Sunday, December 3, 2023

Hardspace: Shipbreaker review: Solidarity in space

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Hard space: Shipwreck

MSRP $ 34.99

“Hardspace: Shipbreaker is a complex anti-puzzle game that delivers a sharp commentary on corporate abuse.”


  • Ingenious shipwreck

  • Tense and relaxed in one

  • Long-term progress

  • An essential story


  • Zero-G can be disgusting

  • Repeated due to its length

Hard space: Shipwreck it may be a science fiction game in outer space, but it’s as far down to Earth as a Woody Guthrie song. If you don’t walk away from it wondering whether or not you’re being treated fairly at work, there’s a chance you might be one of the bad bosses it dissects.

First released in early access in 2020 (and now reaching its 1.0 launch along with console ports), Hard space: Shipwreck has an unusual, remarkable premise. The first-person shooter task players with reverse engineer spaceships in a zero-gravity shipyard and save every last bit of metal. If that sounds more like work than play, you’re right. Under its strangely satisfying hook, the science fiction title separates modern work problems as one of its intricate ships – one violation of OSHA at the same time.

Hard space: Shipwreck is a hypnotic puzzle game that isn’t afraid to address serious issues like workers ’rights and unionization, even if it has to be a bit repetitive to accomplish that.

Astronaut in Hardspace: Shipwreck.

Reverse engineering

When Hard space: Shipwreck begins, players quickly encounter the most crippling form of disempowerment: Debt. It turns out that getting a job with the mega-powerful Lynx Corporation of the solar system comes with a huge price tag that leaves new employees more than a trillion credits in the hole on their first day at work. While “shipwreckers” make a daily wage from dismantling ships, 100% of that money goes to cutting debt, which hardly seems to be declining. It’s a dark comedy premise that doubles as a clever inversion of the old “numbers go up” of gaming. The lower the number, the better.

Hard space: Shipwreck is a workplace comedy of mistakes.

While demolition of ships is tedious work in the game’s universe, developer Blackbird Interactive makes the task of engineering engineering. The goal is to tear down giant spaceships piece by piece in a series of 15-minute shifts, making sure not to damage valuable components (this will add to the debt). Each ship is an intricate puzzle made up of aluminum and nanocarbon joints that can be cut up with a laser knife. There is a huge satisfaction that comes from carefully cutting a ship like a grateful turkey and sending each piece to its proper lifeboat (oven, barge or processor) until the whole ship is gone.

But like most jobs, there are always complications – and that’s where the game gets tedious. First, the whole game takes place in zero gravity, which can certainly be disgusting. When I carve a panel of a ship, it will start to drift away into space. That leads to almost slapstick job mishaps where I grab a stray airlock panel with my trusty gravity gun … only to pull it too aggressively, causing it to hit my helmet, cracking it and leaving me for dead.

Shipwrecker cuts into ship in Hardspace: Shipwreck.

At times Hard space: Shipwreck is a workplace comedy of mistakes. As players raise their certification, they will have to deal with more complex ships that throw new wrinkles into the mix. Reactors will explode if not salvaged fast enough, a misplaced wire can fry all nearby electronics, and accidental fire can have a panic-inducing snowball effect that blows the entire ship to shreds. Workplace accidents are often hysterical, directly eliminated Homer Simpson’s playbook, but the threat of disaster also makes every move feel tense, as if players were choosing which wire to cut on a ticking clock bomb.

The mix of high-profile drama and strangely soothing ship deconstruction works surprisingly well together. When I enter a state of flux, I feel like a veteran shipwrecker who knows exactly how to safely disengage a ship before cutting into its hull or how to safely decommission a nuclear reactor. Other times, I make a rookie mistake that strikes me as a good scare. The Lynx Corporation is the worst of the game, but falling asleep at work is a close second.

Power in union

While the puzzle-like ships are the central focus of the game, the story taking place around the workday gives the gameplay purpose. As players increase their certification, story pieces are naturally woven through emails, voice logs, and communicative chats with collaborators. Primarily, the game’s campaign revolves around Lynx’s shipwrights secretly trying to unionize – a move the corporation wants to stop at all costs (sounds familiar?).

Hard space: ShipwreckThe casual wounds of barely feel more fictional than the multi-generational reality I’ve seen with my own eyes.

