Void Bastards Review: A Surprise Game of the Year Contender

By Mark Delaney, 1 month ago
Given just how big gaming has become, it's now difficult to allow a great game to sneak up on you. We all tend to see enough in pre-release marketing to have a feel for virtually every game, leaving us to only gather if expectations and reality converge in the end. Rarely, though, a game does manage to sneak up on players and reveal itself as one of the best games of the year. Void Bastards is one such game, and it's launching straight into Xbox Game Pass tomorrow. Do not miss it.

Void Bastards

Void Bastards is a roguelite immersive sim FPS. I understand that says a lot right away but that's the nature of Blue Manchu's amazing comic bookish coming-out party. To consider Void Bastards a shooter alone is grossly misunderstanding it. It's closer to Dishonored or even BioShock than to Call of Duty or Halo. Void Bastards puts players in the shoes of expendable convicts sent on space-faring missions in search of crucial supplies. Inspired by the game designer's former credits such as BioShock and System Shock 2, it's a game that never stops asking the player to be smart — and asks in new ways all the time. In return, it unceasingly feels rewarding to prove yourself.

Each procedurally generated spaceship has any number of problems and possible solutions to consider. They all have resources on board, though maybe not always the ones you specifically need. Along your travels through the Sargasso Nebula, the game's overworld will tell you what each ship offers — you decide how often you make pit stops. The overworld is itself a mini-game where you must manage fuel and food while dodging space pirates, alien whales, and other obstacles.

While this overworld mini-game hints at the game's deep strategy elements, heading on board any spaceship puts this feat in plain view. For starters, the game just feels perfect. Controls are fluid and basic — with no aiming down sights and several different buttons mapped for sprinting, your controller options basically include crouch, interact, switch weapons, and shoot. In this simplicity hides the game's stunning depth for combat.

VB

There are at least a half dozen enemy types, each of them with different modifiers, and they all must be dealt with differently. The game also wants you to strongly consider avoiding combat whenever you can — as the game gets much tougher later on, you won't need to be told twice. Scanning a ship's map when first touching down is a crucial moment where your initial steps are plotted out. I tended to go right for the ship's helm when available because I could download ship data that would reveal inventory items on the map. Often a ship will have one or more high-value items on board which you may or may not know about in advance depending on your perks, the ships variables, and other factors. Regardless, there's always more than meets the eye and one of the game's best attributes is teaching players to trust their instincts — when to fight, when to sneak, and when to even just walk away, leaving some supplies uncollected.

As it's a roguelite, dying in Void Bastards sends you back to the start of the overworld. Historically this has been a mechanic that has annoyed me, but because it is implemented as well as everything else around it, this is the first roguelite I not only adore but plan to return to at harder difficulties. The game's upgrade tree is irresistible and expansive, with a massive number of possible tools, weapons, and passive buffs at your disposal should you find or manufacture the required elements to build them. Some will be more important for your play style while others you may not mind ignoring outright. Whatever the case, death allows you to keep all progress on this tree without exception. It instills a rewarding sense of progress even when you're sent back to the earliest spaceships in the nebula. Because they're procedurally generated, they don't get boring either. You're not repeating the same missions, you're seeing new places you haven't been to yet.

The variety of the interiors is impressive due to the modular structure of each ship. No two rooms necessarily ever have to be arranged in the same way, ship to ship, and many rooms aren't even guaranteed to be present. You'll have to manage not just the enemies, but your often dwindling ammo, health, oxygen, and other survival factors, but the game's way of relaying information to you is so clear and straightforward that you'll never feel like it's more daunting than just executing a series of smart maneuvers. Void Bastards deserves a heap of praise in every area, but its best quality is this unifying sense of player agency and trust. The developers present a daunting task but they trust you to solve your own problems. When I was smart enough to do so, few games have ever in my life felt as good as Void Bastards.

VB

All of this is further enhanced by an awesome visual experience. Certainly the first thing everyone will notice about Void Bastards is its impeccable comic book art style that looks pulled right off the page. But the art team uses this not just to paint a pretty picture, but to cleverly inform the player of what's ahead. Every enemy type gets its own onomatopoeic word which you'll often see splattered across a closed airlock door, giving you a heads up as to what's on the other side. You won't necessarily know how many enemies are there, but knowing it's a tourist versus a juve and so on is valuable information, as is the *vuurp* that appears when an enemy is killed for good. It's a gorgeous game that never loses its luster after a dozen hours, but beyond that, it uses this impressive visual style to add intelligent layers to the game.

Even the soundtrack is catchy and pitch-perfect for this humorously nihilistic story. The music that greets you upon each successful return to your vessel, the S.T.E.V., will be stuck in your head for days and like the visual hints, the audio is always demanding your full attention because it is designed to be helpful. On top of all that is some interesting and often hilarious voice acting for the enemies and your quest-giving corporate boss. Enemies each have several lines of dialogue they'll use in passive or aggressive moments and they even help to reveal light characterization about each enemy type. It's not a story-heavy game by any means, and it need not be, but the enemies are more interesting thanks to these touches.

VB

There are 24 achievements and it'll take many playthroughs to earn the full 1,000 gamerscore. You'll need to beat the game once on any difficulty, do it again on the hardest difficulty — which is very hard by the way — beat it several more times with different modifications in mind, and gather an assortment of missable moments throughout. It's a completion that will feel well earned for anyone who gets it.

Check out our Best Xbox One First-Person Shooters Available in 2019 article for a compilation of other great games in this genre.

Summary

Despite how some negative reviews tend to read when you find them online, it's actually much more fun to write a glowing review. Thus, getting to praise Void Bastards like this has been nearly as much fun as it has been to play it. It's a smart, stylish, and daring genre mash-up that blurs the line between indie and big budget games. It's one of the most tightly designed games I've ever played in my life and that comes through in every possible way, from UI and art direction to combat and level design. It's without any excess parts, and so its design feels constantly well-reasoned and well-executed and expects you to play it just the same. Across the board, Void Bastards is unforgettable.
5 / 5
Void Bastards
Ethics Statement
The reviewer spent approximately twelve hours in space rehydrating anti-heroes and equipping them with items they shouldn't be trusted with. He gathered half of the game's 24 achievements. A review copy was provided by the publisher.
Please read our Review and Ethics Statement for more information.
Mark Delaney
Written by Mark Delaney
Mark is a Boston native now living in Portland, Oregon. He's the Editorial Manager on TA, loves most kinds of games, and is the host of the community game club TA Playlist. Outside of gaming, he likes bicycling, binge-watching, and spending time with his family. He almost never writes in the third person.