Wot I Think: Rebel Galaxy

Rebel Galaxy [official site] came storming out of warp recently and has been threatening people with its giant starboard cannons, telling them to come and join the space cowboy adventure. We told Brendan to get on board, or else. Let’s see wot he thinks.

You start out in a rustbucket on a mission to find your Aunt, who has gifted you the aforementioned ship and gone AWOL. The ship is called the “Rasputin”, but I quickly fixed that in the hangar by renaming it the “Wobblenaut”. The story of Rebel Galaxy spools out from there, involving treacherous aliens, strange artifacts and a mysterious AI lady with the obligatory amnesia. But none of this is very important. Getting into fights and scrapes is the meat and spuds here and the combat itself is likely where you’ll spend most of your time.

The first thing you’ll notice is that everything is on a single plane. No 3D dogfighting manoeuvres here. The ships are massive capital class frigates, destroyers and the like. And as such they control more like naval vessels than space shuttles. You steer around your enemies in long arcs using the A and B buttons to throttle up and down and the analog sticks to pull your hulking beast into line (it recommends you to play on a gamepad).

This means that fighting is about pulling up alongside your foe and unleashing a huge volley with your broadside cannons. You can hold the aiming trigger to make shots more accurate or, if you’re very close, just go crazy and pray the shots land. Turrets and missile systems allow you to fend off fighter craft and incoming rockets (you can switch to use these turrets manually but if you remain in control of broadsides they’ll remain automated, firing at a slower but steady rate). You can also boost for a short time to catch up with a target and you can use a deflector shield to temporarily stave off all damage.

Or you can get the hell out of there. Warp involves charging up your drive and blasting out of the combat zone. You can still steer your ship in this mode, speeding towards your destination. But if anything gets in your way or interrupts your path by a few hundred space metres, you will drop out of warp due to this “stellar mass”. This also means that to escape from a fight, you need to put enough distance between you and your pursuer to bound away.

When you aren’t engaged in ship-to-ship warfare, you warp between stations and travel from system to system, trading goods, taking missions and keeping your boat in good nick. As far as this goes, it is fairly straightforward. Guns and equipment can be changed around in the hangars of any space station and there are different types of damage and attacks. For instance, on a ship with four turret slots, I fitted 3 pulse cannons (which are the vanilla flavour of firepower) and one flak cannon (strawberry flavour), which could attack fighter craft and gunships but was useless against capital ships.

You will fiddle with your setup constantly. There are particle lasers that are excellent against armour but rubbish against shields, or there are “Swarm” missiles that automatically fire at pesky fighters, or “Leech” missiles that cripple your victim’s engine. There is a platter of increasingly expensive subsystems that augment your vessel, increasing aiming speed, ship maneuverability, reloading times and so on. And there are all the usual bits and pieces for your ship: shield systems, engines, cargo holds – all upgradable. One of my favourites being the ‘Smuggler’s hold’, which allows 4 units of cargo to be held in an unscannable compartment.

I’ve described the battles and shipyard features before anything else because your ship is clearly THE thing about this game. You play for no other reason than to spend your way up the tech tree. The story isn’t very compelling and the characters, although well-modeled, are all straight out of Star Wars. The gurgly voices and sticky mandibles remind me of nothing but Mos Eisley. I want to like the alien races and their weird words but without much attendant knowledge, trivia or facts about them I just can’t bring myself to care. I can’t help comparing the characters to other alien videogame friends. In Mass Effect, for example, the Elcor are a race of monotonal giants, who have to make a declarative statement about which emotion they are showing before each sentence, simply because their facial expressions are too subtle for any human being to understand. In Rebel Galaxy, one of the races “used to be burrowing critters”. One of these is an interesting cultural characterisation. The other is not.

But anyway, yes, the ship is what matters. To get the cash to keep improving you can take jobs from a variety of places. The story missions will always be there, but side missions crop up as well, including errands for different guilds. These guilds, once joined, offer you access to new types of ships and specific mission types. For example, missions listed in the Merchants Guild involve hauling huge batches of cargo, while missions listed in the Mercenaries Guild are more murder-based. In unaligned stations the missions are a mixed bag and generally you just end up accepting a bunch of the highest paying ones without even reading them. After all, the objective markers tell you where to go and what to blow up.

This is where Rebel Galaxy really loses me. Everything feels so A to B. It’s the eternal curse of the space game, to be a glorified delivery boy simulator. In other space games I can absolutely deal with this. I played Elite: Dangerous to death, and that was not exactly free of the same problem. But here I feel very limited, very constrained by the lack of variety. It does not help that Elite has essentially spoiled me and, as a result, Rebel Galaxy feels very light in comparison. All I want, when I am being mauled by a pack of hungry pirate Corsairs, is the ability to go DOWN. But I can’t. Not in this universe.

