Void Bastards, the new FPS from Blue Manchu games that blends tactical action with a rogue-lite structure, feels positively wonderful to play (and thanks to a unique graphical style, it looks like a moving comic book) . It’s fast, it’s chaotic, and most of the time, it harkens back to the best moment-to-moment aspects of a good immersive sim: Playing with all the toys you’ve been given to find on-the-fly solutions.
The game puts you in the unfortunate spaceboots of a random prisoner conscripted to work as a sort of official space-looter for the WCG corporation. What that means (besides that Void Bastards is satirizing the horrific practice of prison labor) is that you’ll choose a random ship to dock at from a star map, board it, and loot the crap out of it. Along the way, you’ll be looking for key parts to better your chances at living a little longer, and random junk that you can recycle into useful bits. Every ship is randomly generated, but based on a specific “class” of vessel. Nearly everything has a series of familiar sci-fi spaceship rooms like security, a helm (which usually contains a loot map), crew quarters, but each ship class also has some unique features, like the hospital ship’s operating theater or the big buffet halls of the luxury cruise ships.
Populating these ships are wild enemies from a few base varieties, all of whom look like brightly colored 2D sprites straight out of the Doom era, and all of whom just want to make your job difficult. You have severely limited resources with which to dispatch them, so you need to be smart about when you use stealth, when you shoot, and how you take them out. You start small, and soon build a goofy arsenal, and you’ll quickly figure out how to use enemy behaviors to your advantage: tourists, for example, explode on death, so getting them close to a few juveniles (short, annoying enemies) or janitors (stronger, taller humanoids) will help you out.
There are also security systems to deal with: robotic turrets and cameras that make getting around quickly a giant pain in the butt. But there are ways to deal with them: stealth options, and some light hacking, either via heading to the ship’s security room or through some abilities that I’ve seen teased in the upgrade menu. I’m only a few hours in, but I’m already very impressed by the toybox I’ve been given to play with. It reminds me directly of the moment-to-moment gameplay in BioShock, itself a very light immersive sim, and the game that served as my stepping stone into the genre.
Sure, you can just shoot your way through most rooms, and probably do just fine. But it’s much, much more fun to send a robo-kitty (it’s… a rotund little kitten-faced robot that distracts enemies), to bait a bunch of tourists to crowd the room, blast them, and watch the whole enemy operation dissolve into cartoon giblets. Or quietly follow a “screw” (a powerful enemy, at my current low level) around the station, stealthing my way from room to room, grabbing all my loot quietly and then getting the hell out of dodge.
This is what makes immersive sims so much fun: They give you tools to play with, then let you loose in a series of connected puzzle boxes that react in interesting, mostly logical ways with those tools. This was what made Prey: Mooncrash so wonderful—a light smattering of random elements that forced you to think on the fly. Void Bastards is nowhere near as deep an immersive sim, but it’s flirting with the same ideas. And it’s gone fully to the random, chaotic side of the table, which means, yes, you die. A lot.
When you die, the dystopian computer that runs your prison ship grabs another character for you from their storage pouch (yeah, I know), gives them a few pieces of equipment, and sets you back into the nebula you’re exploring. You also get to keep any upgrades you’ve constructed or parts you’ve recovered, making for a solid progression structure and relatively painless form of permadeath. You rarely feel as if you’ve lost much, though, I’ll admit, I felt a little bad for some of my poor prisoners, conscripted as they were through bureaucratic nightmare hell to strip spaceships of their loot. Maybe one day, when I get a little better at the game, I’ll be able to give one of the a nice, long life. Maybe.
Gamefeel is a bit of a hard concept to pin, but this is the aspect that Void Bastards absolutely nails. It’s fast, and looting, especially, feels quick. I always feel like I’m making decisions—where to go, how to tackle this room of enemies, what I should prioritize on this run—on the fly. I don’t always make the right ones, but I do always feel like I’m learning and figuring out the layers of rules and interlocking systems with each run. There is a lot going on, but embracing the chaos and enjoying the wild pace is absolutely a part of the fun here.
Supporting that vibe is the game’s comic book aesthetic, which really sells the experience. The story wrapper is told in animated comic panels, and the whole game is presented in colorful-cel-shaded glory. As I mentioned before, enemies are essentially 2D sprites walking around 3D worlds, they look (and sound) super goofy, and that’s very much the point. Everything is colorful, but—importantly—readable. Loot glows green or shows off a sparkling particle effect. You have everything you need to succeed in this world, despite the sometimes frantic pace and occasional random variable that totally screws you: and re-rolls are easy to come by.
I’m still in the beginning of my Void Bastards journey, and with about four hours in I know there’s a lot more void to explore (and loot). But I’m already at the point where I’m thinking about it idly throughout the day, and sticking around for “one more run!” far later than I probably should at night. If this is an example of what a team can do with the genre on more limited resources, I’m basically thrilled to see where we go from here.
Disclosure: Cara Ellison worked on the game as a writer, she is a personal friend.