Jonathan Chey is a man who is familiar with transitions. After Blue Sky Productions (not to be confused with Disney’s Blue Sky Studios) transitioned into Looking Glass Studios, Ken Levine, Jonathan Chey, and Robert Fermier were names dwarfed under the weight of Warren Spector, producer of System Shock. In 1997, the latter three formed Irrational Games, finishing System Shock 2, and laying the foundation for what would become Bioshock. In the years to follow, Take-Two would acquire Irrational Games as an asset, and Chey would reinvent himself yet again by founding another company, Blue Manchu Games. Already having tried his hand—pun intended—with the F2P digital tabletop game Card Hunter, Chey returns to his roots with a System Shock hybrid, Void Bastards.
The first order of business should be addressing this game’s titular namesake, specifically, the word that my internet profanity filter censors. As both an English scholar and man who as a child, frequently fielded the question, “Why do you and your brother have different last names?” I am well-acquainted with the term, not because anyone ever called me one, but because swears are often naturally the first words a curious child researches when armed with a dictionary for the first time.
Some of our readers may blush at the word “bastard,” for in some households, it is a “third-tier” swear, along with “hell” and “pissed (off).” Their discomfort is understandable considering the term’s etymology, derived from various European languages during the High Middle Ages, with meanings attached such as “illegitimate child,” “marriage,” “lust” and “kinship.” Therefore, the first definition is often a child born out of wedlock, and is thus “illegitimate” in terms of inheritance. In modern times, we use terminology such as “single parent,” displacing the blame for the offspring’s existence away from him or her, and onto the (ir)responsible parties. In ye olden days, a bastard might have been competition for the (Game of) throne(s), or the shame of a mother; the theology we practice in the 21st century however, remembers Psalm 127: 3-5, that “Children are a gift from the LORD; they are a reward from him.”
Modern usages of “bastard” are arguably more vulgar, as its usage can range from a euphemism for “a**hole” to an inferior product, or one who deserves sympathy. In the context of Void Bastards, the application is the latter—poor, expendable souls.
This game also features some of the “first-tier” swears. One enemy, the Scribe, floats around muttering four-letter obscenities to himself. I may have heard a few other enemies cuss, too.
Despite the profanity, I think that Void Bastards could pass as a T-rated game for older teens. It is completely devoid of sex or spiritual taboos, and the violence is comical. Enemies pop in a cartoonish explosion upon death, and the “blood” splattering everywhere is the same hue as the enemies themselves like a balloon sleeve, even if a dismembered head remains on the ground momentarily. Much of the humor is analogous to Futurama or Family Guy in terms of appropriateness; if Void Bastards reminded me more of Duckman or Archer, I would certainly recommend this game for adults.
Though I have provided all of this reading material thus far, Void Bastards is a game that, for many, came out of nowhere. Word-of-mouth (and of course, a promo from Humble Bundle, who generously provided this review code) alerted me to this game. With promotional material boldly proclaiming that this game draws inspiration from Bioshock and System Shock, I had to give it the smell test.
What I remember most about the Bioshock franchise are its Atlus-shattering plot twists, especially in Infinite. Would you kindly take note that Void Bastards is devoid of any profound story element? In fact, the story is intentionally generic for comic effect, naming each player-character the Client. Underscoring the game’s clever self-realization, Blue Manchu bestows upon it a comic book aesthetic, an effective art style given the game’s ever-present humor. For what Void Bastards lacks in purpose, it provides instead, chuckles.
Like in System Shock (or its cousin, Prey), one will explore derelict vessels, but without a circumscribing narrative explaining why, the game provides a banal reason to do so: collect them all! Yes, underneath the veneer of Void Bastards is an elaborate collectathon. The Client must acquire this, that, and the other to advance the game’s “plot,” only to discover that more McGuffins are necessary for progress.
The process of collecting-them-all, though, is not a humdrum process. In fact, this is where the signature emergent gameplay of System Shock and Prey shine through the combination of random number and procedural generation. While late-game Void Bastards encroach upon redundancy when Lux Cruisers all have suites and dining halls, and all Otori craft have mechanical pet rooms, the combination of ship layouts, environmental hazards, enemy placement, item locations, and player loadouts is what makes this game magical.
Just about every ship has a helm, an atmosphere room, security room, FTL drive, generator, habitat (HAB), and others also include a warp room, garbage disposal, tubes, gene therapy machine, or surgery theater. To translate these rooms for my readers, vessels include a room that maps where all the good loot is located on ship, an oxygen tank, the security override, fuel for your own ship, the power plant, the sterilizer, warp drive activation, a recycle bin for crafting, torpedoes, the machine that giveth and taketh away quirks, and a heal bot.