One thing it does do better than Elite is bring a bit of personality to the occasional space fracas. You can often hail your attackers and ask them what the big deal is, sometimes giving you the option to get out of the scuffle without any more bloodshed. I happily bribed a militia commander into turning a blind eye to illegal contraband when she scanned me down and threatened to blow me up if I didn’t jettison it. And when I was pestered by a band of bristling pirates, I offered to drop my cargo and we could forget the whole thing. The interactions seldom go further than paying your way out of a fight, but it does add a bit of flavour to the galactic highways. By contrast, in Elite, all you usually get is a text message saying “wah wah wah I want a fight”.

There are other ways RebGal spices things up. The ability to hire a mercenary in the bar of any space station, a little mate who flies around you like a guardian mosquito and quips politely away, is a great feature. Even though some of their accents were certifiable atrocities, I felt real concern for my mercs, much more than my stupid aunt or any of the Greedo-likes I met along the way. I only wish the game had done more with these companions.

Things like this make it feel much more vibrant, but then it is let down by other nuisances. The non-stop cowboy rock soundtrack is grindingly bad to my ears (I muted it within the second hour of play) and there is a baffling over-reliance on the context-sensitive A button. The A button is used to throttle up, to dock, to go to warp, to pick up loot, to drop out of warp, to accept hailing messages, to pair up with a wingman, and lots of other mission-specific things. It is one of my most-hated design decisions when a game maps almost every meaningful thing to a single all-purpose switch. It makes the player immediately conscious of the “game” because they are always looking out for the moment when the context switches. And it conflicts with the attitude that governs the rest of the buttons on the controller, where you can develop a straightforward reflex akin to muscle memory for simple, yet specific actions. Crowding dozens of actions onto a single button makes it feel like the backseat of an overpopulated carpool, with multiple voices vying for attention telling you to turn the radio up, roll down the windows, take this right turn, we need to stop for a piss, oh god please all of you JUST SHUT UP.

Well, at least the galaxy is a busy place. There’s no emptiness to this space at all. Convoys full of cargo move from point to point, ripe for the picking. Treaty vessels zip across the system in a bid to make peace. Pirates and scum hang out in debris fields beside the gargantuan carcasses of fallen victims, or amid glistening shards of ice in dark belts. There are nebulae that interfere with your radar, or where storms rage that can randomly knock out your shields with a bolt of space lightning – a wonderful touch. Traveling from one system to another also sees a spike in difficulty and new ship parts becoming available. So it becomes this desperate uphill clamber through the sector, constantly tweaking your ride against the next deadly foe.

There’s also a faction system in place that sees you in good or bad favour with the warring clans of space. Often I stumbled on brawls between these factions, just by accident, and having no reason to irritate either one, simply left. Unlike a lot of space sims, you are never in warp for very long without something happening. If anything, you are maybe interrupted by vessels and asteroids a little too often. But when a major sin of space games is watching the dead of space go by for minutes at a time, it feels unfair to critique Rebel Galaxy for wanting to get you involved.

What is a fair critique is that, ultimately, none of it matters very much. As I said, the state of your ship is what keeps you going. You fight more to earn more to buy more. In this way it is a very transparent game. But also a repetitive one, and overall, a mixed bag. I know a game is not capturing me when, as a reviewer, I keep checking my “hours played” stat on Steam to see if I can fairly say: “OK, that’s enough”. Still, I recognise there are always those who want more space sauce, who won’t mind fighting on a 2D plane, and who will be much more possessed by upgrading their own “Wobblenaut”.

Rebel Galaxy is out now for Windows and Mac via Steam and GOG.

27 Comments

  1. KDR_11k says:

    I think one factor is also that you reach a new system, check the stores for the more powerful gear… and it’s always just the exact same stuff with higher stats. I was never really mixing up my loadouts, occasionally experimented with missiles and stuff but always settled on beam broadsides, flak secondaries (point defense against missiles) and turrets mostly pulse plus a few beams. I got too bored to continue at 26 hours, probably could’ve left much sooner without missing much.

    • that_guy_strife says:

      Not exactly, there’s a few new types of gear with different effects in the other systems, meaning 3-4 of each:hull, shield, deflector, and booster.

      Plus the more exotic bits you won’t find in stores.

      • that_guy_strife says:

        Funny that you didn’t try other loadouts – mine turned out completely different !

        The photon cannons, with a Leech turret, a few Pulses, one of the fish people’s slug-thrower (neat for taking out missiles and rockets manually) and some beams.

        • KDR_11k says:

          I wasn’t lucky with loot drops, only got some exotic stuff around the final story mission when I had everything at Mk6 and the drops were only Mk5.

