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Hardspace: Shipbreaker Review

In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only capitalism – or so Hardspace: Shipbreaker would have you believe. In the early 24th century, you are an impoverished citizen of a withered Earth. Stricken with debt, you sign the dotted line to become a shipbreaker; selling yourself to a life of indentured servitude in the hopes that you might work your way out of financial hell. A pipe dream indeed, but who knew menial labour could be such fun?

While the job title might suggest a devil-may-care approach, do not be fooled. Shipbreaking, or rather dismantling ships, requires care, method, sequence. Sure, you can go in all-guns-blazing, tearing out the inner workings of these beastly ships willy-nilly, but sooner or later you’ll slice the wrong panel and swallow enough electricity to kickstart Frankenstein’s Monster. Shipbreaking is like 19th-century factory work: health and safety is for chumps, and the bosses don’t give a fig.

But arguably more important than dying, messing up will cost you. That reactor you let reach meltdown? $800,000 deducted. A pane of glass reduced to sand? $10,000. Die on the job, and LYNX’s insidious ‘EverWork’ program will charge an eye-watering fee to churn out a clone. Indeed, sticking it to the man in Hardspace means wringing out ships for every last penny towards your freedom. You have to aim for a flawless job, which means LYNX also get what they want, but when it comes to greed, the house always wins.

Fortunately, the methodical approach is where Hardspace: Shipbreaker shines. There is an implicit yet flexible sequence to turning intact ships into slabs of processable metal. Through trial and error, and the help of your supervisor you’ll be able to take on more complex tasks: disposing of reactors safely, flushing fuel pipes before ejecting the thrusters, and avoiding decompression which shatters most objects in the room. 

The feeling of workmanlike satisfaction achieved from a great job is reminiscent of great moments in the simulator genre—think harvesting corn in Farming Simulator, with only a slightly higher chance of spontaneous combustion. The gratifying design of your tools goes a long way toward this feeling, the zero-g physics are also finely tuned, striking a nice balance between believable and playable. A single push, for instance, won’t generate infinite forward momentum, but objects can and will escape a careless grasp. That goes for movement in general: what appears unwieldy at first glance is actually calibrated to demand a level of precision and intent in your actions.

Not everything works so perfectly. Glass can be finicky, for example, and tethers—which carry heavy loads to the furnaces—sometimes act as if they have a mind of their own. But most of the kit and physics work well enough that you’re free to concentrate on the job at hand. 

That said, perfectionists should beware that it doesn’t seem possible to dismantle a ship without losing some measure of salvage. Rather, the aim seems to be hitting a balance between salvage goals and progress, in order to gain rewards for certain goals met. Mostly, you get LYNX tokens to spend on upgrading your tools and suit, but sometimes extra supplies, like o2 and fuel canisters. With the starting capacities of these resources being a tad stringent, it just isn’t fun having to abandon what you’re doing three times in a single shift to re-up on oxygen. 

For all its rigour, there is a lot of fun to be had in Hardspace when disaster strikes (frame-drops from explosions notwithstanding). More than once I shattered my helmet by bonking myself in the face and only barely reached my quarters as the world went black. Moments like this stave off the feeling of tedium that comes with repetitive work, so it feels like a misstep that the game doesn’t really nudge you towards more shenanigans. Ships grow in complexity and shuffle their more perilous components around—making each new variant a kind of fresh puzzle—but some added stakes to incentivise risk-taking and cutting corners might have upped the ante somewhat. 

You’ll have noticed the anti-capitalist satire in Hardspace’s narrative framing by now, and this is sent into overdrive in the narrative. Soldered onto the game’s core gameplay is an earnest, if rote, story of worker exploitation and managerial cluelessness. From about the halfway point, things get interesting, but the early beats struggle to engage and attempts to tug on the heartstrings feel belaboured. At one point, a colleague calls you directly, and within ten seconds is spilling her heart about her ex-girlfriend. Given your cutter’s inability to reply — the whole cast bar you are voice-acted — it feels like an unsolicited emotional outburst, rather than an affecting moment between two isolated colleagues.

A consistent standout is Aaron Douglas’ performance as Weaver, your wizened, temperate supervisor. Weaver is positioned as a font of limitless patience, and it’s a grim delight seeing him brought to boil by an insufferable executive. Away from the more stereotyped characters, Hardspace is perhaps most effective in its more subtle jabs at corporate culture. The company-issue posters for your personal quarters are brilliant satires of soulless corporate humour. But more lively fare can be, ahem, salvaged from ship decks, allowing you to furnish your quarters with colour and life, even if it’s against the company’s regs. 

Hardspace also offers a free play mode (with no resource management), along with a rotating competitive time-trial mode with leaderboards for cutters looking to test their mettle, pun very much intended. Add this to the 30-hour length of the main campaign, and it’s obvious Hardspace has made fruitful its time spent in Early Access. With an engaging core conceit, multiple modes of play, and a few jabs at capitalism along the way, it’s never been a better time to sell your soul to the Man.

Hardspace: Shipbreaker: Menial labour has never been such fun. While Hardspace: Shipbreaker’s writing doesn’t always land, its tight, polished gameplay sees it through, and the story it tells of worker exploitation is sincere and ultimately worthwhile. An easy recommend. Thomas Llewellyn

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