Hardspace: Shipbreaker review — Breaking things has never been this fun

Hyperspace tears open and the Mothership, the Pride of Hiigara, slips through the spaces between spaces, spilling Corvettes, Destroyers, Heavy Cruisers, Carriers and more into carefully-planned formations. Without warning, the enemy is upon us! Light fighters swarm to intercept while the Hive Frigate opens its ports to release their drones. Concentrated firepower rains on capital cruisers and the sky is suddenly alight with missiles, lasers, and hellfire. Rallied, but suffering heavy losses, we are victorious on the day. The enemy pulls back and slips back into the shadows, at least for now. The fighters return to base and prepare to open the slipstream to the next battleground.

That’s not you…

Your job is far more mundane. You wake up, walk the 10 feet to put on your suit, and then the 5 feet to the exit airlock for your hab. In front of you lies a derelict ship, dead and lifeless, waiting to be torn into scrap. Your job is to salvage every bit of this husk, extracting anything of value, and sorting it. Floating through the weightlessness of space, you’ll chomp into her hull like a leafcutter ant, slowly eating away at it until fully consumed, only to do it again the next day. No galactic battles, no battle formations, no C beams glittering in the dark by the Tannhäuser gate. You work for the Lynx Corporation as a Salvage Engineer, or “cutter”, and that’s going to be the case for a very, very long time.

Before you start the game proper you are living on Earth, and it’s become as derelict as the ships you’ll be cutting to bits. With effectively zero prospects on the horizon, you take a risk and place your thumb on the contract for the Lynx Corporation to work as a salvager. Lynx will happily sponsor you for the job, but there’s the matter of your transport to space, backing up your physical body for “spares” should you die, equipment rental and maintenance, a place to live in space, and more. How much does all this cost? Just over BILLION dollars. But don’t worry – you can make payments to earn your way out of that debt. The generosity of Lynx knows no boundaries, as long as you pay your bill before 10:00am every day.

Hardspace: Shipbreaker Let's Play - Shift 1 [Gaming Trend]

On the surface you might immediately think that Hardspace: Shipbreaker sounds dull, and that couldn’t be further from the truth. Every ship type is a new puzzle to solve, and meticulously rendering them into their component parts is an exercise in precision and careful attention to detail. In the beginning of the game your only real challenge is not blowing up a fueled engine, or accidentally decompressing a pressurized space. Both of these can explosively fling you against a bulkhead, cracking your helmet and venting your oxygen. Really hard hits can even kill you outright. When you do get under the surface of the ship’s skin you’ll find other hazards like fuel tanks, power couplings, and more. While Shipbreaker presents as a calm and cool zen-like game, things get very exciting when there’s suddenly a meltdown timer on the large reactor that is casting lighting all around it.

You have a handful of tools at your disposal to get your job done. Your cutting laser can fire a pinpoint beam to melt the target. This is useful for careful precise cuts, though it takes more time. An alternate mode lets you cut across a straight line near instantly. This immediately makes me think back to my firearms training as it’s just as valid here – always know what’s behind your target. That can become explosively evident if you aren’t careful.

Your second tool is your grappler. This tool allows you to grab an object in space so you can move it. It can even percussively shove the object in a specific direction. Tethers soon join that tool chest. These devices connect two points, or a device and location, slowly contracting and pulling the object towards the other object. This is useful for dragging a large panel into a processor to grind the materials into their component parts, and it does so in an unattended fashion, freeing you up to perform other work.

Your “startup costs”

Your day starts like any other day – you’ll pick a ship to break. The larger the ship, the more likely it’ll take several days to shuck and sort. The first few are simple, and your stalwart Supervisor is always there to help. He’ll guide you through everything from cutting, sorting, and watching your safety. Each piece you pull off will be sorted into one of three areas. The Barge is a massive tech-net to catch the most expensive and fragile parts, such as computers, electronics, furniture, and the ultra-fragile engines and cores. Grabbing those items with your grapple tool, you’ll shoot them towards the area with a green lit border. The other two spaces flank both sides of the ship – the processing bays. On each side you’ll have a processor for materials you’ll want to refine and re-use, such as platinum or more rare metals, and you’ll have a furnace for whatever is left. If you aren’t careful pulling out that expensive console it’ll switch from “Barge” tagged to a “Furnace” destination, so be careful how much you bang it on the walls on the way out.

