Outer space is a place of infinite possibilities and hard realities. It can be a setting that invites the fantastic with light sabers and the Force, and it can also be a sobering locale bounded by science. That's part of the reason it attracts the imagination.
Two indie titles, "Void Bastards" and "Outer Wilds," tackle different aspects of space-faring. The first game is a tongue-in-cheek, rogue-like effort that puts players in the shoes of inmates who are forced to jump-start their prison ship after it becomes stuck in the Sargasso Nebula. On the other hand, "Outer Wilds" puts players in the middle of a peculiar solar system with a star on the verge of going into a supernova. Thankfully, the protagonist is stuck in a time loop.
"Void Bastards" is the better game of the two. It's a more focused project with a twisted sense of humor as players try to repair their ship, the Void Ark. The process seems Sisyphean as they deal with one setback after another.
Players survive by boarding other vessels and scavenging for material while fending off citizens lurking aboard. They choose from three categories of weapons to do each job, but players have to pore over the ships' randomized layouts, inhabitants and hazards.
A vessel could be on fire or it could have its power shut off. Players could encounter powerful aliens or annoyingly weak ones. Because there's a variety of combinations, players have to plan ahead for each encounter. They'll also have to weigh the risks and rewards of staying aboard to rifle through one last room versus fleeing if their health is low.
If players die, their character stays dead, and the uptight droid on the Void Ark rehydrates a new prisoner, who has a different set of talents and characteristics. This randomization on both sides creates a game with plenty of replayability and new sets of challenges.
"Void Bastards" works because it presents players with problems and offers tools to overcome them. Even if players roll a hero who has poor traits, they can fix things through gene-therapy ships. If they're running low on ammo, they must adapt their tactics and take new weapons into battle.
It's a game that rewards exploration of gameplay, and that variety keeps "Void Bastards" from being repetitive. It offers fresh challenges as players accomplish every objective to escape the Sargasso Nebula while also powering up their gear.
While "Void Bastards" revels in its gameplay and wry sense of humor, "Outer Wilds" specializes in creating a sense of wonder in a game based on hard science. Players take on the role of an astronaut of the planet Timberhearth. The hero is set to explore the solar system when he runs across a statue of the ancient Nomai race, a group of aliens who explored this corner of the galaxy eons ago.
As players casually explore the nearby moon and other planets, the star at the center explodes and kills everybody. Strangely enough, the protagonist awakens and finds himself back at the start of his day. Players find themselves in a 22-minute time loop, and using this seemingly endless amount of "Groundhog Day" time, they must explore the other planets and figure out the mystery behind their star system.
"Outer Wilds" is a high-concept project that's part "Kerbal Space Program" and part "The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask." Players have limited tools at hand with their ship, space suit, Nomai translator, space probe and radio, but by using them cleverly, they can shed a light on the oddness of the solar system.
It's a project that asks players to invest themselves in the story about an alien civilization. As players uncover their secrets during each phase of the time loop, they discover several threads that led to the Nomai's fate. They'll also figure out how to use their advanced technology and the strange properties of each planet.
They'll discover a black hole at the center of Brittle Hollow, which also has a moon that spews out molten rock. They'll come across the angler fish in Dark Bramble and the strange ocean of Giant's Deep. Players will marvel at the Hourglass Twins, in which ash from one planet spills into the other. The worlds move around an orbit and follow a predictable pattern.
In many ways, the setting of "Outer Wilds" is like a complex clock that resets each time the protagonist dies. Players don't earn experience points or build better gear as the inmates in "Void Bastards" do. Improvement comes from knowledge and uncovering the inner workings of the celestial bodies.
That's all fine and good, but the biggest strength of "Outer Wilds" — the sense of exploration — is also its weakness. Although the game encourages players to explore, the world can be so big that it can seem overwhelming and hard to figure out. Even with a computer that tracks the different objectives, unraveling the narrative threads can be difficult. It's a type of game, where players need to take their own notes and dive into the role of an interplanetary archaeologist.
For all the game asks of players, it can also be rewarding as they learn to pilot the ship, safely land on planets and deal with the quantum mechanics of strange rocks. It's a game with a lot of science built into it, but the developers at Mobius Digital wrap that theory into a fascinating world that begs to be discovered.
Final scores: 'Void Bastards," 3.5 out of 4 stars; 'Outer Wilds,' 3 out of 4 stars.