The gameplay itself adds urgency to that loose plot thread, even if it happens in the background. All those tense moments where a ship can explode or a shipwreck can die with one false move highlight how dangerous the job is. There is no OSHA space to protect shipwreckers from unsafe conditions. In one piece of dialogue, a bad manager forces an inexperienced worker to extract a nuclear reactor, which almost leaves them dead. All that matters is that Lynx benefits.

The game plays with that idea in a satirical way that is both fun and uncomfortably true to life. Shipwrights do not own any of their gear at the start of the game. They have to rent it from Lynx every turn, adding up their debt. It’s not such a silly detail considering that teachers in America are no strangers to buying their own classroom supplies. The biggest escalation of the game from that joke comes every time a player dies at work. They are immediately cloned and replaced, but will have to pay Lynx for the inconvenience (don’t give Amazon ideas).

A spaceship explodes in Hardspace: Shipbreaker.

Like someone who comes from a family of manual workers with deep union ties, Hardspace: Shipwreck story feels incredibly familiar. My uncle has throat polyps that were probably caused by his years working as a “sandhog” on Boston’s Big Dig. My grandfather worked as a naval electrician during World War II, and he received radiation-induced throat cancer after being sent to Japan to wire American camps shortly after the United States dropped atomic bombs there. Later in life, he developed mesothelioma from working in an asbestos-filled newspaper office. Hard space: ShipwreckThe casual wounds of barely feel more fictional than the multi-generational reality I’ve seen with my own eyes.

It’s a brilliant example of how video games can use the unique power of interaction to enhance storytelling. Putting players in precarious situations, Hard space: Shipwreck lets us experience stressful work environments from a safe distance. Even when the accidents are absurd, Blackbird explains his point about the importance of worker protections.

Daily work

Seeing the history of the game to the end requires a surprisingly large time commitment. The three-act story takes about 30 to 40 hours to fully complete and the gameplay itself doesn’t fundamentally change at that time. Players will gain access to new ships, smaller complications, and a tool or two, but the day-to-day work remains the same even as the narrative interests increase.

It may feel like work at times, but it does Destination 2.

Hard space: Shipwreck is definitely a repetitive game. As I consumed its first 10 hours, my sessions became more widespread after that. Going through the story began to feel like work. And while that may be leveled off as a hit against the game, it’s also crucial to its message. The life of a shipwrecker is not supposed to be chic and exciting. In the universe, the Lynx Corporation grinds its employees through repetitive, unpaid work. Whenever I feel exhausted starting yet another turn, the game effectively shows its meaning.

However, this highlights some tension with video games as a narrative medium. Some stories or themes require gameplay decisions that may not always be enjoyable and may conflict with the perception that video games are “fun”. Blackbirds add a few extra hooks to help find that balance. Players can unlock stickers by doing certain tasks that can be placed on tools. There are updated trees and collections to find. There’s even a “race” mode in the final release that makes sense built for speedsters. Although considering that the core game loop is barely changing, these extra benefits can feel just as superfluous as a ping-pong table in the office.

Shipwreck saves objects in Hardspace: Shipwreck.

It is ultimately not a major blow against the game. I have the utmost respect for Blackbird’s commitment to the project, which has developed wonderfully with its early approach. Hard space: Shipwreck is a bold project that is not afraid to blunt corporate abuse and the power of unionization. Although it feels like the final product might better step up the way it teaches new mechanics or truncate its overlapping narrative, there is purpose and power in its use of repetition.

It may feel like work at times, but it does Destination 2. Hard space: Shipwreck is just more honest about it.

Our capture

Like its spaceships, Hard space: Shipwreck is a complicated project worth dissecting. Its satisfying reverse engineering gameplay is relaxed and tense in the same breath. Although more impressive is the way in which this core gameplay is used to reinforce great ideas about the rights of workers who feel timeless, even in their science fiction environment. The final campaign may feel like a grindstone due to its repetitive nature, but it is a functional project decision that places the emphasis on intellectual challenge over physical demands.

Is there a better alternative?

Death Stranding could be its closest comparison if you want something a little more striking. Both games transform light work into compelling mechanics to serve a grand story.

How long will it last?

The story is expected to last about 30 to 40 hours, but it will take much longer to get rid of debt. Additional modes and dashboards give it a long-lasting appeal, though it can become repetitive.

Should you buy it?

Yes. Hard space: Shipwreck is a truly unique title with a lot to say and a satisfying gameplay to support its message.

Hard space: Shipwreck was reviewed on a computer.

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