You aren’t just sorting for fun – remember you have over a billion dollars of debt to settle. The progression of the game is tied to this debt to a small degree, but more to your level and the precious LT you’ll collect by hitting salvage milestones. Lynx won’t trust you with their 34 million dollar mega ships in the beginning, instead giving you little shuttles to poke at. These have few hazards, but they are also worth less should you blow them up. Looking at their salvage potential you’ll find ticks over specific points that indicate milestones. Hitting these milestones gives you LT that you can spend back in your habitat to improve your gear. Doing so helps you be more efficient so you can take down larger ships quickly, maximizing profit return.

Let’s get this girl fixed up!

Each milestone gives you experience towards leveling up. This grants you access to salvage bigger and better ships, but also unlocks various equipment upgrades. This can add range to your laser, cool it faster, allow you to push larger objects with your grapple gun, carry additional charges, unlock a controlled demolition charge, and much more. Those larger ships will bring new dangers along with them. Many more compartments are compressed, requiring careful cuts lest you suddenly trigger a costly explosive decompression. When things start flying, you never know what it’s going to break as it’s now officially at the mercy of the physics engine. I had a battery pack fly from a nearby room all the way into the engine compartment, clanking against a valve, and triggering an explosion that turned my precious ship into shards of debris all destined for the furnace. When you do screw up, the overall value of the ship drops, meaning you can’t hit the latter salvage targets. Since these are directly tied to how much experience and LT you receive, you are only hurting yourself. Hurt yourself enough and you’ll come face to face with the $150,000 upcharge for regenerating a new body for yourself. That eats into your profits, so try not to do it, eh?

Hardspace Shipbreaker Let's Play - Shift 2 [Gaming Trend]

As I mentioned, all ships are puzzles, and the latter ships in the game can be complex multi-step processes to make them safe. It’s not a mystery though as you’ll have instructions. To salvage the core of a particular ship you might need to power down the fuel lines that are currently connected to the engines, lest you accidentally set one of those off. Pulling a fuse means timing the lights so they are discharged and ready for removal, lest you give yourself a good shock. Pulling a fully-charged core might require you also pull out several coolant tanks. Following these steps each time should be a habit, but the game lulls you into a false sense of security. Hardspace: Shipbreaker can be a relaxing experience, until it’s sudden decompression / meltdown / entire tail section of the ship is now a fireball made of high-speed shards sort of not-relaxing. Complacency breeds catastrophe, and there’s another spare body on your bill.

There is a central narrative in the campaign, but I’m not about to ruin it. I tried to avoid it as much as possible with the Let’s Play videos above so you could go into it blind. Just know that there is a storyline to uncover there, and it has a very satisfying conclusion that makes me wonder where Blackbird will take this all next.

Just a few tethers.

At your job, you might liberate a pen and use it at home. In Shipbreaker you have access to parts and a purpose for them if you collect enough – getting the heck out of here! Not too long into the campaign you’ll gain the ability to scavenge a little on the side to help rebuild a ship of your own. It’s a fun, if underused, distraction. I do wish we could have somehow actually spent more time outside building “Buelah” but this is a game about ripping things apart, not building them, so I understand not wanting to build a single-use one-off mechanic just for our little puddle jumper shuttle.

Tucked into every corner of this game is a dark and pervasive humor that I absolutely love. For example, while getting a rundown of the specs on a new type of ship I was told that the engineers believed that they couldn’t build a sturdy ship of this type with the materials that were on hand, so there was clearly a change needed. “The new engineering team agreed that the materials were fine”. Similarly, the game will warn that suffocating could lead to damage to Lynx equipment, and that’d be bad.

The soundtrack to Shipbreaker is subtle, filled with twangy country without lyrics that hide in the background. If the team was shooting for a Firefly feel, they nailed it. Sure, after about 20 hours of it I turned it down a bit, but it evokes a blue collar worker feel that matches perfectly. I’m looking forward to a mod to be able to swap in my own headset – if I’ve gotta float through space alone, I’d like to be able to pipe in whatever tracks I want.

