Void Bastards

FBT is a right void.

During the future, the spaceship Void Ark, a hauler filled with freeze-dried criminals, is attacked by pirates who kill the human crew. Stuck in the Sargasso Nebula alongside other trapped ships, debris, dangers, and whatnot, the ship’s AI rehydrates a random criminal and sets them the task of scavenging the materials to reactivate the FTL Drive and escape. And if the crim dies, oh well. The AI has thousands of others it can ‘ask’ to do the deed.

Sent off on a shuttle with just a star chart, you pick a derelict to board and once there, sneak or FPS your way through, picking up food to sustain you on the trip (but not while on the ship…), fuel for the next jump, objects to recycle, things to build, and fix up the ship to unlock goodies. Of course, the ships have inhabitants which aren’t happy to see you, but the AI assures us multiple murder won’t count heavily against us once we reach civilisation…

Happily, the people on the ships have succumbed to a mysterious gas throughout the nebula, turning them into ghoul-like creatures that act a little like Bioshock’s Splicers, muttering to themselves until they spot you. Supposedly inspired by System Shock as well as Bioshock, the DNA is obvious, but this is a lot more cartoony – and not because of the comic-book art design, which serves no narrative purpose but adds to the silliness and makes the whole thing feel like a lark.

What makes this different from a typical Rogue-like Survival Shooter/Stealther is you’re one of a seemingly infinite number of criminals, each with some sort of penalty that makes the scavenging trickier. The first one I had was a smoker who periodically coughed, alerting the ship inhabitants. They also have a perk, like Long Arms which grabs objects instead of click and collect. Others might be extra short and pass under windows unseen, Butterfingers makes you drop things and Color-Blind means it’s all in B&W. You can find opportunities in the ships and space to alter the perks, although not always for the better…

It’s not about figuring out if some ships are better suited to stealth or a direct approach, they’re basically the same, it’s down to your preferred style and what you’ve scavenged. The only downer to a Crim dying is losing everything they collected, and the replacement has to start from the Void again, although all the ships are Rogue-like random, and you keep all upgrades and unlocks. You don’t get to choose the next Crim, but if they don’t suit your style you can let them get killed off and see what jackpot you get next – Criminal-Life is like a box of chocolates.

It’s weirdly freeing being a character that is totally without value, knowing another will be forced into service by a kindly AI like a comedy version of the film Moon. Least this one isn’t voiced by Kevin Spacey. The creatures and situation remind me of 90s games in that logic defying, weird way and you can’t complain about a game where an object we need to avoid while piloting is a ‘Void Whale’ swimming in space. It’s like a punk Hitchhiker’s Guide.

Travelling the map also throws up dangers and choosing a path alters the opportunities and options – you can run into the Pirates on the star map, who will latch on and force you to clear out their ship, while Black Holes might be a boon or bogus, and a ‘Gene Twister’ might catch you, which alters the traits you gained. You can’t go backward, only toward the final destination, so you need to weigh up the opportunities certain ships or events might offer vs the risk.

Entering a ship also means a time-limit. For some reason the amount of oxygen you carry differs ship to ship, so it’s like a Par Time to get everything done. But while there, there’s various things to slow you down – or speed you up. Besides the inhabitants, there’s alarms, automated turrets, requirements to progress and so on, but also dangerous gas and radiation, and classic oil slicks that mean you zip along but can’t corner or stop – not ideal if you’re pelting along and an enemy appears in front of you.

More than a few times I was driven back out almost immediately and had no choice but to move on, having missed an opportunity to gain some perk or weapon. Often you’ll come across an object that needs ‘merits’ to access, so there’s some management to deal with as well, spending cash on a gamble and hope it makes the next ship a little easier.

But above all else, it’s incredibly funny. How often in a game does an enemy mutter “Listen, you little piece of shit,” when it loses sight of you? The shuttle is called S.T.E.V. and pronounced Steve, and the dialogue from the AI is heavy on the black humour. I’ve cited Moon and Hitchhikers, while the devs claim System Shock and Bioshock, but there’s a heavy dose of Spaceballs, Ice Pirates and Futurama knocking about here too.

It might be a simple premise, but it’s great having no idea how it’s going to turn out, what the requirements are until you board, how you’ll need to play, if your Crim has the perks to cut it, what the next victim will be like if I fail. It is fairly repetitive - get in, get the thing, leave - and that can get a bit tedious, but the constantly changing character traits keep it exciting; it’s the only game where dying might make it more interesting.

Void Bastards does seem like a fluffy bit of nonsense at first, a one-joke game with a deliberately provoking title, but while it is a timewaster filled with gags and daftness, you get invested; it’s no Bioshock or System Shock, but it is its own thing and feels fresh compared to the weighty games nowadays, something to dip into and have a laugh with. Just don’t get attached to your character.