Sometimes when you’re playing The Swindle, a steampunk heist game with cool steampunky progression to pull you through procedurally generated heists, you get a gimme. A lightly defended computer stuffed with cash, right next to the entrance, with only a couple of robot guards strolling by on their preset patrol paths. Knock out the robots, hack a couple of thousand quid out of the machine, and beat feet back to your airship pod. With that kind of gift laid at your feet, there’s no question of pushing the risk/reward calculations any further. With pockets that full, why risk running deeper in to scoop up whatever change is lying around on the floor?
But other times, you get a network of defenses sealed tight behind brick walls, swarming with guards, festooned with landmines, eyed jealously by overlapping cameras wired to alarms. No point bothering. Make do with the scant money you found in the foyer and call it a day. The procedural generation giveth, the procedural generation sometimes don’t giveth.
The thrill of the unpredictable was the driving force behind this charming and spirited rogue-like heister. Especially the thrill of something going wrong, and suddenly all that money is yours for the losing. The cops are on their way and the guards are on high alert, but you can’t possibly get out the same way you came in, so it’s in deeper and deeper, hoping to find a way out the other side. If only that robot hadn’t turned around at the last moment, sounding the alarm just as your truncheon was on the downswing. Oops. This is probably one sum you won’t be banking, one character you won’t be playing anymore, one upgrade back on the airship you still won’t be able to afford.
But The Swindle’s thrills can wear thin. The progression is pretty stingy. Each playthrough has a hard 100-heist limit, and if you don’t reach the threshold for winning after your hundredth heist, too bad, start over at the beginning. Despite some nifty interaction of tools and procedural levels, it too often comes down to stealth, which is to say waiting for guard patrol patterns to sync up. And, of course, it’s a 2D platformer. Why 2D platformers didn’t die with Donkey Kong I’ll never understand. Hold on a sec, there are some kids on my lawn waving around copies of Super Mario 2D Turbo Nintendo Rehash Switch Deluxe 3.
Okay, I’m back. So The Swindle. Up next, Cryptark. Procedurally generated space bases! Only this time, it’s not a matter of looking into the window and seeing an unguarded heap of procedurally generated money mine for the taking. This time, each ship is a network of interacting systems for me to surgically pierce and even more surgically disassemble. Sometimes it’s just a matter of shutting down a shield generator. More often, it’s a careful space hulk spelunk to dismantle one system at a time, starting with the failsafe and repair system, then the shields and the alarm hub, before finally taking out the AI core. It’s quite the to-do list. And although it’s 2D, it’s no platformer. It’s a gravity agnostic twin-stick shooter, just the way I like ’em.
What wears Cryptark’s thrills thin is the rapidly escalating difficulty level. You can’t just look through the window, decide it’s too heavily defended, and go back home, like you can in The Swindle. Instead, you play five levels to get strong enough to pierce the Cryptark itself, which is basically a Death Star with no conveniently unshielded thermal exhaust port. This is the kind of game that does the unthinkable: it makes you fight a dragon that doesn’t have a glowing orange weak spot on its chest. I love Cryptark. I wish it felt the same about me.
So why am I going on about The Swindle and Cryptark in a Void Bastards review? Because Void Bastards is, at last, the game I wanted while I was playing The Swindle and Cryptark. And, really, all those Thiefs and Splinter Cells before them. Here is a place, working according to some simple rules of order. And now here’s me, a chaos virus introduced into the system. But I’m not the kind of chaos virus that has to sit and wait for a guard’s patrol pattern to sync up so I can quietly clobber him with a truncheon. I’m not the kind of chaos virus struggling to figure out how I’m supposed to find a thermal exhaust port on a Death Star without a thermal exhaust port. I’m not the kind of chaos virus that has to reload a saved game when a guard turns around and sees me. Because unlike those other games, Void Bastards is an unrepentant first-person shooter. These space hulks are here for me to plunder, not sneak through or solve.
