Today, we’re going to be exploring a video game set in a post-apocalyptic world. In this game, a young girl has to survive in a toxic environment. It’s one full of lethal, fungal spores that have overtaken humanity and turned most remaining life into monstrous horrors. No, not that one, the other one! Nippon Ichi Software’s Void Terrarium is a curious sort of genre hybrid, taking a Mystery Dungeon-inspired romp and injecting it with a virtual pet mechanic that adds a new survival layer. It seems stressful at first, but as someone who usually runs away from survival games, Void Terrarium uses the pet thing as more of a framing device in a way that results in a more fun and compelling loop than I expected.
As I alluded to in that corny intro, Void Terrarium is set in a post-apocalyptic world. A virus-like fungus threatened humanity enough for a global effort to move underground. Despite a massive network of tunnels and laser-targeted technology, something happened and the spores got into the subterranean infrastructure and took down the whole species. The game starts as an old service robot is sparked back to life and uncovers what may be the last remaining human in a light bulb-shaped life support room. With the help of a surviving AI system, “Robbie” works to keep this little human girl alive and convert the space into a livable terrarium. Robbie has to go spelunking in ever-changing ruins to look for supplies and resources, then brings them back to feed, entertain, and provide comfort for Toriko.
When you’re out in the “void,” gameplay is a pretty straightforward Mystery Dungeon-style experience. This isn’t an officially-branded Chunsoft joint of course, but the fundamentals are the same. It’s turn based, procedurally-generated, and thoroughly unforgiving. NIS’ Mystery Dungeon-likes have previously been more on the friendly side, and Void Terrarium has no problem killing your ass in a few seconds. It’s also a more traditional roguelike, in that you lose your EXP levels every time you exit a dungeon. However, while you are racing against time when it comes to taking care of Toriko, there are key mechanics that help give Robbie a fighting chance.
Progress isn’t entirely temporary. As you explore, you’ll pick up random items and tools as you might expect. Once you die or leave, everything in your inventory gets ground down into one of a few resource categories. Those then get turned around into a simple crafting system that lets you open more options for Robbie, and decorations/upgrades for Toriko’s living space. Each new item you craft comes with a permanent bonus either to Robbie’s stats or Toriko’s constitution. So while things seem daunting at first, once you get your loop and home base built up to a certain degree, you can really take on the dungeons with more confidence in tow. That said, you’ll still die if RNGesus deems it so. But if you found a blueprint or important item along the way, you still get to keep it!
When you’re actually down in the dungeon leveling up, Void Terrarium has a sort of built-in run generator in the form of bonuses you get to choose each level. Sometimes you can get a new skill, a persistent (for the run) stat boost, or even random passive abilities that can dramatically alter your play approach. These boosts can range from the straightforward (status effects) to the strange and obtuse (bonuses based on your immediate surroundings). Robbie can also build “knacks” for itself, which is basically choosing a class. This will alter the percentages of what boosts you can choose. For example, Fighter nets you ATK bumps more often. There are also other ways to alter the boost pool, which really lets you tailor your play style despite all the inherent variable factors.
Once everything starts coming together (or you don’t end up with Toriko catching a cold multiple times in the early game, like my super unlucky wife), you really get to focus more on your approach and outfitting your terrarium, Animal Crossing style. Occasionally, there will be a more daunting dungeon task, but you’ll still be finding things like blueprints even if you keep getting your butt kicked, therefore retaining that small but crucial hit of progress juice for your brain. Void Terrarium is balancing on a very precarious line, trying to find a comfortable space between difficulty, aesthetic, and reward. Sometimes that results in a run that feels like a waste of time, as you could spend four floors of a dungeon desperately searching for batteries until you run out of energy and die with no gains. Other times, you get a beautiful run full of synergetic boosts and take on a whole monster room without breaking a sweat.
This all sounds great, but there are some issues. Besides the inherent barrier of entry to this specific genre, Void Terrarium has a few technical hiccups. I played on the Switch, and there are moments when the frame rate dips a bit (mostly during monster rooms). More of a bummer is the game has crashed on me multiple times. There is an autosave feature, so it was never a disaster, but having to start a dungeon over after getting booted back to the system menu ain’t great, especially since it isn’t a rare problem. Hopefully that gets patched!
Unlike that other game about the mushroom-y apocalypse, Void Terrarium is an optimistic game despite its dour premise. It isn’t afraid to be funny even in a sad context, and it really clings onto a sense of hope. Despite playing as a robot, there’s a humanity to the character, which the game often wordlessly communicates via body language and the actions available to you. It’s easier to categorize Void Terrarium as a survival game, but that isn’t really accurate. It’s more about nurturing a life rather than barely sustaining it, especially once the loop progresses. There are the occasional quirks and technical issues, and Mystery Dungeon (and similar) games aren’t exactly friendly to newcomers. There’s a lot to love here, especially if you’re already a fan of this form. If you don’t like survival games (I sure don’t!), the earlier stages require some patience, but as Void Terrarium goes on, it turns into much more of a compelling, progress-driven loop.
Void Terrarium is available now for the Nintendo Switch and the PS4.