  2. that_guy_strife says:

    Blues rock.

    I thought it was pretty cool that smaller ships are actually viable even late game, so long they have good equipment. Adds value, FTL-like. It didn’t completely engross me, but I’m glad I spent the 20 bucks as I’ve had fun trying different builds and blowing up battle groups with 50 x my tonnage. My kid brother liked it so much I’ll probably buy it for him at Christmas.

  3. Zenicetus says:

    I’ve been playing it, and I think the best approach is not to take it too seriously. It’s a fun arcade-y romp in a type of ship we seldom get in space games; a slow capital ship with massive firepower. It does get a bit repetitive and grindy, but it’s the kind of thing I enjoy dipping into when I have a spare half hour for some space pew-pew. A few other points:

    Although it’s 2D movement, combat takes place in “pizza box 3D” around the ship where you can still fire your turrets at smaller ships maneuvering around you in that space. Even if you can’t go DOWN or UP when you might want to, there are interesting naval-based tactics like “Crossing the T” or otherwise staying out of the firing cone of larger ships if your ship is more maneuverable. Or you can go the other way, and just choose the largest, slowest ships with maximum firepower and let that do the killing.

    One thing the review didn’t mention is that there is a 1:1 price ratio for selling and buying equipment and ships. There is no penalty for swapping stuff out and trying different tactics.

    While the game recommends a gamepad, it plays fine on mouse and keyboard. And if the soundtrack is annoying, it’s easy to replace with your own music files in several different categories (combat, travel, station, etc.). I did that, and it’s a blast hearing my own custom music kick in during the game.

  4. 0positivo says:

    The game’s soundtrack is blissfully easy to manipulate and change around. Myself, I find traveling at warp speed to the sweet voice of Leonard Cohen quite pleasing indeed. Fighters? Bah, get some EMP. “I’m slowing down this tune” indeed

  5. rustybroomhandle says:

    A and B buttons, what is this madness?

    • Malibu Stacey says:

      I know, they’re about half the keyboard apart.

      At least you can use them separately with your pinky & index fingers…

  6. Foosnark says:

    I’ve been enjoying it and I’m on my second playthrough, cozying up to the Red Devil pirates this time, and going on a personal vendetta against the System Militia.

    I agree that the story isn’t that engaging, and NPCs and their stories are mostly not that great. Alien ships and weapons are ultimately not very different from human ships and weapons, except (in a couple of cases) in visual design.

    But I do like the way it plays, and there’s a variety of effective playstyles depending on ships and weapon loadouts. You don’t need the biggest, baddest ship out there — you can run circles around a dreadnought in a corvette, while gleefully dropping mines in its path and chewing on it with your turrets while dancing out of the path of its broadside cannons.

    The linearity of individual missions doesn’t matter much because there’s no reason you can’t have multiple missions and incidental trade routes and opportunities for heroism/piracy/discovery/mining all happening at once. It’s very rare that I get a mission and just head straight for it, without planning stops at other ports and checking out mysterious signals and searching space wrecks for loot.

    • Foosnark says:

      …I meant to add, one thing I found a bit disappointing was lack of motivation at the endgame. When you have the most expensive ship available fully outfitted with the highest ranked gear available, there’s not a lot of reason to stick around, unless you just want to bully everyone in your nearly immortal dreadnaught.

      Drop rates of alien weapons and equipment are low enough not to entice me to try to set up a Blackgate with all viridian lasers or Badger rockets for instance — in fact I never found a single Mk6 component I didn’t buy.

    • KDR_11k says:

      Downside to the fast ships is that while you can dance around a Dreadnought you’ll also have a hard time damaging it, takes FOREVER to wear those things down especially in the late game. While the Arcturus is a deathtrap exactly because it’s so slow (any enemy ring that spawns around you can often tear you apart before you can do anything because you can’t boost out of the circle) there’s only so much speed that you need. And when it comes to staying out of the firing arcs of a Dreadnought you can use almost any ship with a good set of engines and boosters. Or just get very close, the spread out cannons on a Blackgate have a hard time focusing.

      Also I haven’t seen it listed anywhere but destroyers get a 50% range bonus to broadsides and dreadnoughts 100%. Helps a lot with thinnning out enemies from afar, especially with the beams that are effective vs fighters too.

      • Foosnark says:

        while you can dance around a Dreadnought you’ll also have a hard time damaging it, takes FOREVER to wear those things down especially in the late game.

        I keep seeing people say that, but honestly I don’t feel like I have any trouble taking down a Dreadnought with Mk6 mines. There’s the occasional extra-tough one, but I feel like the challenge is appropriate.

