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

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