Galak-Z: The Dimensional
Vic Viper would be proud
Trevor | November 24, 2015
Killer presentation, flawless Zero-G combat, and a randomized structure with witty characters creates the perfect roguish adventure.
In Sci-Fi's 2004 update of Battlestar Galactica, before the network's atrocious rebranding, the show’s creative team carefully considered what combat would look like in a Zero-Gravity environment. They considered what kind of mobility ships participating in a sortie among the stars would need to have a competitive edge, and how they could maneuver when not constrained by earth’s gravity. The Viper MKII, the main fighter of the Battlestar Galactica fleet, is capable of a 180 degree turn in half a second. This maneuver would instantly kill a pilot constrained by earth's gravitational forces, but in the vacuum of space, no external force exists to push all the blood in or out of your head at a rapid pace.
This concept of Zero-G combat, where ships flip on a dime and rotate 360 degrees in any direction, where momentum carries a craft forever due to Newton’s first law of motion, is one many games have emulated in a three-dimensional environment. Most recently, Elite: Dangerous expertly captured this feeling. Even as far back as 1994, Descent provided players with a full six degrees of motion, making for an extraordinarily unique (albeit occasionally nauseating) experience.
There are many examples of two-dimensional games set in space, but none have ever accomplished what Descent and Elite: Dangerous have. Gradius and Lifeforce, while fantastic games in their own right, lack the same floaty momentum I came to associate with space. For a long time, I thought perhaps it was impossible. Couldn’t be done. In a world with a million different two-dimensional space shooters (thirty of which can be found on the Action 52 cartridge alone), not a single one existed that actually had a “spacey” feel.
Then 17-Bit made Galak-Z.
See those thrusters on the front of my ship? I can engage those at any point to apply sideways thrust, allowing me to strafe around enemies or dodge lasers.
Or how about this?
Sure, I could turn around, but why bother when I can throw on reverse thrusters and get the hell out of that waiting storm of Imperial scum?
Despite the game being designed with no Z-axis in mind, 17-Bit still managed to incorporate it in the form of this juke maneuver, where your craft can hop into the foreground to leap over ships and projectiles.
It’s been a long time since I played a game that felt perfect. Every button is mapped to the exact action I’d expect it to be. In order to keep from being overwhelming, the first Season doles out one action per level, unlocking one button at a time. Within fifteen minutes, I was able to comfortable using every command. By the hour, I’d forgotten I had a controller in my hand at all.
I was one with Galak-Z.
The mechanical brilliance would already be enough for me to be happy, but Galak-Z goes a step further with an amazing presentation and cohesive Voltron-esque world design. Every episode starts with an absurd, randomly generated title. Characters have the same seventy-to-eighties era anime stylings, along the lines of Robotech or Battle of the Planets, with similarly rich color pallettes. Even your ship has the appearance of an anime craft. With it’s hard edges, blocky design, and a unique rich shade of color on each segment, It looks like it might transform into a robot at any moment.
Probably because it can.
At the start of season two, you’ll unlock the ability to transform from ship to mech on the go.
This off-brand Gundam is capable of the same engine maneuvers as the ship. Reverse, forward, and side thrusters.
Your approach to combat in the mech, however, changes entirely. For one, the gun is replaced with a sword. Tapping A performs quick sword swings, slicing ships and bugs to pieces.
Holding the button will charge the blade for a massive swing. It hits a wider field, does more damage, and even launches enemies back. Send them careening into walls, and you'll deal additional damage and momentarily stun them.
Instead of a Z-axis hop, the Mech has a forward facing shield. In addition to blocking bullets, a timely shield raise will knock other enemy mechs off balance.
Did I mention the sword reflects projectiles? The sword reflects projectiles.
The inclusion of the mech opens up a vast array of tactics and options once an engagement breaks out. If getting in close starts to go south, why not pop out of the mech, hit the reverse thrusters, and fire off a barrage of missiles to cover your escape?
