There's certainly no shortage of excellent roguelike titles doing the rounds on Switch just now – with the likes of Dead Cells, Enter the Gungeon, Slay the Spire and the recently released Fury Unleashed just a few examples of the very best of the genre currently available on Nintendo's console – and Blue Manchu's Void Bastards is yet another strong addition to this line-up. It's a slick and addictive sci-fi shooter with a wonderfully unique cel-shaded comic book art-style, distinctly British sense of humour and some truly unsettling enemy design to contend with as you traverse the innards of procedurally generated spaceships in search of upgrades, loot and spare parts.
In Void Bastards players assume the role of an endless procession of dangerous prisoners aboard the monolithic Void Ark, an enormous space jail whose inhabitants are now being dethawed one by one from their cryogenic slumber by the ship's onboard A.I – B.A.C.S – in order to venture into the infamous Sargasso Nebula, ransacking enemy-infested vessels in search of vital components required to get the malfunctioning Ark up and running again.
Making these desperate runs in search of components requires you to keep your supplies of food and fuel topped up as well as grabbing spare parts with which to upgrade your weapons and armour in order to successfully take on the various creatures you'll come face to face with as you navigate the corridors of derelict hospital craft, tax boats, psych ships and frigates.
The core gameplay loops here will be familiar to any roguelike fan; you'll die repeatedly as you attempt to move further and further through the game – with each death permanent for that particular prisoner – then restart afresh, a task made easier by a handful of persistent elements that see you grow stronger with each unsuccessful run.
Scrap and spare parts gathered on your sorties are used at your workbench aboard the Ark in order to unlock new-fangled weapons – you start out with a run-of-the-mill pistol but will soon be firing off toxic spikes and flinging Bushwhackers and Clusterflacks at your foes – as well as beefing up your armour and adding a variety of boons and skills which make the whole thing just a little bit easier to survive.
The cycle of gameplay here is inherently repetitive then, but Void Bastards manages to keep things interesting by endowing each prisoner you inhabit with all-manner of random afflictions that impact your ability to successfully manoeuvre through the game's deadly space gauntlet. Sometimes your avatar will have an incessant cough that alerts nearby enemies to your presence as you sneak around, you may have butterfingers that cause you to randomly drop your precious junk, be colour-blind – rendering levels monochromatic – or even be a well-known felon, ensuring that a level's hackable auto-turrets are always hostile towards you.
There are positive traits too, with better hit-rates, easier sneaking and beefed-up brawn that provides you with extra health amongst the random positive perks you may be assigned upon awakening from your cryo-snooze. It's a clever way of throwing lots of variables into the mix and, alongside ships that often malfunction in a variety of different ways, helps to keep things fresh and fun as you blast your way across the Sargasso in your little life pod.
You'll quite quickly find a rhythm in how you progress through enemy territory as you get a handle on the gameplay loops, and we found ourselves sticking to more or less the same plan time and time again – get aboard a ship, head straight for its helm to download a map replete with locations of enemies and loot, get a fix on the nearest oxygen room (you'll need to monitor your air levels as well as health constantly here) and then make our way around corridors as cautiously as possible, weighing up the risks and grabbing as much as we felt we could manage without getting killed.
The game is generous in giving you lots of information about numbers and types of enemy aboard each craft before you dock – which helps weigh up the dangers before you jump in – and before long you'll find yourself knowing whether or not a particular stash of fuel cans, food source or upgrade is worth taking a gamble on.
In some roguelikes this streamlined, almost comfortably reliable rhythm could be seen as a negative – making the repetitive elements of the game even more repetitive – but Void Bastards manages to sidestep this neatly by being quite shortlived in comparison to most of the titles we've encountered in this genre (you can blast through the campaign in roughly ten hours) and so you never really get a chance to grow tired of what's on offer here.
