Galak-Z: The Dimensional
Publisher/developer 17-Bit Format PC, PS4 (version tested) Release Out now, TBC (PC)
Scintillating but imperfect 2.5D space shooter Galak-Z proves that FTL’s creators were onto something when they coined the ‘Roguelike-like’ label. We do need a less generic umbrella for tough games that aren’t afraid to reset a chunk of progress when they kill you, and procedurally generate their levels. 17-Bit’s latest comes in hot on the tail of The Swindle ( E283), another game to be loosely classed as Roguelike, both titles experimenting with structural twists designed to retain the tension of permadeath while allowing each lifespan to contribute to a detached progression path. Call these Samsara games, perhaps: your actions in past lives can influence this one, but you’re still lashed to the merciless wheel of rebirth.
Galak-Z is the more successful, appropriating the beautiful art style and language of Saturday morning anime, splitting itself up into five ‘seasons’ of five ‘episodes’ each (the currently absent fifth group of levels is due alongside the PC release). It’s confusing terminology in an era when ‘episodic’ usually translates to ‘buy separately, or wait for the season pass’, but what it allows 17-Bit to do is stack shorter Roguelike arcs on top of each other. Each new season is unlocked through play and acts as a fresh starting point for your forays into procedurally generated combat zones. The studio’s deftest touch, however, is a limited in-game currency called Crash Coins, five of which can be cashed in to grant a last-ditch retry at a level, with all your upgrades stashed in a protected crate and in need of recovery. Conversely, they could also be saved up to grant salvage at the beginning of your next pass, used to buy you an early advantage via the pre-mission ability store.
Or, rather, less of a deficit. As A-Tak, the last surviving human fighter pilot in a sector crawling with Imperials, Void Raiders and space bugs, you’re outnumbered by two factions full of AI pilots that can fly rings around stock videogame foes, plus some dimwitted eating machines. And while flying your snub fighter or its mech form feels closer to playing Asteroids than as Halo’s Master Chief, freely toying with these manipulatable armadas – in which each enemy type has a distinct role and identifiable tactic – is wonderfully evocative of the first time you fought the Covenant.
Partially, that’s due to a flexible toolset, which trades a glorious Itano Circus missile barrage for plasma grenades, but also includes a mech grapple able to fling environmental hazards at foes, or vice versa. Partially, it’s down to a similar health system to Halo: slowly recharging shields provide a limited buffer for damage, before hits start dealing lasting injury. Hull integrity here is persistent between episodes too, and health packs are rare, so your best defence is evasive flying.
That’s made possible by a nuanced, precise control scheme, and complicated by a space physics model that imposes exciting demands. The left stick rotates your nose, with the right and left triggers firing thrusters that propel you forward and backwards respectively. Apply force and you’ll drift ahead on your current trajectory until you feather the throttle again, while holding both triggers brings you to a full stop. It’s far from a twin-stick shooter and, in combination with a ‘juke’ button that hops you out of the plane of the screen and over hazards, allows for some complex manoeuvres. It takes some wrapping your head around, but the payoff is feeling like the Red Baron and Luke Skywalker rolled into one when you emerge from a tricky dogfight with a fresh heap of salvage.
There are gulfs between these nova bursts of reflex skill. Missions fall into a few simple categories – get to the thing and shoot it, get to several things and shoot them, get to the thing and bring it with you to the warp egress point – and the exact nature of every mission bar season finales is quickly wiped of all meaning by interchangeability and repetition. Likewise, being the instigator here, a lot of fights can end almost as soon as they begin, leaving little time to revel in AI behaviours.
Nonetheless, the process of weaving your way around space hulks and planetoids is consistently unpredictable and so consistently tense. Being on the back foot so often means you need to search for an equaliser. Stealth is one option, thanks to a readable radius for engine noise, so that gentle throttle control and a lot of nerve can help you slip by many patrols unnoticed. Subterfuge is another, perhaps grappling a crackling power node toward you and then launching it at a craft to strip away its shields, following up with a volley of pink laser death. If you’re good, you can even risk turning your enemies against each other, teasing bugs into following you and then thundering past an Imperial gunship, profiting from the ensuing battle. It’s in these systemic clashes and layered toys that Galak-Z comes sparking to life, delivering the drama of a TV cliffhanger via dramatic agency in 20-second bursts.
Sadly, even after several early post-launch patches, these moments of fizzing chaos are infrequently undermined by drops in the framerate. It’s tough enough to avoid fire in packed scenes anyway that any ding that doesn’t stem from your own pilot error is problematic, but as the seasons progress and shots become more damaging, the issue is only compounded.
One day, Galak-Z may make the transformation from a stellar but rough-edged evolution for the Rogue spirit into something even more accomplished. Until then, its delicate handling and blossoming emergent systems are still strong draws to hop in the cockpit. Once you do, you’ll quickly discover its slightly more lenient nature towards death doesn’t preclude setbacks enough to keep your attention riveted to your instruments of chaos and confusion for hours on end.
The payoff is feeling like the Red Baron and Luke Skywalker rolled into one when you emerge from a tricky dogfight