Review: Void Terrarium finds hope in a hopeless world

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Masayuki Furuya has a remarkable ability to use grim, horrific settings to tell the most heartfelt and hopeful stories. Games like Hotaru no Nikki: The Firefly Diary and A Rose in the Twilight are unforgiving games that explore difficult themes like depression, but their cute character designs always sit in stark contrast, serving as a reminder that there’s always light in the darkness. Void tRrLm(); // Void Terrarium trades the puzzle platformer setup typical of Furuya’s games for a roguelike dungeon crawler, but this theme of staying hopeful against all odds rings as true as ever.

Hope in the face of hopelessness

Void Terrarium takes place in a future where humanity has long since gone extinct. When the surface world was overrun with toxic fungi, humans created a network of high-tech subterranean tunnels and fled underground. But even there, their time was limited—those tunnels are now a scrapyard, home to nothing but robots gone rogue and those few creatures who’ve mutated enough to survive the toxicity leaking in from above.

Related: If you want a more whimsical, lighthearted take on a roguelike, don’t miss Pokemon Mystery Dungeon: Rescue Team DX. Here’s our review.

But then, one day, a discarded janitorial robot—”Robbie”, as he later comes to be known—wakes up in the wasteland. He hasn’t gone haywire like so many other robots, but he has no memory of who he is or why he’s been powered on. Eventually, his aimless wandering leads to the discovery of a human child, weak and sickly, with fungi growing from her body, but alive. With that, he suddenly has a purpose to his existence: to do whatever it can to nurse this girl back to health—and maybe, just maybe, bring humanity back from the dead.

With that, Void Terrarium sets itself up as a game about doing everything you can to keep a spark of hope alive, no matter the odds. Robbie makes it his duty to create a safe environment for the girl (whom he names Toriko) to live; a terrarium, safe from the toxic fumes and corruption. Finding food and materials to improve Toriko’s living conditions means regularly venturing out into the tunnels, braving their dangers and witnessing the desolation of the world that was. The underground wasteland is a picture of hopelessness, but it’s also where Robbie finds what he needs to keep his hope alive.

Luckily, he’s not alone in his efforts. Soon after finding Toriko, Robbie meets factoryAI, an artificial intelligence that was created by humans to help with the subterranean expansion. In contrast to Robbie’s silent stoicism and Toriko’s quiet, sleepy nature, factoryAI is a bright and bubbly individual, full of jokes and never shy about letting her emotion drive show. She has her own reasons for wanting to protect Toriko, but being unable to move, she instead helps by using her extensive knowledge of humanity to act as a sort of guide for Robbie.

It’s in this juxtaposition of a grim, post-apocalyptic world and charming, cheerful characters that Void Terrarium is at its most Furuya-esque. The world and the dungeons you’re sent to explore are bleak, from the sterile, stainless steel hallways where the corruption is at its weakest to areas completely overgrown with fungus. Every outing ends in Robbie’s destruction, one way or another, before he gets rebuilt back at the terrarium for another fatal outing. But there’s hope underneath it all that carries this motley crew forward, and you see it every silly joke from factoryAI, every silent gesture from Robbie, and every moment of Toriko blissfully playing in her little glass paradise.

Familiar themes, but a new direction

As much as it continues those themes that are so present in all of Furuya’s games, Void Terrarium finds its own unique approach. Most significantly, it tackles a very different genre—all of Furuya’s previous directorial roles have been for puzzle platformers of some form or another, but Void Terrarium is a classic roguelike.

The whole core loop of the game is about going out into procedurally-generated dungeons, trying your best to survive and find the materials you need, gradually getting stronger over the course of each outing until bad luck, hubris, or some combination of the two gets you killed. Then it’s back to the base, and back to level 1 to start all over again, though you at least return with whatever materials and food you’d scavenged, so you can feed Toriko or maybe build some new toys for her to play with.

It’s a perfect genre for Void Terrarium‘s particular approach to themes of hope. Roguelikes, as a rule, have tension baked into the core of their design. They’re unfair, deliberately so, and a lot of the enjoyment comes from finding creative ways to deal with that unfairness using whatever tools you’ve been lucky enough to find. Void Terrarium uses that to drive home the desolate state of its world, but also to emphasise Robbie’s nurturing role. He keeps going back out, again and again, because that’s what it takes to care for Toriko and the hope for the future that she represents.

