Hands On: Galak-Z, The Roguelite Arcade Shooter
PEW PEW PEW!
Galak-Z is to top-down space shooters as Spelunky is to side-scrolling platformers. It takes the simple kinetic pleasures of dodging missiles, firing lasers and boosting a spaceship around asteroids and space debris, then pairs them with procedurally generated levels and objectives, and a set of simple, readable AI behaviours that allow you to approach each challenge thoughtfully. And then it layers on top inspiration from early-'80s Saturday morning cartoon shows.
I played it for an hour yesterday in a hotel adjacent to this year's Gamescom, went to sleep thinking about it, and woke up excited about playing it again.
I last played a build of Galak-Z early last year. Back then, it had two scripted missions, both of which were hand-crafted levels, and one more open, freeform space within which you could complete tasks and muck with the game's enemy ecosystem. Feedback about the latter was far better than those scripted missions, and designer Jake Kazdal couldn't resist the allure of a more procedural experience.
"We realised that the game was really about the enemies and the combat tactics rather than tons of new environments," says Kazdal, as we sit perched on the edge of his hotel room bed. "After a while, we were going to use procedurally generated stuff to help me build levels faster, but then we found we could randomly generate them and it would be different every time. I was like, 'wow, this is great.' Suddenly I was having all this fun, because I loved not knowing what was coming; as a designer, I'm playing this all the time, so I was now constantly engaged. Pretty soon we were just like, let's try going full-roguelike. An arcade game that's a roguelike game."
Missions in Galak-Z take place inside vast, procedural space-structures, but you begin outside, piloting a small, X-Wingish craft in a region of open space. You'll encounter enemies here, but ultimately your goal will be to chart a path through those structures - essentially space dungeons - to find, destroy or collect something somewhere inside, and then move on to the next one.
Flying in your path is a galaxy of enemies: slow-firing spacebugs, nippy little alien craft, creatures who live in the walls, sticky or exploding flora, explosive debris and so on. The joy of these things is that they often hate each other as much as they hate you - Kazdal cites Halo as an influence - and that gives you a lot of options for how you approach each situation.
For starters, enemy ships don't aggro as soon as you appear on screen, but detect you through sight or sound. If you kill your engine and drift up behind someone, you can float past or get close enough to destroy them before they can fire back. If they do detect you, they have different alert states - they can see you and are chasing, they have seen you recently and are searching, or they thought they saw you but it must have been space-rats.
When I play the game at one of the lower or moderate difficulty levels, I spend time trying to pull enemies around: rush up to them, let them see me, and then quickly use my ship's boost to dodge round a corner. Your ship can swivel on the spot - Newtonian physics FTW - so once out of sight, I could turn and blast my enemies as they crammed round the corner towards me. It was satisfying to predict how the enemies would react, and then be able to quickly make plans for how to tackle them in each situation: littering my escape routes with the sticky petals of an alien plant to slow my pursuers down, or leading them towards explosive scenery.
This was nothing compared to later on, when I passed the controller to Kazdal to watch him tackle the higher difficulty settings. (Difficulty settings are split into seasons, as per the TV theme). One of the ways the game gets harder is that there are simply more enemies at any one time, which makes engaging with all of them a suicidal tactic. Kazdal would instead hide constantly, darting behind floating space objects like in a cover shooter. When he'd encounter a larger alien bug, he wouldn't kill it, but kite it around so it could mop up enemies and cause havoc for him. It was fun even to watch.
Part of the reason for that is the game's inspiration, which lie in the imported Japanese cartoons Kazdal grew up watching such as Star Blazers and Macross (aka Robotech). For me, it's reminiscent of Bucky o'Hare. Between missions you head back to a space station to select your next adventure and spend collected money on persistent ship upgrades, and each are delivered via a thick-lined cartoon character. In-game, your daring space pilot is visibly gritting his teeth in the bottom left corner at any given moment, and enemy barks prompt inserts of your toad-like alien enemies to appear in the bottom right. Press pause and the game stops like an old VHS tape, warping and fuzzing at the top of the screen.
Procedural generation, enemy ecosystems, stealth tactics; these are what make me want to write about Galak-Z. It's a "thinking-man's shmup", says Kazdal, and he's not wrong. But the reason I went to bed last night thinking about it is because of how it feels. Your ship is controlled via forward, backward, left and right boosters, and vacuum of space means that little thrusts in any direction can create a lot of momentum. This allows you to almost power-slide your ship around corners like a race car, using momentum to whip your back-end around and a temporary boost for quick changes in direction.
There's a high skill-ceiling on this stuff, too. Quick movements allow you to dodge enemy vision, but coming to a dead halt requires you to slam both analogue triggers at the same time to counteract your momentum. There's also a button which flips your ship briefly out of the combat plane, allowing you to leap small obstacles, such as ships and enemy missiles. I never got the hang out of that last part during my hour playtime, while Kazdal used it to great effect. Maybe my brain likes that it's a "thinking-man's shmup", but it's my fingers that are itching to dodge around explosives and tuck inside spaceship alcoves.
I am obviously excited about this game. I'd be confident of its imminent success too if there wasn't the lingering feeling that we've been here before - Galak-Z is being made by 17-Bit, the same studio who made Skulls of the Shogun. It was a great game, but great games don't always find their audience. Galak-Z is aiming to be out around Christmas - on PlayStation 4 first, briefly, and then on PC - but Kazdal has other concerns as well.
"We're doing all this stuff and then we're moving the whole studio to Kyoto, Japan in the next couple of weeks." The eight-person team is currently based in Seattle, and four are making the initial trip with "a couple of others" maybe to follow.
"I worked at Sega in Tokyo for a long time and I just fell in love with Japan," says Kazdal. "I left like nine years and ago, but I married while I was there. We have two kids now and we've always wanted to move back. Now that I have my own studio, I don't have to find a new job and Kyoto is such a beautiful city. The city government is sponsoring a bunch of this stuff, so we're moving into a state-sponsored incubator for media creators."
Galak-Z is moving to the home of many of its influences. Let's see if it finds a home among players. Here's the latest trailer: