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Wot I Think: Galak-Z


Galak-Z [official site] is an anime-inspired space combat game, with randomised missions and a sprawling upgrade system. Brought to PC after an initial launch on PS4, it's been ported beautifully and I've been caught in its roguelite charms for several days. Here's wot I think.

It's been a long time since a game turned me around on its aesthetics as quickly as Galak-Z managed to when I started playing it late last week. Initially, the whole thing seemed to be a facsimile of precisely the sort of over-earnest anime show that makes my toes curl. Plucky and naive young hero who just so happens to be amazingly skilled but nobody noticed until now? Check. Mentor/Authority figure who just so happens to be an attractive woman who couldn't possibly have any interest in our plucky young hero, EXCEPT? Check. Evil empire with bumbling comic minions? Check.

If I hadn't enjoyed the actual space combat, I might not have endured long enough to see through the surface gunk to the smartness of the story's structure. It's not that any of the details in the paragraph above aren't true but each playthrough of Galak-Z is actually presented as a television show, with random episode titles for each mission, much like those in XCOM. Rather than acts or chapters, the plot takes place across seasons.

That playfulness - using a procedural mission structure to link fairly basic objectives together to form the plot of a fake television show – won me over completely. Whether intentionally or not, having the structure of the game act as a sort of 'generic anime generator' saps out all of that apparent sincerity and makes the whole plot seem like a tongue in cheek exercise in sending up genre conventions. By the time I was anxiously blasting bugs in the centre of a lump of space-rock, my ship's armour alarmingly low and my nerves shot to hell, I'd even begun to appreciate the repetitive quips that eased the tension somewhat.

The space-rocks are the game's equivalent of dungeons and it makes sense that it has a dungeon analogue because Galak-Z is a roguelite. In this specific case, that means random maps, loot drops and enemy placement, with optional perma-death (of a sort; even on the harder difficulty the game saves at the end of each five mission season). At the beginning of each mission, a briefing provides an objective and then you're dumped in a space sector with an arrow pointing toward the asteroid-dungeon that contains that objective.

Space itself isn't quite as empty as you might have been led to believe if you're inclined to listen to Science. There are hungry ship-chomping bugs drifting through the void, as well as imperial battle squadrons and detector drones. The latter are interesting, in that they'll spot you and then scarper to summon reinforcements. When you complete your objectives, you have to return to the warp point that brought you to the sector and any drones that escape your lasers during the mission are likely to have gathered enemies there to stage an ambush.

Most of the game plays out inside the rocks rather than in open space, and it's there that the roguelike influence is most apparent. They're massive structures, riddled with corridors and chambers, and with multiple entrances. Because they're natural formations, the corridors and chambers don't look like corridors and chambers – they're cracks and caves – but functionally that's precisely what they are. And they're full of enemy ships, bugs and loot containers. There are also various hazards attached to the walls - pools of lava or flora that causes various effects when triggered - and leading enemies toward these naturally occurring traps is a joy.

When you enter, the arrow that pointed you toward your objective is joined by a beacon in one of the chambers. You're free to find the quickest route to whatever it is you're looking for – and it might be an item to collect or an enemy to kill – but the smarter option is to spend some time exploring every nook and cranny, in the hope that you'll find plenty of space junk, which is used as currency, or an upgrade for your ship.

The game's longevity comes from the upgrade model as well as the difficulty. This is a tough game and more often than not, exploration and trips for salvage are cut short by severe damage, forcing you to switch to defensive tactics before limping back to the warp point. It's either that or risk losing all of your progress. Damage is dealt to rechargable shields before taking chunks out of your hull, and that leads to plenty of ducking and diving. Dogfights, brief though they are, have distinct phases of pursuit and evasion, and these become more apparent as tougher enemies are introduced.

Thankfully, while the game can be brutal, you'll rarely invest more than a few minutes into a single mission and never more than a decent session's play into a single season. On top of that, there's long-term persistence in the form of equipment unlocks. You'll still have to buy upgrades for each new run but everything you've discovered is available in the shop from the start. There are also 'Crash Coins' to collect, which can carry over some of your hard-earned to the next attempt should you perish.

When the game launched on console, lots of people seemed to find the controls tricky to master. Being somewhat cack-handed, I expected to struggle but got to grips with everything fairly quickly. As long as you're comfortable dealing with the ship's momentum, treating it as a massive object rather than a zippy ball of directional thrusters, it shouldn't be too difficult to get a handle on juking, tailing and targeting. Having to point your guns at an enemy may seem an inconvenience to those accustomed to twin-stick shooters, but anyone who grew up with Thrust or Lander will find Galak-Z's tolerance for collisions – which don't hurt at all – extremely lenient.

I've only managed to beat the game once and I have 27 hours on the clock. Playing on the harder difficulty probably didn't help my cause, but I enjoyed the challenge. It's a rare game that can make such a repetitive loop of combat and collecting appeal for such a long time, but Galak-Z just about manages. It is repetitive though and as I moved through the seasons, I found the twists and additions somewhat underwhelming. There's one big change that seemed like it'd shake things up at first encounter, but the impact wasn't as significant as I expected.

There are plenty of upgrades and the way that you can mix and match them to create new attack types is fantastic, but enemies and objectives are locked into a handful of templates, and those dungeon-rocks all start to look the same after a while. Even so, I've had a tremendous time playing. Galak-Z is a smooth, polished and compelling arcade shooter that trades in tension and tactical awareness rather than screen-clearing power-trips. The randomised structure adds just enough unpredictability that it'll stay on my hard drive until I've managed to beat it at least one more time.

Galak-Z is out now for Windows.

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