Hardspace: Shipbreaker Review: Not Your Average Podcast Game
Once upon a time, repetition was considered a bit of an ugly word when it came to games. Everyone wanted games that were constantly throwing new things at you, giving you new twists and different gameplay styles. That attitude hasn’t completely vanished, but it feels like a shift has started. The podcast game, something you can put on and chill out even if it means a sort of mindless loop, has gained a bit of respect with games like PowerWash Simulator.
Hardspace: Shipbreaker, in many ways, fits into that same style of game. It asks you to do the same things repeatedly. Even within a single ship, you’ll often do the same things over and over again, and when you’re taking apart ship after ship, that repetition only grows more pronounced. It absolutely captures some of the same feel that appealed to me with PowerWash. Yet no one will confuse Hardspace for a podcast game. While that same sense of repetition is here, it turns it on its head, putting you in enormously dangerous situations which can go bad at almost any time. There are times when the game’s tension can rise to absurd degrees. While most of this sort of game is all about letting you keep moving, Hardspace throws limitations and obstacles at you constantly. This makes for a game that simultaneously feels familiar and also unlike any game I’ve played before.
Tearing It Down
I suppose I should explain what a shipbreaker is. In the distant future, with spaceships traveling all over the galaxy, you end up with a lot of ships that are no longer needed. Basically, scrap. They come back to the yard and won’t be sent back out again, so something has to be done with them. That’s where you come in. You’re one of the shipbreakers whose job is to tear these ships apart piece by piece. Using a laser cutter and a grapple tool, you need to separate items that can be turned into something useful from items that might be usable again as is. You’ll also need to separate items that will never be useful again, pure junk that can be burned into raw materials.
At first, this is pretty easy. An old-school shipbreaker will walk you through the basics as an instructor, and over time more and more people will join him in teaching you advanced techniques, but at first, ships come apart simply, and most of them are quite small. There will be challenges, and if you make a mistake, you can easily end up dead, but it’s easy to find a sort of tranquility in the whole process.
The Suspense Is Terrible. I Hope It Will Last.
That doesn’t last. As you grow more experienced, more will be thrown at you. Yes, that means better tools, like a tether that can drag heavy items away and explosive charges. It also means upgrading your existing tools into better versions which can help with the increasingly dangerous ships you’ll see. It also means more challenges, though. The company you work for stops providing you free oxygen, so you have to pay for it. Fuel is also no longer free, so better not zip around too much. Ships get more dangerous themselves, too, with heavy items that pushing too hard will cause you to shatter your helmet, leaving you to asphyxiate. You’ll also start coming across pressurized ships, where if you don’t depressurize them before tearing them apart, they’ll explode, or reactors that will blow up if you don’t deal with them very quickly. The more you show you’re capable of, the more that LYNX, the company employing you, expects of you. Basically, there are an awful lot of ways to die doing this.
Dying in Hardspace: Shipbreaker isn’t as bad as it would be in real life, at least. It’s the distant future, after all! A backup of you is taken every night, so if you don’t make it, they’ll just pop another copy of you out to replace the old version. Is that still you? Try not to ask the hard questions, everyone who does this job is going to die now and then. Of course, this service where the company replaces you comes at a price. Every time you die, a little more gets added to your debt. That amount, astronomical due to the costs of getting you equipped for this job, is just one more thing to work off. The amounts of money you bring in each day seem huge, but they’re a drop in the bucket compared to what you owe, and with LYNX charging you for every little thing you can think of, they’re even more slow to drop than they otherwise would be.
Reflecting Our World
It should come as no surprise that Hardspace: Shipbreaker is talking about capitalism. Major storylines involve the ancient concept of unionization, how to save every penny you can, and how to stay alive not as an obvious thing you should want but as a way to keep costs down. You get warnings at times when doing dangerous things, but they’re always pushed as a way to save the company money rather than to protect you. It creates an atmosphere that quickly takes what could be a rather relaxing game and ratchets the tension into the stratosphere.
Players who want a little bit more of a relaxing time have options. There are modes where you can tear ships apart without all the rules, restrictions, or time limits. Those wanting this to be their next relaxing podcast game should look into them. Despite its mechanical similarities, though, the core game is stronger for having a unique identity.
While at times the repetition inherent in its design got to me, the thing Hardspace: Shipbreaker shares most with those podcast games is that its core gameplay loop can feel incredible. That it sometimes tore me out of my complacency with no notice and made me fight for my life didn’t stop me from wanting to play just a few minutes more, it made the desire to do so nearly impossible to resist. Paying off your debt may be an endless slog, but when it feels this good I know I’ll be signing up for another tour with LYNX.
Final Verdict: 4/5
Available on: Xbox Series X (Reviewed), Xbox Series S, PS5, PC; Publisher: Focus Entertainment; Developer: Blackbird Interactive; Players: 1; Released: September 20th, 2022; ESRB: T for Teen; MSRP: $39.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a retail copy of Hardspace: Shipbreaker.