It's a refreshingly breezy running time that gives you just enough without boring you or making you feel as though you'll never see the end, something we run up against time and time again with roguelikes. That's not to say this is an easy game – enemies are dangerous and mistakes will be severely punished, giving the whole thing a solid level of tension throughout – it's just not as long and drawn out as many roguelikes, and is all the better for it.
Most every aspect of Void Bastards feels well-designed and intuitive; there's always plenty of information available about missions, upgrade locations, enemies and so on to help you make your way across the Sargasso, and so it's perhaps a little disappointing that it's the combat here that turns out to be the most barebones and basic element of the game.
The shooting on offer is pretty straightforward stuff – you can't aim down the sights of your weapon, duck behind bespoke cover, do fancy tactical stunt rolls out of harm's way or use gyro aiming – but it does still manage to have an immediate and satisfyingly visceral nature to it because of the game's incredible comic book art style, top-notch sound design and a truly bizarre rogue's gallery of enemies.
As you blast your way around abandoned spacecraft here you'll come up against Juves, Janitors, Spooks, Screws, Tourists, Outpatients and more – a proper motley crew of very strange foes who speak in amazing regional British accents (it often sounds like you're stuck in space with a very angry Liam Gallagher) – and the game derives much of its humour, as well as horror, from the attitudes of these marauding hooligans as you engage with them.
We're almost certain Void Bastards is the first time we've had an enemy sarcastically shout "Good one, Barbara!" at us when we missed them with a shot or been taunted with "I can see ya, dickwad" when one of them got the jump on us in battle. The various ships you board are filled with these horrifying goons who never stop chattering absolute nonsense to themselves or hurling filthy abuse in your direction and – combined with the constant rubbish being relayed across each craft's tannoy speaker system – it ensures that every mission you jump into here is filled with equal measures of humour and horror.
The rather basic nature of the combat is also helped somewhat by some clever systems that give things a little bit of a strategical lift. Members of the Blue Manchu dev team worked on the original BioShock and you can feel that connection most obviously in how your character can hack into turrets in order to subvert them and turn them on the enemy.
You can also lock doors – unless a ship's locks are randomly deactivated – to control which areas enemies may follow you into, giving things a slightly puzzle-like dynamic. If there's a dangerous Screw stood between you and the airlock, for example, you can kite him out, get him to follow you into another area and then lock him down to secure your route to safety.
There are also BioShock-esque vending machines dotted around levels that give you various perks in exchange for credits or spare parts – we like to make use of a ship's coffee machine which sees your damage output dramatically increase for a time – and, although none of this is hugely in-depth or strategic, it's just enough extra to bolster that basic combat and keep it interesting.
In terms of this Switch port, Void Bastards looks and plays pretty much identically to the other versions of the game we've previously dipped into; however, there were some occasions when the framerate struggled slightly during busy action sequences. It doesn't happen very often – and when it does it's fleeting – but when the screen gets crazy busy with action you may occasionally experience the odd dip here and there.
Besides this, we didn't encounter any bugs or other issues with the game; this is a strong port of an excellent roguelike that looks and sounds fantastic in both docked and portable modes. The game's DLC, Bang Tydy, is also available to pick up at launch and makes the whole thing more difficult, adding a new vacuum cleaner weapon, a few new ship designs and some evil robot maids who like to suck away your precious oxygen supplies.
Void Bastards is a delightful roguelike romp through a wonderfully unique cel-shaded comic book world full of loud-mouthed enemies and smart-arsed robots. The core combat is straightforward stuff, but it's given plenty of extra bite through the fantastically evocative graphics and kept interesting with hackable turrets and a handful of other BioShock-esque elements that give your engagements with the many Screws, Juves, Tourists and Spooks you'll come across as you traverse the Sargasso Nebula a slightly strategic lift. Graphically it's a beautiful thing, has top-notch sound design and its combination of coarse British humour and oddball space horror give the whole endeavour a highly original flavour that's well worth checking out, even if the moment-to-moment action doesn't quite match the rest of the package.