Life Finds a Way
As far as the annual NIS creepy-cute games go, void tRrLM(); //Void Terrarium sure stands out as being one of the most unique. From its characters to its gameplay, and even to certain parts of its story, Void Terrarium headed in several directions that I wasn’t expecting and, quite honestly, threw me for a loop more than once. But that’s not a bad thing. In fact, I enjoyed it. A lot. But that also made me more critical of things. After all, if you think that a game’s good, then you need to be able to defend that opinion, right? To that extent, I feel like I can defend a lot of things about this game. Unfortunately, the few things that I can’t defend are obvious enough that I can’t just simply ignore them.
If you’ve been following NIS’s unique brand of horror over the years as I have, you probably know how these games pan out. Typically speaking, games like these are either puzzle-driven platformers or, in the case of Yomawari duology, top-down exploration games, with plenty of horror elements thrown in. And, because of their similarities, they’re relatively similar in terms of playtime and how they tell their stories. Naturally, Void Terrarium tries to follow this pacing, too. But there’s one little problem, and that is that Void Terrarium is a Mystery Dungeon game. And, despite being an entirely different genre, NIS still tried to fit it into the same frame as its predecessors—a decision that ultimately left much of this game’s potential unrealized.
I Have No Mouth
Void Terrarium takes place within an abysmally dystopian future in which most of humanity was wiped out by an incurable parasitic fungus, and the remainder eventually being killed off by a sentient AI of their own creation. Happy times, I know. The story begins with a service robot being miraculously re-activated (thanks to the tinkerings of a curious mouse) and stumbling upon, of all things, an infected human child encased almost entirely within a cocoon. While unable to help her at first, the robot soon comes into contact with the now nearly entirely defunct (and extremely guilt-ridden) factoryAI—the being responsible for killing off the remainder of humanity—who, after learning about the human, joins forces with the robot—whom she affectionately refers to as “Robbie”—in an attempt to save what remains of the human race.
While I’ve made it evident that Void Terrarium deviates from its predecessors in terms of gameplay, I’d also like to make a note of the fact that it deviates in terms of story as well. The most notable difference in this game’s story is the fact that it doesn’t center around the quintessential “helpless little girl” (or boy, in the case of The Liar Princess and the Blind Prince) character. Toriko, the child in this game, acts more as a narrative object rather than a character—story events happen because of her, but she isn’t necessarily the focus of the story.
Rather than focusing on Toriko herself, Void Terrarium mainly centers on the interactions between Robbie and factoryAI. Surprisingly, this seemingly small focal shift makes a significant impact on how the game’s story plays out. While factoryAI and, to a lesser extent, Robbie appear to be capable of expressing emotions, the fact that they’re machines is always very obvious and is made even more so by the introduction of a mysterious third party halfway through the game. And it all led up to an ending that will probably stick with me for a long time. I wish that I could say more about this particular story element, but I’d probably ruin things if I did, so I’ll leave it at that.
Unfortunately, despite everything positive that I have to say about this game, I still don’t feel that it did enough—and I mean that literally. Despite being very ambitious in some aspects, Void Terrarium is so focused on gameplay that its story feels under-developed. There was so much that I wanted to know after I reached the game’s ending. I was sad that I would most likely never have any of my questions answered—and it’s only made worse by the fact that I know that NIS was more than capable of beautifully fleshing out this game’s story as much as it should have been.
Death is Only the Beginning
Because of its drastic shift in genre, you might think that Void Terrarium features some kind of highly bizarre spin on the Mystery Dungeon genre. And I wouldn’t blame you if you did. But it doesn’t. On the contrary, it’s surprisingly normal for the most part. If you’ve played any Mystery Dungeon game before, then you should already be comfortable with most of the game’s mechanics (if you’re new to the genre, they’re not terribly hard to pick up). That doesn’t mean that everything is familiar, though. Despite mostly sticking to standard conventions, Void Terrarium has a few tricks up its sleeve that make Robbie’s Mystery Dungeon adventure a unique one.