In Void Bastards, I’m the kind of chaos virus that sprays staples into a surprised scribe before he can berate Barbara again (I’m not sure who Barbara is, but the scribes sure do go on about her). Yeah, staples. Okay, we both know it’s a shotgun, but Void Bastards calls it a stapler and if I want to find ammo for it, I should raid medical ships. They’re those kinds of staples. So I’m the kind of chaos virus who has specifically boarded this Xon Organ Wagon and is making its way to the medical theater in search of more staples, but I might as well swing by the break room to see if there’s any food here, because these outpatients aren’t putting up much of a fight, and the only other staff here are janitors and juves. Sure, veteran janitors and hardened juves. But still just janitors and juves. The juves — short for juveniles — call me “dickbag”. They’re short, so I have to aim lower for a headshot.
I was the kind of virus who didn’t know what a void whale does. Now I do. Now I’m the kind of chaos virus who couldn’t find the warhead on that last PAC Torpedo Boat to blow up a pirate ship before it caught up with me, so nevermind the scribes, janitors, and juves, because I’m chucking all seven of my unstable robokitties into the hallway where the pirates are coming at me, and then I’m falling back as the mechanical cats scurry and draw fire and detonate, and then I’m closing the door and locking it and watching through the window as the gunfire overlaps the explosions spawning explosions spawning explosions. KBOOM!, FLAKK!, SPLATCH!, the screen onomatopoeias in comic font. The biff-pow comic book aesthetic isn’t just an aesthetic. Stand at a door during quieter moments, and Void Bastards will tell you tap, step, or whirr, each meaning a different thing. Helpful, with a sense of humor always.
This is what a chaos virus does to a system when it’s realized in a first-person shooter. You can’t do this in a 2D platformer. I appreciate how The Swindle let me dismantle its walls, doors, and floors with chain reacting explosions, opening new ways through a level as only a 2D game can do. But it simply can’t compete with the seven detonating robokitties in Void Bastards. Speaking of, now I’m out of robokitties. Look, up ahead. I can plunder that Otori Pet Wagon.
One of my favorite things about Void Bastards is that I always have a sense of intentionality. I’m always somewhere specific, for a specific reason, going somewhere specific. I’m never just following a waypoint, or leveling up for leveling’s sake, or amassing gold or points, or stumbling around a dungeon’s blind corners. The overall structure is part rogue-like, part survival crafting, situated in a delightfully tongue-in-cheek corporate ecology. I can’t think of a better term than “corporate ecology” for the way it knits together its sense of humor, worldbuilding, and gameplay. From the crafting to the weapons to the enemies and even the levels themselves. Because these aren’t really levels. They’re spaceships.
Before you board, you see a diagram of the ship’s layout with the rooms labeled. Tooltips tell you what’s what. Look out the windows and see the shape of the ship. Different ships have different roles in this corporate ecology. If you want fuel, you don’t find it on a space station, because space stations don’t move. If you want to heal, look for a Xon medical ship. If you need food, look for a Lux ship. Short on crafting materials? Get thee to a Krell cargo ship. Oh, you want a specific type of crafting material? You’re short on slag, you say? The industrial WCG ships. That CNT boat will have plastics and of course the Xon ships are full of bio. Fingers, hands, eyeballs, distended testicles.
This is where other games might have procedurally generated levels. But Void Bastards offers specificity, intentionality, things that are what they are and not just randomly rolled rooms. A CNT Records Boat is always a CNT Records Boat, just like a Lux Casino Barge is always a Lux Casino Barge and a Xon Organ Wagon is always a Xon Organ Wagon. There are random elements, to be sure. Sometimes the ship is pressurized and you won’t be limited by your oxygen supply. Sometimes one of the types of bad guys is on your side. Sometimes the security systems are turned off. Sometimes there’s a boss monster in here. Fucker. Sometimes the power is off.
