When Void Bastards from developer Blue Manchu was first announced, it caught my eye immediately for the exquisitely unique art style. It’s incredibly different from most first-person shooters coming out and even without knowing the concept of the game at the time of reveal, it really felt like it held a lot of personality. Thankfully, it does. Void Bastards, in fact, holds quite a lot of flair.
But that almost feels about all it has. The game’s art style is undeniably impressive, where running through blue and grey hallways and smoke filled rooms, turning any corner looks like a flat comic book panel despite being a 3D game. It’s really something kind of special and wondrous to see. However, the problem with this is those same environments, because when you’ve seen the same blue and grey hallways with the exact same shapes of rooms within each ship twenty times over, you can’t really help but feel like the game doesn’t have much else to offer you there. Nor does it offer very exciting gunplay, which is odd considering how much it was touted that the game had the pedigree of a System Shock 2 and Bioshock (one of the most celebrated first-person shooters) developer at the helm. The game doesn’t feel bad mind you, just incredibly average.
Void Bastards almost seems in a state of flux, like it’s being pulled at between two black holes and isn’t sure which direction it’s going. At one end it feels like it wants to be a shooter, giving you these big weapons, some with interesting designs like a gun that warps enemies out of reality then spits them back out wherever you please. But then some fights (any time space pirates board) constantly feel like a losing battle from the start, so the game also is trying to pull the player towards stealth. The problem here is they didn’t seem to put much thought into the stealth mechanics, so the only action the player can really resort to is crouching, which does very little to help.
Void Bastards almost seems in a state of flux, like it’s being pulled at between two black holes and isn’t sure which Direction it’s going
Still, there are small little touches that feel special and fun. For instance, when standing next to a doorway small text will pop up like a comic book, showing that an enemy is stepping or hovering nearby. Even a big STOP will show up when they stop in front of the door (additions like this could go a long way for say deaf players and accessibility). The enemies will talk to themselves when they don’t know you’re there, and while it can be funny, most of the humor comes off more juvenile than clever. Another point to this is that a large part of the dialogue or story feels like an afterthought, though the line delivery from your main computer BACS is fantastically delivered by Kevan Brighting (of the Stanley Parable fame). Sadly, his performance is about the only exceptional voice work in the game, with a sore spot coming from the leaders of the space pirates, with largely unconvincing performances that have extremely low sound quality.
The gameplay itself, which has the player infiltrating ships to scrounge for parts to rebuild sections of their own ship so that they might lessen their prison sentence, is a neat concept. The problem though, is after the first hour it grows very stale and boring. If the game felt as if it knew it wanted to be a stealth game or a shooter it might have had more focus, but instead, it almost feels like after they nailed down the art style they couldn’t figure out what else to do with it. Another point I felt unsure about was the music, which is used so sparingly that it makes it feel even more incredibly boring to roam these constant hallways. Granted, when the music does show up, it never really grabbed my ear in any way. The enemies don’t feel that fun or unique compared to many other games, nor are they interesting to fight. You employ the same strategies for each and every one of them: Run and gun.
The game features permadeath of characters, only for you to get a new character with every death. Each and every character you get will have certain conditions, some negative, some positive. This can range from having better aim to being short or steering your ship in the wrong direction 25 percent of the time. The progression system does at least feel meaningful, giving the player interesting (yet passive) abilities. The map feature and how to progress is fun, until the designers decided to add the space whale. The space whale might be the most baffling design choice for the game, in which if encountered at all on the map (it moves randomly and you only have so many places to go if you’re headed for your objective) it instantly kills you, forcing you to start back at the beginning of the map. You don’t get to fight it off somehow, nor can you get anything to avoid it. If it is in your path, you are more than likely going to have to start over. Even having a way to build an item to kill or ward off the whale would have been more interesting.
I really wanted to love my time with Void Bastards, and for the first hour or so I was. The problem is as the game goes on the wool was pulled from over my eyes and I only saw the same experiences, fights (or runs), enemies, and level design over and over. For all the fantastic focus put on to Void Bastard’s art style, I wish that same focus was put into what the gameplay would be. Right now, that’s what it feels like the game is missing most: Focus.