Void Terrarium is also unique among Furuya’s games in that it depicts a very one-sided partnership. Hotaru no Nikki, A Rose in the Twilight, and The Liar Princess and the Blind Prince all have you commanding two characters, a guide or caregiver that you control directly, and a charge who you control indirectly through the guide’s actions. Void Terrarium is similarly built on a caregiver / charge relationship, but it’s much more one-sided. Toriko doesn’t join you on your expeditions or help you solve puzzles; she lives her life in the bubble while you work tirelessly to protect her.

This isn’t to diminish the role that Toriko plays in the story, but rather to emphasise a more parental relationship. She’s a child, helpless in a hostile world, and Robbie has become a surrogate parent who’ll do whatever it takes to protect her. When she gets hungry, he’s the one who has to feed her. When she gets sick, he’s the one who has to find a way to cure her. When she gets bored, he’s the one who has to entertain her. Those other games were all about partnerships between people on relatively equal footing, so the leader-follower design was right; Void Terrarium is, essentially, about a parent looking after a child, so the one-sidedness fits.

New twists on a classic roguelike

Void Terrarium mostly sticks close to classic roguelike design—if you’ve ever played a Mystery Dungeon or Shiren the Wanderer (or maybe even Rogue!), you’ll find this one instantly familiar. All the genre staples are here: turn-based, grid-based movement that allows for a tactical approach, more loot than you could ever have bag space for, and hidden traps aplenty. But Void Terrarium also has a few neat tricks of its own.

Toriko herself is the biggest factor here. Though she lives entirely in her terrarium, you have to monitor her status at all times through a tamagotchi-like interface. When her room gets dirty, you have to clean it—which you can do remotely from a dungeon, but at the cost of a large amount of energy that you also need for moving around and fighting. When she gets hungry, you need to feed her, or risk her getting sick (or dying, if you’re especially neglectful). There’s no way to feed Toriko remotely, so her hunger gauge acts as a time limit on expeditions—but not one that you’re strictly beholden to. When she’s starving but you’ve almost reached your goal within a dungeon, it’s up to you to weigh the risks of pushing through.

Each time you level up, you get to choose one of two randomly-selected skills ranging from simple stat upgrades to increased drop rates to gaining the ability to damage enemies by dashing through them. At first, these skills are entirely random, but a short way into the game, you gain the ability to customise Robbie’s systems—and with it, skew the appearance rates for your preferred skills in your favour. There’s a wide assortment of different “knacks” to craft that, when equipped, increase the rates of certain thematically-linked skills—the Medic knack, for example, increases the chances of getting auto-heal boost and HP boost skills. Later on, you can even choose a limited number of skills to remove from the drop table entirely.

While the levels you earn in a dungeon are temporary, you can also earn permanent stat increases for Robbie by crafting items. Every craftable item, from terrarium decorations to knacks, has a first-time craft bonus—typically a basic stat upgrade for Robbie, but there are some others too, like extra knack slots or increases to how long Toriko stays full after eating. As well as creating an ongoing sense of character progression that persists across dungeon runs in a way that the basic levelling system doesn’t, it ties in nicely with the whole theme of caring for Toriko. By far, the majority of items to craft are things to make her terrarium nicer, and the craft bonuses are a nice encouragement to play around with those.

Tying into the crafting system is the way you gather materials. Whenever you return from an expedition, almost all items you’re carrying are converted into four core resources—bio, mineral, energy, and contamination—which are in turn used to craft items The exact breakdown depends on the item in question, but it’s usually some combination of different resource types. What this means is that no item you pick up is useless; even a spare weapon or a gadget you’d never use has usefulness in the resources it breaks down into, and deciding what items to drop and what to hold on to will often depend on what particular resource you’re most in need of at the time.

But what truly makes Void Terrarium stand apart is how the roguelike setup feeds into those themes that have become quintessential to Furuya’s work: of finding hope in the face of hopelessness, and staying strong no matter how bleak the world around you. It’s a game that turns dungeon crawling into an exercise caring for a helpless child and protecting them from a hostile world, and that might make it Furuya’s most hopeful work yet. 

Score: 4.5 stars

void tRrLm(); // Void Terrarium is developed by Nippon Ichi Software and published by NIS America. It’s available now for Nintendo Switch (reviewed) and PlayStation 4.

A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.

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About Author

Matthew is a writer based in Wellington. He loves all things pop culture, and is fascinated by its place in history and the wider social context.