This last one — the power being turned off — is an example of how smartly developer Blue Manchu has tuned Void Bastards. When I set foot on a ship, I’m at the airlock where I docked. If I want, I can turn right back around and leave, picking another ship to visit next. But when it’s so easy to leave the level, I might as well peek in the door, just to see if there’s something nearby worth grabbing. Even if I’m just passing through on the way to somewhere else — I’m always going somewhere specific — I might as well take a look. It might be like those levels in The Swindle, with a cash machine right inside the front door. Maybe the airlock is down the hall from the engine room. I can just check that the hall is empty, listen at the engine room door, and grab the fuel if no one is in there. But if I see someone in the corridor, or hear the heavy footfall of an armored space miner behind the door, I’ll just beat feet and get fuel somewhere else later, somewhere easier. So I’ll always visit every ship and how predictable and possibly tedious will that be?
But sometimes the power is off. I’d say about one in ten ships. That means the airlock door won’t open, and I can’t exit until I get to the generator room and turn the power back on. I know exactly where the generator room is. And I know exactly what kind of enemies are on board. And I know which three weapons I’m carrying and how much ammo I’ve got and what supplies I’m likely to find on this kind of ship. What I don’t know is how all these elements are going to come together. This was supposed to be a quick check to see if anyone is in the hallway to the engine room. Now it’s a white-knuckle exercise in playing the high stakes of permadeath. What a terrible way to end such a great run, but it’s not like I didn’t know the risk. I’m the kind of chaos virus who just found himself in a survival horror game.
The three weapons I chose are a fundamental part of what makes Void Bastards tick and invariably boom. As I said, this is an unrepentant first person shooter. Don’t be fooled by all the crafting and survival and rogue-like stuff. You are here to be the kind of chaos virus that shoots things. But Void Bastards isn’t content with the traditional pistol-shotgun-rocket-launcher shooter. You may think you’ve seen all the kinds of guns a videogame has to offer. Void Bastards invites you to think again. You and your lowly pistol are setting out into uncharted space, and it’s a real delight to see what toys Blue Manchu has put out here, and how they interact with the different enemies. Their website calls Void Bastards a strategy-shooter, and I’d normally scoff at such a claim. I’m not scoffing. And to be fair, sometimes there’s a bit of stealth. Think of it as a hiatus from the shooting. Ammo doesn’t grow on trees, and when Void Bastards pushes back, it can shove pretty hard. If I didn’t have those seven robokitties…
When you first play Void Bastards, you’re in a campaign that might take a while. The worst case scenario is that you’ll be throwing your permadeathed lives at it, one doo-dad at a time, to get to the ultimate doo-dad that wins the campaign. But you will get there. It’s part of how you’re always going somewhere specific. And once you get there, you won’t find any silly boss fight or Cryptark-style impenetrable Death Star. You will simply win, and then unlock a look at Blue Manchu’s design prowess. I might even argue this is when Void Bastards really starts.
About three months after its release, Blue Manchu updated Void Bastards with what they modestly called “challenge levels”. These are available after you beat the campaign. Most of them are locked. Play the unlocked levels to earn medals, based on how you set the difficulty, to unlock the rest of the levels. But these “challenge levels” aren’t really levels. They’re campaign playthroughs that tweak the running and gunning, variously refocusing it toward survival horror, stealth, one-life ironman runs, and so forth. They flex the muscular tools Blue Manchu uses to tune their game, to make you the type of chaos virus you were when you played the campaign. It’s remarkable to see how Blue Manchu knows the different games Void Bastards could have been, and here I am, unlocking them, playing them, grooving on these creative remixes. It’s one thing for a game to be open-ended, and Void Bastards is certainly that. But it’s something else entirely for a game to be this limber. I never realized all the kinds of chaos viruses I could be.
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The best of 2019:
10. Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3
9. Transport Fever 2
8. Rebel Galaxy Outlaw
7. Phoenix Point
6. Field of Glory: Empires
5. Age of Wonders: Planetfall
4. Void Bastards
3. One Finger Death Punch 2