The first and most apparent mechanical peculiarity is the fact that, no matter how far you get into the game, you always start each dungeon at Level 1. I know, I know, I wasn’t thrilled about it either at first. But it honestly works well within the frame of this game specifically. A lot of Mystery Dungeon games are all about the grind. You’ve got to get strong, so you can trek through those super-long endgame and post-game dungeons. Dungeons in this game, however, aren’t exactly big (aside from the literally endless one), and you can level up pretty quickly, meaning that it would be way easy to level up to the point of being overpowered. And, while I feel that either making more dungeons or making existing dungeons larger would have been a better idea, this is still a valid way to mitigate the chances of the player brute-forcing their way through everything. At least you get random, customizable perks with each level; it’s kinda like playing with a different character each time! Woo!
The other thing that makes Void Terrarium especially unique is how it deals with defeat. Usually, dying in a game like this is scary. Like, really scary. You could lose items, allies, levels, or even hours of progress. But none of that happens in this game. In fact, you’re supposed to die. Crafting is essential in this game, as it lets players permanently strengthen Robbie and progress the game’s story. And, as with all games, crafting in Void Terrarium requires resources. While you can’t collect resources specifically, every single item in your possession (aside from key items) is automatically converted into resources as soon as your expedition is over. Is it a weird approach? Yeah, I’d say so. But I like it a lot. Despite taking away some of the tension normally associated with the Mystery Dungeon genre, the resource collection mechanics are honestly really cool. If they ever decide to bring this system back in a future game, I think that it could be something amazing if they just expanded on it a little bit.
Earlier in this review, I said that Toriko was nothing more than a plot device. Well, that was kind of mean. And it’s also not true. She’s also a pet! Okay, so the game doesn’t technically call her a pet, but she basically is. As a sick, helpless child, there isn’t much Toriko can do by herself. Fortunately, she’s got Robbie to handle everything for her. Alongside making a bunch of hazardous treks through dungeons and dying repeatedly, you’ll also be responsible for keeping Toriko alive. Ah, the joys of parenthood!
So, what does keeping Toriko alive entail? Well, have you ever owned a Tamagotchi before? You treat her just like one of those. I’m not even being hyperbolic, here; the game gives you the Pet Nanny, which is a little HUD in the corner of the game that looks like an in-game Tamagotchi. As far as actual caretaking goes, things begin simple enough with the player just needing to feed Toriko and clean up her terrarium regularly. More features get added in as the game progresses, though. Eventually, you’ll need to do things like making sure her contamination levels are low and to play with her remotely while you’re in the middle of a dungeon. Oh, and make sure she doesn’t get sick. Some of those illnesses are Body Horror City—and Toriko already doesn’t look stellar as-is.
Void Terrarium also lets players decorate Toriko’s terrarium. Despite how silly this might sound, this was one of the driving forces behind the game for me. While crafting furniture is technically optional, each new piece of furniture crafted permanently buffs Robbie, such as adding to his Attack, Defense, or HP, or letting him edit his level-up skillset. More importantly, however, is the fact that decorating the terrarium is a lot of fun. Despite being 2D, Void Terrarium gives players a lot of customization options—including the ability to rotate and resize objects, and place objects on one of four different planes—making the ability to decorate with new items just as—if not more—appealing than the all-important stat buffs that come with them.
Room to Grow
I really, really like void tRrLM(); //Void Terrarium. It’s got a great plot, fun Mystery Dungeon gameplay, and delightful customization features. But it’s just too short for me to give it a higher rating than the one which I’ve given it. I don’t care if it’s following the tradition of its predecessors; you can’t pace a DRPG in the same way that you can a platformer. I still think that this game is great, and I think that a lot of other people will, too. But is $60 worth a game that only takes around 20 hours to beat and might leave you with more questions than answers at its end? I’m not so sure.
Final Verdict: 3.5/5
Available on: Nintendo Switch (Reviewed), PS4; Publisher: NIS America, Inc.; Developer: Nippon Ichi Software, Inc.; Players: 1; Released: July 14, 2020; ESRB: T for Teen; MSRP: $59.99
Full disclosure: A review code was provided by the publisher.