        At the end of the story in my first playthrough, I was in a Minotaur and taking more damage during fights than the Scarab, Sturville or Barracuda. Whether that was due to tougher fights or simply that I do better with the faster ships, I don’t know.

  7. Premium User Badge

    teije says:

    Nice little romp – fair enough review although I like the light-hearted tone and the music. But I agree the control scheme is seriously maddening.

  8. mariandavid says:

    Its a nice change from those atrociously complex alternatives – Great for playing late at night as a break and without any particular care for consequences – the way space combat games used to be before being loaded up with ‘realism
    ,

  9. Caiman says:

    Well, I’m loving this game. It’s just so much damned fun. The gameplay isn’t particularly innovative, but it’s all been designed specifically so you can have a blast and feel badass. It’s a gameplay loop that has sustained me for over 40 hours to date, doing a variety of missions, some mining, a bit of trading, and occasionally following up on the next story lead. The music really helps a lot here, it has to be said. Turn it up loud.

    As for repetition… well, aren’t all games repetitious? What makes you notice this is whether you enjoy what you’re repeating. Diablo III is enormously repetitious, but damn if it’s not fun. Elite: Dangerous is ridiculously repetitious, plus there’s not much to do really, but it has such an immersive pull that you don’t really mind. Anyway, for me Rebel Galaxy is one of the best games I’ve played this year, certainly the best space game. It feels like a middle finger to the stoic tedium that comprises most of them.

  10. RedViv says:

    “Hmm I wonder if I will switch out the music today, sometimes it can get re-”
    Cause I can’t chaaange, cause I can’t chaaange, this cold black heart
    “Dammit, game.”

  11. Yachmenev says:

    Would I be right to say that this seems more like a Sid Meier’s Pirates! type game, then an Elite type game?

    I love Sid Meier’s Pirates, so I want to be right. :)

    • haldolium says:

      Well it’s not quite like Pirates! either. Except for the ship-like combat, the developers roots in RPG-experience is very obvious. It has an equal feel to it like many H&S RPGs like Torchlight or Diablo in my opinion.

      Sadly they messed up sound mixing and design so I stopped playing. The constant sound ducking, some horrific and way overused sounds and the absence of a separate volume slider for voices are repelling. I hope they patch it at some point.

    • Zenicetus says:

      It has a light-hearted feel like Pirates! and the combat will feel similar (and deeper, in terms of weapons and tactics). But it doesn’t have the same same diversity of things you can do while docked.

      It’s a game where you spend most of your time traveling and fighting, and just enough time in stations to buy/sell stuff, and pick up new missions before you’re off again.

  12. wyrm4701 says:

    I’ve really, really enjoyed Rebel Galaxy. I’d argue that its relative simplicity one of it’s strengths. There hasn’t been a better Han Solo Simulator for me in quite some time.

  13. gunny1993 says:

    I bought it and played it for like 40 minutes then refunded it, the 2D combat just really isn’t for me, looked nice though.

  14. Danarchist says:

    I honestly loved the soundtrack for the first few hours. Right out of the gate I named my ship “Serenity” and it fit in quite well :)
    The game will burn out if you focus on it for more than a day or three, it is best played in short bursts I find. Definitely fun. I found some of the voice acting was so good it made the “phoned in” stuff really apparent though. Actually, the majority is phoned in, but somehow they managed to get a couple people that could put some actual emotion into their voices and this made it a bit like throwing a few bars of Slipknot into the middle of a coldplay song (or whatever is popular over there right now).

  15. FireStorm1010 says:

    Hmm I actually liked the game a lot.And i still love the music (after 8 hours of playing) but i can understand somebody can have different taste in music. The 2d/combat thing initially i was dispointed but it grew on me , and i really like it now. my full review :link to steamcommunity.com

  16. nim.was.taken says:

    For a game developed by two guys, not counting contracted work (art, audio etc.), I thought it was really quite good.

    There is definitely repetition, but that’s not suprising given the small team. It’s got some Pirates! In it, and some Torchlight in it. The background sim isn’t perfect, but it is interesting. Overall I’m pleased with my purchase.

    On a side note, I don’t think holding up Elite Dangerous as some kind of higher standard is fair, mostly because it’s one of the biggest disappointments I’ve experienced in years, but that’s just like my opinion man. It is worth noting that ED only has 73% approval on Steam, which is shockingly low for such a high profile game.

    Nim

    I mean, I’m the guy

  17. Marr says:

    I was really impressed with creature designs, especially the fellow who sends you off to steal the lead off the Space Catholics’ roof, he’s straight outta Farscape. Also, the voice over when they’re speaking in Alien is actual dialogue that matches up with the English subtitles, not just the same three repeated lines of gibberish. They even drop in some accented English for technical terms and proper nouns, it’s a really nice touch.