With 37 seconds of oxygen remaining, a grand total of seven bullets to my name, an irradiated body, and mere metres to go before reaching the solace of my boarding (and escape) craft, S.T.E.V, I hear it. It’s behind me. It alerts me. Warns me of my doom. “Oi, knobhead!” I die, shot in the back by a mutated child with an attitude problem. Ah well, time to rehydrate another convict and start over, methinks.
You can throw a million and six different labels at Void Bastards, the latest from Jonathan Chey’s Blue Manchu.
It looks like Borderlands, it plays like BioShock and System Shock, and there’s a chunk of FTL: Faster Than Light crushed up and sprinkled on top. There’s even forgotten rap satire and Northern comedy god Devvo in there, unless my ears really are trying to fool me on encountering the game’s ‘Juve’ enemies. It’s a lot of influences along with a lot of assured design, all crammed into one package. But really, Void Bastards is one thing: door management. Brilliant, beautiful, funny, and stressful door management.
See, you make your way from ship to ship in an unfriendly part of the universe, scrambling through half-functioning wrecks on the hunt for useful scrap with which you can build something – many things – to help you escape this galactic limbo you find yourself in. Each ship is procedurally generated, made up of a type (it could be a fuel tanker or an ambulance ship, maybe one full of cat robots or a luxury liner riddled with loot), and pieced together with different rooms in a classic tile-based format. At the basest of levels, your job is to get The Thing and not get killed while you’re doing it. How best to do that? Door management.
You’re taught from Void Bastards’ opening tutorial that doors are (usually) your friends. Citizens – the mutated, void-spewing beasts infesting every ship you enter – are either unable to open doors full stop, or cannot open locked doors. As such, in a game where you’re up against it most of the time, low on ammo, without the luxury of recharging health, and being pursued by a dogged little foul-mouthed child – it pays to engage in smart door management.
If it sounds like I’m getting a bit wrapped up in that aspect, then… well, you’re right. I am. But this is a factor any player of SWAT 4 (from Irrational, the studio Chey co-founded) will light up about: it was door wedges there, it’s locks with a stressful countdown to engage in here, but the thinking is the same. Check out the level presented to you at the start. Know where you need to go. Know how you’re going to get there. And make sure you’re funnelling those antagonists wherever you can, so you can control them to the best of your abilities.
Door management – I promise I’ll stop saying it so much now – is a key element of Void Bastards, but it’s not the main draw, as much as I am both obsessive about it and want it to be key. It’s just a highlight for someone with a desire to control the destiny (‘direction’) of others like me. Others will see the broad selection of weapons and gadgets on show and realise this is a game that wants you to experiment with your approach. Others will adopt a stealthy approach and sneak their way as much as possible through a ship, distracting and confounding enemies and causing as little physical mischief as possible. If you’re playing on easy, you can even try and play Void Bastards like Doom – though anybody trying that on the harder difficulties will just run out of ammunition and die a lot.
Which handily brings us to the roguelike aspects of Void Bastards: you die a lot, and you’re meant to. Couched in a genuinely quite funny story, players take on the role of multiple prisoners, one after the other, randomly spawned when the previous con meets their end. You’ll build up a collection of bits and pieces to construct items with, perks, and ammo, eventually feeling like you’re actually a bit of an established force in the universe; a one-person army capable of facing down anything.
I won’t say Void Bastards gets incredibly difficult, but that whole ‘facing down anything’ thing doesn’t come true. As you progress, it does get harder. More enemies, tougher enemies, more environmental hazards, ships with periodic power outages forcing you to route back to the generator room multiple times, less oxygen in your tank, and so on and so forth. Every step forward you take, Void Bastards takes one of its own. But with every one of those steps you learn – when to be careful, when to stand and fight, when to run away, and when to engage in some smart door management. I didn’t say I’d stop talking about it.