Galak-Z The Dimensional Review: Newtypes Welcome
You’ve just clawed your way through a massive derelict spaceship, fighting off giant bugs, insane space pirates in junky hybrid starfighters, and the sophisticated war machines of the alien Empire, and now your objective looms on your radar. An Imperial satellite is hidden in the derelict and it must be destroyed, but as you approach, three Imperial signatures appear on the edge of your screen. Hammerhead fighters, heavily armored and shielded, with a payload of homing missiles that can end you in a single shot. You’re down to your last health bar anyway, and you’ll be dead in three hits or less.
Fortunately, there’s a band of raiders just outside, and they hate the Imperials just as much as they hate you. They’re the closest thing you have to backup, so you fly in, grab the Imperials’ attention, and let them chase you out into the squad of raiders. Only the raiders don’t attack your pursuers. They home right in on you, and now you have two groups of fighters running you down. You fly back into the derelict ship, and in trying to murder you, the Imperials and raiders end up clumping into a ball of death and shooting each others’ shields apart. Now’s your chance. You fly by an explosive barrel drifting in the wreckage, and as you lead your pursuers into it, you turn around, reverse thrust, and fire a spiraling salvo of missiles that touch off the barrel and blow all six enemies into space dust.
Feeling like the greatest fighter pilot in the universe, you take out the satellite and head back to the warp point, where one more Hammerhead awaits. You just destroyed six times as many enemies so, full of confidence, you swoop in guns blazing. Five seconds later, you’re staring at a game over screen. Way to go, ace.
This cycle of exhilarating victory and crushing defeat is the lifeblood of Galak-Z, a brand new PS4 roguelike space shooter from 17-Bit, creators of indie tactical hit Skulls of the Shogun. The game takes its inspiration liberally from space opera anime of the 1980s, mostly Macross/Robotech and Zeta Gundam. You play as A-Tak, the last starfighter (no, not THE Last Starfighter) to survive an Imperial ambush, and it is up to you to escape Imperial space and warn Earth of the impending invasion. To do so, you must progress through five random levels at a time without dying, each comprising one “season” of the story (continuing the anime theme), with a total of four seasons available at launch and one planned as a free download at a later date, along with a PC version.
The 80s aesthetic works to varying degrees of success, and this is where nostalgia plays into and against Galak-Z’s favor. The VHS style pause screen is a stroke of genius, the gritty analog synth soundtrack effortlessly captures the flavor of the time period, and the gorgeous animated effects are on point, from laser blasts to explosions to Macross Missile Massacres. However, the cel-shaded 3D models, like ships and characters, are crude by comparison, with stiff animations and gargantuan black outlines that detract from the aesthetic even more than the disproportionate character designs do. If Galak-Z were merely trading on nostalgia, trying to cash in on fond memories of recorded reruns of Robotech, this would be a problem, but it’s only a minor blemish on what is easily one of the most compelling and compulsive video game experiences I’ve had this year, or any year.
The story above is pulled straight from one of my own gaming sessions, and I already have at least a dozen tales of impossible victory and soul-shattering defeat under my belt thanks to Galak-Z’s seemingly bottomless gameplay depth and punishing difficulty curve. A-Tak’s fighter controls much like a game of Asteroids, with forward and reverse thrust mapped to the shoulder buttons, as well as a strafe button and a boost that can be applied to any direction of movement. Rounding out your fighter’s defensive maneuvers is the juke button, which launches the ship into 3D space momentarily to dodge lasers and objects, much like the dodge mechanic in Smash Bros.
Your offensive weapons include customizable lasers and the aforementioned Itano Circus homing missiles, but when you take into account the game-changing environmental hazards that can be turned to your advantage, as well as the fact that the three unique enemy factions can be lured into attacking and destroying each other, the tactical options available at any given time are almost distractingly numerous. Do you fire into that pool of space lava and hope that the ejected globs incinerate your enemies and not yourself, or do you lure them into the lair of a giant space spider? Maybe you’d be better off sneaking past patrols by using the inertia physics of deep space to silently fling yourself across the map. I’m not even going to do you the disservice of spoiling mech mode, acquired at the start of season 2. It is a thing of perfection, both from a gameplay and a stylistic perspective.
As for that difficulty curve, the roguelike elements of Galak-Z play their own part in the game’s brilliance. A-Tak is often outmanned and always outgunned, with even the most basic enemy fighters able to take more damage than your default fighter. When you are inevitably killed as you learn the mechanics of the game, you have to start the current season over again, losing all upgrades and salvage/currency. However, breaking the game up into seasons essentially creates checkpoints, which is something that most roguelikes disdain. There are also permanent blueprints that you can collect to unlock more potential items in the randomly generated shop, and a permanent currency called Crash Coins that can be cashed in for salvage at the beginning of a season or, if the player dies with five coins on hand, they can be used to restart the level. Whether this is worth it or not depends on personal preference. The player’s upgrades are stripped anyway and they must be reacquired from a special crate hidden in the level guarded by powerful enemies.
What this means is that Galak-Z’s unforgiving punishments are balanced by a sense of continual progression, even when a careless mistake sends you back three or four levels. I’ll admit that, as much as I enjoy difficult video games, roguelikes have always been a little too brutal and a little too random (I’m looking at you, FTL). But even though the levels are procedurally generated, I have never once felt that these levels ended up with an impossible or arbitrarily difficult section. The game can be easier or harder depending on the upgrades you find and the objectives you are given, but this is ultimately a skill-based game, and like the best difficult games out there, every death feels earned. I’ve heard that some players have encountered bugs (not space bugs) and crashes, but I haven’t found one yet and I’ve put over six hours into the game. I’m certain I’ll be putting in many more before I quit.
Like any skill-based game, it takes time to grow on you, but if you stick with it, Galak-Z may provide you with the most rewarding experience of 2015, and that’s something I never thought I would say about a game not called Bloodborne.