect off ships, you craft new weapons, tools and passive upgrades to help you reach you next objective. These upgrades persist through death so each upgrade is a noticeable power spike. I transitioned from running around like a headless chicken, avoiding all enemies on ships with no ammo in my gun, to a confident killer, carrying a full arsenal after only a few of the early game upgrades.
Now as much as I’ve been having fun with this game, I have to say that I think it’s a badly designed Rouge-lite. A game in this genre needs to strike a balance between short and long term progression. You need that endorphin rush when you get the perfect item that rounds out your build, and a satisfying meta progression that gives you achievable goals that give you a feeling of accomplishment even when you’re dying over and over. Void Bastards’ gameplay loop really breaks down in the fact there is no per-run progression, which makes death feel meaningless and each run blends together in monotony. By per-run progression, I mean that there’s no short term loot to be found as you move from ship to ship. Having run-only loot would specifically alter that run and create diversity in the gameplay. These drops could be completely passive; say something that gave you a damage bonus on stealth attacks or made hacking robotic enemies more worthwhile. This would go a long way to keeping each run slightly unique and encourage you to want to jump back in over and over while you’re building out your meta progression. When starting a new run your character is given randomised traits, but from my time with the game they’re so minor they rarely ever impact gameplay.
I’ve seen comparisons made to Bio and System Shock when describing the gameplay, but I feel that’s a pretty big stretch. The three items you’re allowed to take with you into the ships don’t allow real diversity in how you approach encounters. For example, I’ve been relying on an EMP gun that stuns mechanical enemies. You’d think that would lead to me stunning then hacking turrets to do the killing for me, but I’ve found that ineffective due to the placement of them. Combined with that the unreliability of getting enemies to follow you around the ships makes it more work than it’s worth. Instead, everything I do is just in service of doing more damage and dying less. There are no skills you can spec into, like a double jump or super strength, which in a Shock game could be used to take alternative paths throughout the environment. This leaves the game feeling limited in the way you approach each encounter.
The good news is this is something that can be pretty easily remedied, as Void Bastards is a solid foundation to build on. As it stands this game is still worth checking out because it does a lot of stuff right, and its style is undeniable. This is a game I’ll be checking back in on in a few months to see if they can iron out some of the frustrations I have. If they can balance out the gameplay loop it might be a highlight of the year for me.