You might not know it from simply looking at Void Bastards, but underneath its gorgeous comic book exterior is one of the most refined roguelikes of the year. Developed by Blue Manchu Games, its melding of gameplay mechanics and genres is simplistic but meaningfully implemented, but for as well as it plays and looks, the one feature that gives it a leg up on its crowded sub-genre is its handling of death.
Typically in roguelikes, death is final. While most games are lenient with the penalty of death – a quick reload and few minutes of backtracking often being the price – few other genres make death quite as punishing as roguelikes. For some, the challenge of attempting to stay alive in a hostile world for as long as possible is a rewarding strategic dance with death.
While I’m not among those who revel in crushing difficulty, this genre has produced some of the most creatively rewarding games of late. The recurring issue I have with the roguelike genre is how discouraging it is to be forced to restart from square one upon dying.
This isn’t the case with Void Bastards, as when the player dies, they lose their current character forever, but not the gear that they’ve crafted throughout their campaign. Losing a character results in a loss of that character’s traits, and the player is given a randomized replacement with new traits, as well as a reset of their progress on the starmap.
While a character’s death is an inconvenience, it isn’t the be all, end all of a player’s current campaign, as there’s an endless turnstile of randomized characters waiting to venture into the void. By saving the player the headache of spending hours re-crafting an arsenal that they had amassed in a previous life, it incentivises the player to jump right back into the void, which provides the addictive replayability that most games lack.
Considering that the cost of crafting or upgrading an item can require multiple parts, this is an enormous lifesaver. The player doesn’t lose their progress on crafting milestone items when a character dies, which is useful as these milestone items progress the story and sometimes require three specific parts to craft. I would have little to no tolerance in enduring that amount of backtracking, especially if the character I was randomly given didn’t have adequate traits.
For those who will equate this praise with Void Bastards being an easy roguelike, I’m going to stop you right there. The game can still be punishingly difficult and challenging even on the normal setting. Being boarded by nearly invincible pirates, encountering void whales in spac that will swallow your ship whole, and running out of O2 are all constant hazards that the player will contend with in every difficulty.
Losing a character, especially one that had an ability that became crucial to how you approach raiding ships, can be devastating. Attributes such as revealing the location of turrets, enemies, or doubling O2 capacity are all traits that I had throughout a single character’s life. Losing them forced me to alter my play style drastically. This places an added emphasis on wanting your current character to survive, which in turn, results in pushing the player to play smart. Running and gunning often results in death, so a more tactical approach is needed.
Traits also provide the character with a personality to a certain extent. My first character had a negative trait called “smoker,” which made him periodically begin coughing, which alerted nearby enemies of my position. It was a negative trait that kiboshed several stealth attempts, but even 15 hours later, I have yet to forget Black Lung Bob as he affectionately became known.
And once I completed my first campaign, I decided to begin another one on a harder difficulty immediately. There are not only more difficult settings, but there are also different restrictions the player can implement such as Iron Man (one death and its campaign over) or item restrictions such as no gun or no indirect items. While Iron Man is a tad too hardcore for me, the harder difficulty and restrictions further add challenge and replayability.
Void Bastards is not only one of my favorite games of the year but my favorite roguelike in years. Dying never discouraged me from continuing my voyage, given the penalties for death were a speed bump instead of a roadblock. By fostering gameplay that promotes death as an opportunity to learn from my faults, there’s room for experimentation while never furiously cursing myself. Ultimately, this is what gives Void Bastards its superior replayability, as this spacewalk through the void could seemingly go on forever.