You’ve unlocked a new ship!

I did have one crash to…well, hab. I could hear my cutter burning away, but I was paused inside the habitat with no way to interact. My only option was to force close the app and reopen it. I’ve also had a few instances where a ship portion showed as pressurized despite having an entire wall or cockpit removed. There’s also a persistent bug with Beulah where you’ll look in on her and install a part, but that suddenly changes all screens to that interaction screen. Trying to upgrade your tools is covered with the Beulah screen, and the only way to fix it is to exit or get to work – when you come back, you’ll be able to use other screens again, unless you touch that Beulah screen again.

There is one nitpick that I cannot ignore. The story revolves around some touchy subjects, and I get that Blackbird wants me to pay attention so I know what’s going on, but during these moments the controls are locked out. You will watch, and you will like it! Please let me walk around my hab and handle my prep for the next teardown while I listen. I understand you don’t want me to skip, but at least let me multitask.

Like the real world Shipbreaking profession, while you might be doing the same job after 10,000 hours, you’ll probably be doing it differently. I have an order of operations that I mentally run through with each ship, but the first thing after I decompress the entire thing is to cut out the floor. Why? Because it gives me a huge hole that I can drag all of the expensive innards to and drop it directly into the Barge. Those things are fragile, so as little movement as I can have the better. After that, I skin the ship entirely. I’ll carefully shuck the entire ship, pulling off any canards, nacelles, or external doodads that I can process or send to the Barge. Over time, you’ll develop your own approach, and that’s a lot of the fun. So much so, in fact, that there’s a time challenge mode where you can compete with other Shipbreakers.

Get sorting, cutter — you’ve got a LOT of debt to pay off…

The last few modes give you a few options on how you can make Shipbreaker your own. You can operate in Open Shift, which removes the shift timer and oxygen for a more relaxed experience, meaning you only have to return to your hab to save, upgrade, and grab promotions. You can always buy additional tethers, fuel, oxygen, and more at a small station just outside your hab door, so this mode will have you out in the field far longer. Limited restores the timers and O2 drain, but you only have 30 revives for the entire campaign. 30 seems like far more than is needed, so even Limited isn’t all that limited. On the other hand, No Revival mode is scary. It’s exactly what it sounds like – the entire game, with no spares. I’ve sunk 59 hours into Shipbreaker to roll the credits twice (the first 29 hours were in Early Access), so there’s plenty of play here. The final mode is Free Play, giving you unlimited everything and allowing you to pick whatever ship you want – go nuts.

I went into Hardspace: Shipbreaker expecting a relaxing experience, and it is much of the time. What I found is a game that has far more nuance than I expected, a decent story, and a gameplay loop that is pure addiction. As Beulah and I sail off into the cosmos, debt free through the sweat of our brow, I’m excited to see what’s on the horizon for Shipbreaker. I sincerely hope this isn’t a one-and-done as unique titles this good are rare – Hardspace: Shipbreaker is pure addiction.

Executive Director and Editor-in-Chief | [email protected]

Ron Burke is the Editor in Chief for Gaming Trend. Currently living in Fort Worth, Texas, Ron is an old-school gamer who enjoys CRPGs, action/adventure, platformers, music games, and has recently gotten into tabletop gaming.

Ron is also a fourth degree black belt, with a Master's rank in Matsumura Seito Shōrin-ryū, Moo Duk Kwan Tang Soo Do, Universal Tang Soo Do Alliance, and International Tang Soo Do Federation. He also holds ranks in several other styles in his search to be a well-rounded fighter.

Ron has been married to Gaming Trend Editor, Laura Burke, for 28 years. They have three dogs - Pazuzu (Irish Terrier), Atë, and Calliope (both Australian Kelpie/Pit Bull mixes), and an Axolotl named Dagon!



Hardspace: Shipbreaker

Review Guidelines

With its incredible gameplay loop, Hardspace: Shipbreaker is as unique as it is addictive. A handful of minor bugs do little to hold back what is an incredibly immersive and rewarding experience.

Ron Burke

Unless otherwise stated, the product in this article was provided for review purposes.

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