Hardspace Shipbreaker falls under the category of a game that essentially emulates a job that would be horrible in real life, but is for some reason fun to play. As a kid, adults could not fathom why I was playing Harvest Moon, a game about growing crops and taking care of farm animals. I had no explanation to give in return. I sometimes feel that way about Shipbreaker as well, and it’s literally my job to explain why I enjoy games.
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In Hardspace Shipbreaker, you work under the boot of the Lynx Corporation, a massively influential company overdosed on capitalism. Your job is to systematically rip apart derelict spaceships for salvage while trying to not kill yourself in any number of horrendous ways. Fear not, however. Not even death can save you from the daily grind, thanks to the cloning system unironically dubbed, the Everwork program.
Every spaceship is an elaborate puzzle, but not in the traditional sense. You have the complete freedom to approach your task as you see fit. The better you perform, the more money you make. Well, the more money you donate to the debt you owe Lynx for the privilege of working for them.
|Gideon’s Bias||Hardspace Shipbreaker Information|
|Review Copy Used: No||Publisher: Focus Entertainment|
|Hours Played: 60+||Type: Full Release|
|Reviewed on: Xbox Series X||Platforms: PC, Xbox Series X/S, PlayStation 5|
|Fan of Genre: Yes||Genre: Simulation|
|Mode Played: Career||Price: $39.99|
I generally take issue with games that attempt to parody the corporate boot, because they often miss the mark. Parodies aren’t supposed to be strictly true, and more times than not, any attempt to parody the way blue-collar workers are treated, at least in the US, ends up being closer to reality than fiction.
In Shipbreaker’s defense, it’s intending to be a commentary, rather than a parody. A warning of what may come unless things change. The fact that you can see the earth in the background and Florida is underwater is a testament to that. The problem is, I think it underestimates how much of its prophecy is already true.
Here’s the thing. I was a blue-collar worker for most of my life. For years one of my jobs was to tear down machinery, and it was indeed dangerous. Sure, I never had to fear asphyxiating in the void of space. But people had lost fingers and toes while I worked there.
In Shipbreaker your crew gets yelled at for talking during work hours. I’ve been there and done that. A higher-up tells you that the only way to fix a mistake is to never make one in the first place. I’ve been told that, verbatim.
The Lynx corporation adds rental fees to your debt for your tools and suit. It’s an insane number. Like 50k for the suit each day. But the thing is, it’s all relative. In Shipbreaker, salvaging a single chair nets me 5000 credits.
In real life, I had to provide hundreds of dollars of my own tools and replace them when they broke. I had to rent the company uniform, which cost around fifteen dollars a month. But I only made eleven dollars an hour. Relatively speaking, they are more alike than they appear. It tends to rub me the wrong way when a game or story presents something as being absurd when I’ve experienced things eerily close to what is being portrayed as unbelievable.
A Blue Collar Story
Experiencing Shipbreaker’s story certainly dredged up unpleasant memories for me. But the story itself is surprisingly good. The characters feel real, without you ever seeing them in person, as all the communication is over the radio.
There are recordings that you find that allude to a hostile AI and I’m sure it will come up in a future game connected to Shipbreaker, but there is no overarching save the universe plot. You and the rest of the crew are just workers, trying to make your work life suck less.
The plot essentially revolves around unionizing and Lynx’s progressively stronger actions to quell the movement. The story really manages to have a few intense moments, despite its down-to-earth nature. There was a point in the story where I sat slack-jawed staring at the screen, trying to process what just happened. I cared enough about the characters to have that reaction, despite only hearing them over the radio.
In a world where games and movies are often about heroes facing universe-shattering consequences. It’s nice to have a plot more localized around an individual group’s hardships. By the time the story ends, it does manage to capture a piece of the blue-collar struggle and showcases the power of collective action.
It also makes it clear that fairy tale endings don’t come fast. That you HAVE to take whatever incremental progress you can while continuing to fight for more. A reality that is hard for some to swallow.
