Good roguelikes aren’t designed to be difficult or unforgiving. They usually are, but that’s a consequence of the things that make them interesting: the interaction between different systems, items, upgrades, weapons, and what-have-you, and the way learning the nuances of all those interactions gives you the tools to carve out a victory with whatever you come across. You’ll die lots, sometimes unfairly, but usually in a way that would have been avoidable if you’d done something differently—making each failure a chance to learn what that “something” might be.
Related: Shiren the Wanderer: The Tower of Fortune and the Dice of Fate is a classic roguelike, in all its brutal, retro charm.
Then you get games like Derelict Void, where the difficulty is so arbitrary and tied to random events that, most of the time, it feels like a glorified dice game. Roll a six and your journey continues for one more turn; roll one to five and it’s game over, thanks for playing. That’s not to say Derelict Void doesn’t have great ideas and intriguing concept, but they tend to get lost in an over-reliance on RNG-driven game design and a limited array of options for making the most of whatever hand you’re dealt.
Derelict Void is, in essence, a resource management game. You’re in charge of a spaceship left drifting in the wake of a strange incident that dropped a whole star system’s worth of ships into unfamiliar space. Survive long enough, and you might be able to get to the bottom of what happened, but with limited resources, just keeping your boat flying and your crew alive is the first priority.
To that end, the game revolves primarily around travelling from place to place—wreckages of old ships, asteroids, maybe an emergency supply vessel if you’re really lucky—in search of resources to keep your crew alive. Food, water, and oxygen are the highest priority, since running out of any one of them is an instant game over, but the bigger picture is one of trying to gradually build out your ship, adding new resource production facilities, storage buildings, and housing area for a growing crew.
But you can’t just build these things; you have to salvage them from other wrecks you encounter on your travels. You also need space to fit all these things, which means periodically adding salvaged hulls to your ship—but also making it heavier in the process, which in turn drives up the fuel you need to spend to travel and/or the time it takes to get to your destination, which in turn means you’re consuming more critical resources, relatively speaking, for the same journey with a lighter ship…
That lays the groundwork for what should be a fascinating game of juggling different priorities, all of which are essential but are in constant conflict with one another. And when all the cards fall in the right place, Derelict Void shows glimpses of that potential. There’s nothing quite like running a huge ship that’s been kitted out with all sorts of different factories, micromanaging a whole bunch of different tools that convert resources from one type to another, maintaining a perfect balance among all your ship and crew’s needs, and seeing what each new destination adds to the mix.
The problem is that Derelict Void almost never lets you get anywhere close to that sweet spot, not through any failure of your own, but through pure bad luck. For each new jump, you’re given four randomly-selected destinations to choose from, with different distances and potential discoveries. If you’re in dire need of one of those critical resources—which is almost always the case, especially early in the game—whether you can find what you need to stay alive depends entirely on the whims of a random number generator.
There’s nothing you can do to influence potential destinations, and the option of burning fuel less efficiently in order to travel faster makes a negligible difference. When you start each new game with just a couple of days’ worth of food and water, and each new destination is at least six hours away from the previous one, a lot rides on being lucky enough to pull some good supply nodes from the destination list. If you don’t—which is the case more often than not—then that’s it, game over. You died and there was nothing you could do about it.
If you can make it past those first few days and stack your storage vaults a little bit, you get a bit more breathing room to be a little bit more exploratory with your travel choices. This opens up options a little bit, with the potential for upgrading to more efficient engines or the aforementioned factories that give you a bit more flexibility with some of the secondary resources. But even then, a series of bad dice rolls is all it takes to suddenly go from a relatively prosperous state to a game over screen because you ran out of food.
Beyond the travel aspect, random events also frequently pop up—a fire breaks out in a warehouse, another ship hails you asking for help, and so on. Some of these are simply little narrative vignettes, others are things that need you to make decisions on, which can then affect your resources, crew morale, and whatnot. But the choices lack any real weight, usually either prioritising one resource over another or trying to guess which will be the lesser of two bad options. Either way, they’re random occurrences with binary options that give you little scope to actually engage with them in any substantive way.
This makes Derelict Void an experience that’s a little frustrating, but mostly just fundamentally unsatisfying. It’s a game that prides itself on “difficulty”, but it’s not really difficult in any meaningful way—it’s certainly unforgiving, but wins and losses both feel hollow because of little practical influence you have over them. It’s a game of going through the motions and seeing where the cards fall until they inevitably spell out your doom.
The other side of this coin is an extremely functional approach to writing that does little to evoke any sort of emotional investment. The whole spacefaring survival concept is one tailor-made for stories of hope, of desperation, of ingenuity—deeply human things. Derelict Void tries to tap into that, but its writing style is too dry and robotic to come even close to making any impact. Characters lack personality, and the story is mostly made up of what feels like a mishmash of different ideas, none fully fleshed out and without anything cohesive to tie them together.
The one saving grace is some nice artwork accompanying these different vignettes. Most narrative events are accompanied by a static, hand-painted image, which are both impressive to look at and carry a lot more personality than the writing itself does. But even that’s not enough to save Derelict Void from its narrative struggles, and there are diminishing returns as you repeatedly encounter the same events, both within single playthroughs and across multiple ones.
There’s an enjoyable game somewhere in Derelict Void. The concept of a space survival roguelike with light city-building and heavy resource management is intriguing enough, as is the premise of a whole galaxy just suddenly being dumped on the other side of space and its inhabitants left to figure out what’s going on. But that potential is lost amid lacklustre writing and an arbitrary approach to difficulty that revolves almost entirely around luck, making each outing—win or lose—feel pointless.
Derelict Void is developed and published by Stirling Games. It’s available now for PC (reviewed).
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.