Deterring exploration, are the citizens found onboard. They are given these names with tongue-in-cheek, for they are as civil as demons in DOOM. In fact, many of the enemies in Void Bastards parallel hellish minions. The game introduces first the Janitor (Imp) and the Screw (hell knight), cautioning Clients to pay attention to their echoing footsteps and lumbering stomps. The unattentive will be chased from room to room, shot into oblivion. Later levels introduce additional citizens such as the tourist, or wandering blobs that function like Bob-ombs if Clients get too close, dealing massive damage to anything living. Spooks ghost around, disappearing and reappearing behind Clients to strike hard. Patents remind me of Lost Souls, except that they are clusters of the same thing. As Clients find enough specific dodads to Build the Thing, the game will require exploration into deeper space, where higher level versions of citizens await.
Ships themselves can be dangerous weapons, too. The smell of garbage dumps will disorient clients, rendering accurate aiming impossible for a time. Toxic waste dumps cause radiation poisoning, resulting in Clients taking DOT. Fires and electrical hazards can rapidly issue critical quantities of damage without proper protective gear. And then—yes, there is more—static defenses such as automated turrets and the seek-and-destroy Secbots can absolutely ruin a Client’s day.
Any or all of these dangers may await Clients on any given ship, providing good reason to lock all doors manually…if a ship’s unique properties allow for it. Ah yes, on some ships, everything is dark, and Clients will have to activate the generator before doing anything else. Other ships are high in security or hazards like radiation or low oxygen. On rare occasion, Clients may find vessels with no enemies on them, or the security working in his or her favor. What keeps this collectathon interesting even if visually repetitive, is that no two ships are precisely identical. Placements are the same. I have had to turn right back around once, when a security bot spawned in the first room!
Ameliorating the Building of the Thing, are other Things That Can Be Built, used for offense. I will not waste too many words on pistols, shotguns, machine guns, grenades, health upgrades and hazard resistances—no doubt, they all have clever names, but they function the same way they do in any other FPS. I will focus on my preferred armaments. The spiker shoots poison syringes that deal DOT damage; most importantly, it is silent. The rifter phases enemies out of existence, and can be brought back into reality at the Client’s convenience; preferably, through a window in a locked room. The zapper simply stuns mechanical things practically forever; I say simply, but this weapon that does the least damage in the game may very well be the best in the game. Lastly, the Kittybot and its upgrades are as adorable as they are effective; unleash this, and citizens will chase them, damaging them until they explode into oblivion. By far, it is my favorite weapon.
All of these elements combined is what makes Void Bastards an overall blast to play. For example, a vessel with low oxygen where the atmosphere room is across the ship, and there are lots of Janitors walking about, and I bring along a spiker. Well, I may run out of oxygen and asphyxiate before making it to that oxygen room. Or, I leave my zapper behind and encounter more turrets than citizens! Or, I save enough money for vending machines and I can purchase multiple parts for upgrades, saving me trips to more ships!
One of the selling points of Void Bastards is that Clients are expected to die, and each has his or her own perks. For example, I started with a smoker, a negative quirk causing him to cough on occasion, alerting nearby enemies. He did not last long, and I rolled a diminutive Client, who was too short to see squat (cough). He died faster than the first guy! Lastly, I rolled a dude who triggers security cameras faster than average; by then, I had become privy to the game’s mechanics, found a gene therapy machine, and removed the negative quirks and stacked positive quirks such as “does not make noise when running” and “oxygen lasts longer than normal.” After building a heart starter (revive), I never permanently died again, dying only a total of four times during my entire run. In other words, Void Bastards is fun, but too easy for those seasoned in any combination of stealthy, strategic, or FPS games. Imagine my disappointment when among a stellar OST, I never heard my favorite track, “Walk the Plank,” in the game because I always had a certain item that prevented the relevant event from triggering? Also, muffled giggles are in order for a track called “Unnecessary Cavity Search.” I did say that the humor in this game was crude, after all.
I reiterate: despite being a collectathon Void Bastards is a delightful experience. The comic book aesthetic fondly reminds me of Comix Zone, and who could forget the voice actor from The Stanley Parable? The amalgamation of multiple independently great mechanics results in a game that lasts just long enough before I became weary of it, though I will return long enough to at least 100% All the Things to Build.
The Bottom Line
Void Bastards thrills just long enough before its grinding collecta-thon becomes taxing.