The core gameplay in Shipbreaker is all about salvaging Spaceships with a handy laser cutter, powerful grapples, and the occasional explosive charge. Different parts of the ship need to be chucked into appropriate places. Things like Nanocarbon go to the processor, aluminum is melted down in the furnace, and valuables that can be resold, such as computers go to the barge.
The processor and furnace aren’t picky and have a kind of gravitational pull, so you have to be careful not to accidentally melt down those super valuable thrusters you haphazardly chucked to the side. Lynx isn’t much for safety protocols, so they can suck you in too.
You can die in several ways. Pull an object too fast at your face, and you might shatter your helmet. That’s a problem because breathing is pretty important to staying alive. Accidentally nick a fuel line or cryo pipe, and things may get a little icy hot. Some well-timed explosive decompression never hurt anybody, unless a loose piece of hull splats you against the side of the ship like a toddler’s handpainted fecal masterpiece on the bedroom wall.
A few other dangers include radiation, electrocution, and accidentally causing a reactor meltdown before you were ready for it. The danger of ship breaking and the ongoing battle of space physics go a long way toward making what should be a dull experience exciting. Tearing apart ships can be a calming way to relax, but one that can go belly up at any time if you don’t pay attention.
Screwing up in Shipbreaker is a heart-pounding experience. Sometimes you can fix, or at least mitigate the damage. Other times you can only sit and watch half of the ship detonate in a chain reaction of domino effects from your glorious mishap. I’ve screwed up so badly at times that I’m not even mad, I’m impressed at my own incompetence, and it leaves me shocked that I still have all my fingers in real life.
All About Efficiency
At first glance, it might seem like taking apart ships is just a matter of cutting the bright yellow cut points. A mindless exercise of following the dotted line on paper with a pair of scissors. First off, even doing that can be difficult. One wrong snip might violently decompress a part of the ship you weren’t prepared for. Not to mention the various systems within the ship that require a more nuanced approach.
You forgot to eject the thruster before cutting the power? Now you have to cut them from the fuel system manually. Whoopsie, you never flushed the fuel before cutting into the fuel line holding the thruster. Please enjoy the pretty light show while your clone is being processed.
Beyond that, Hardspace Shipbreaker is about efficiency, or that’s the overall idea. Each shift lasts fifteen minutes, and you pay rental fees at the end of a shift. Sure, you could spend several shifts slowly peeling away the ship like a painful unwanted foot fungus. Or you could get more creative to be more efficient.
You can cut far more than just cut points, especially with explosives. Different styles of the ship have their own challenges, and finding your own groove to approach each one is Shipbreaker’s strongest points.
The key is to understand that it’s okay to break things, to an extent. You have salvage goals that award experience toward your rank and money to spend on upgrades. But you actually have a lot of wiggle room before failing even one of them.
For example, I used to spend forever pulling out lights and throwing them on the barge. The thing is, each light was worth around 300 credits, compared to the thousands that even a single panel would net me. Salvaging the lights actually cost me money, because my time spent during each shift was worth more than the lights. So now I don’t bother.
Once you accept a certain amount of loss, you can really get creative with how you disassemble the ships.
Laser Cutting Artistry
Shipbreaking is an art, not a science. The ship is your canvas, and your tools are your brushes. Your laser cutter can cut through any grade 1 material. But your demo charges can cut lines in higher grades. You have a manual grapple for moving parts and for swinging around like space Spider-Man, and tethers are your best friend. With them, you can link parts together, tow heavy pieces of the ship, or send them where they need to be while you focus on something else.
Assuming you don’t blow the ship up, there’s no real wrong way to play. Compression is one example. Each room of a ship can have various levels of compression. You can, in most cases, move throughout the ship’s interior and use atmospheric regulators to decompress it safely room by room.
I did that one time before deciding I wasn’t about that life. I instead, violently decompress the ship in ways where it benefits me. Sure sometimes I get decked in the face with a rogue chair, but it saves me so much time I’ll take the risk.
Heck, I’ve even mastered the art of window rodeo. Some ships have little side cockpits, I get inside, tether the windshield to the inside of the ship, snip it loose and hold on for dear life. The force of the decompression blasts the windshield out and me with it. It’s a like a roller coaster with enough G’s to give me brain damage. The tether stops us both from impacting any nearby planets at the speed of light. Never, forget the tether. Trust me.
Sure, every now and then the game decides that it’s done with my crap and uses the windshield to swat me like a fly against the ship, but 90% of the time, it works every time.
I used to take valuable objects like computers out, one by one. It took, forever. So I invented the tether whip. Now I link several of them together with tethers, grapple the heaviest object, and yank really hard, snapping a final tether to it and the barge. The force of the pull usually causes every other object linked to it to follow the first one’s trajectory, a huge time saver.
Javelin ships have these massive cylindrical hulls. I was initially unsleeving them piece by piece by pulling them off the ship like taking rings from a rod. Then I figured out I could line the entire hull with demo charges across the top and bottom. As long as I didn’t accidentally blow up anything else, I could split the hull in half and just tether the pieces off, and I’d lose almost no credits for doing so.
That’s what makes Shipbreaker so much fun. You start out just trying to learn how these ships are put together. Then you dance around how the dangerous systems work. Once you have a rough idea of how any given ship is put together, it’s time to flex those creative muscles and figure out the fastest, easiest, and most efficient way to tear them apart. There’s rarely a right answer, your method is your own method.
If you are feeling particularly confident, you can play the daily Cutters race and compete against other players on a leaderboard, and that’s a lot of fun too.
Shipbreaker is about efficiency, that’s where all of its fundamental gameplay design seems to push it. Unfortunately, you have to self-impose it. Shipbreaker goes hard with its anti-corporate messaging but slaps you with a limp wrist when it comes to gameplay.
The debt system is largely toothless. It looks far worse than it is. At one point in the story, your debt gets lowered by a massive amount, but it wouldn’t matter if it didn’t. From a story perspective, Lynx tries to keep their employees in debt for life with outrageous fees and fines. But there’s a disconnect when it comes to gameplay.
I initially felt pressured to be efficient due to the daily fees. If I didn’t make over 500K in a shift, I’d actually lose money. You also have to pay for your supplies, such as oxygen. But it’s all a facade. You gain so much money from every piece of salvage, you would intentionally have to try to lose money.
Even blowing up half the ship will have you coming out on top. Mistakes really aren’t punished from a gameplay perspective. In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t truly matter if you finish a ship in three shifts or ten. There are even late-game upgrades where you buy your equipment from Lynx, so you don’t have to pay the fees. By the time I had access to those upgrades, I’d already cleared my debt entirely, so it felt pointless.
A lot of my joy comes from timing myself on various ships. By pushing myself to find better and faster ways to solve them. If you don’t have the same drive, the game may not have the same longevity for you as it does for me. I myself am still happily breaking ships, long after the credits have rolled.
The pure freedom that it offers you is impressive. The more you’re willing to invest yourself into taking apart the ships in different ways, the more satisfying it is. It just feels good to form a plan of your own and watch it pay off in real time as pieces of the ship gracefully peel away in the exact fashion you imagined in your mind.
Hardspace Shipbreaker is put together in such a brilliant way. I took apart machines for a living, I should be disgusted with the very idea of doing it in a video game. But each ship is such a cohesively designed set of systems full of danger that it’s incredibly fun to do something that would easily be considered a chore if it were designed any other way.
If not, it’s equally entertaining when you discover that not all your ideas are winners, and there’s now a scrap pile floating where a ship used to be. Either way, the biggest downside of Shipbreaker, is that I want more Shipbreaker. More ships and more hazards. Not because I find it lacking, but because it’s one of my favorite games to come out all year, and I simply want more ships to break. I’m giving Hardspace Shipbreaker my Golden Shield award.
- The various ship systems and physics of space make taking them apart enjoyably dangerous
- An interesting story of blue-collar workers trying to unionize
- The creative freedom you have when approaching how to salvage each ship is fantastic
- Learning your own methods of being more efficient is incredibly satisfying
- Good variety of ships and subtypes
- Shipbreaker’s view of a future soulless corporation is already more real than I think the game realizes.
- The debt system is largely a facade, there’s no real penalty for failure.