If you need to create some distance but don’t have time to transform, you could also try grabbing an asteroid and heaving it into the mass of ships like a bowling ball.
Enemies can be grappled in the same fashion. If you've singled one ship out, Why not smack 'em around a little?
The toolbox at the player’s disposal is simple as a button press in execution, but immense as the ocean in available combat tactics.
In terms of the actual gameplay loop, Galak-Z shares a lot in common with the recent trending roguelike genre.
Each season in Galak-Z is comprised of five episodes. These levels and their objectives are randomly generated until you reach the final level of the season, which involves a scripted boss encounter. In order to advance to the next season, you must complete all five episodes in one run. Explode, and it’s back to the first episode entirely.
Note: while Galak-Z is intended to be played as a roguelike, it is possible to now play the game as a more traditional, checkpoint-after-each-level affair, thanks to the inclusion of Arcade Mode. I will probably never use it, but I appreciate the option is there for other players who are not into the punishing difficulty associated with the rougelike genre.
There are no permanent upgrades in Galak-Z, making it faithful to the game responsible for the etymology of “roguelike.” Your ship can be customized with a variety of upgrades each run. In addition to shot type, it’s possible to alter the muzzle, size, number of projectiles, and even add additional properties like bouncing bullets and freezing shots. Only one of each category can be equipped at a time, so no bouncing and piercing bullets. Bouncing, burning bullets are a go, though.
Ship upgrades however, such as increased booster speed or a larger total life bar, apply automatically. There's no limit on how many of these can be attached at once, so you can never have enough! Galak-Z does limit how many duplicates of existing upgrades may be attached, however, lest your health pool becomes a health ocean. All these upgrades remain at your disposal until either the entire season is over...
Or you explode.
Once one of the two above conditions are met, your ship returns to its default configuration. It is possible during a run to find “Crash Coins,” which will be redeemed for 250 salvage each at the start of the next session. This allows you to buy items in the store at the start of a new run and get a head start on the season, rewarding you for marginal success after a failed level.
If you have at least five crash coins at death, however, another option is available to you: The Salvage Run.
Selecting this option means you’ll start the next level with nothing, not even the Mech form. If you can make it to the crate during the start of the level, you’ll retain all your upgrades and pick up where you left off.
If not, well… time to wave goodbye to all your items and five crash coins. Depending on how many items you have (and whether or not you liked the ones you had) it might be best to forgo the salvage run and bankroll a stack of crash coins on the next round instead.
What I adore about Galak-Z is the narrative framework surrounding the game. It’s tough to craft a story around a roguelike, which is exactly why most don't bother to try. Galak-Z strikes a perfect balance by making personality part of the game, but not frequently pausing the action to force cutscenes on the player. Short cutscenes bookend each season, but they’re not long enough to outstay their welcome and are entirely skippable.
Each mission starts with a witty back-and-forth from Beam and A-Tak. First there’s a short narrative description of what your mission accomplishes:
The personality persists during the mission as well. A-tak and Beam share witty banter at certain points throughout the level, but all these exchanges happen without taking control away from the player. A-tak also calls out when his shields go out, he blows someone up, or he takes damage. His face is always in the bottom left corner, showing a close-up of the action in the cockpit, not unlike having an anime doomguy on the bottom of the screen.
The other corner has similar use for enemy ships.
Every enemy you engage with has their own personality and voice samples. Imperials and pirates alike call out for your demise during a fight. These enemies will also engage one another if left to their own devices, and will shout out a whole new set of voice samples tailor made for imperial-on-marauder conflicts. They even have unique dialogue for when bugs start to gnaw on their ships. Thus far, the bugs don't talk back.
All these little details add up to make space, despite its infinite emptiness, feel rich and alive.
When it comes to the roguelike genre, there’s millions of options out there these days. I’ve played many of them, but never felt the same desire to keep playing that I do in Galak-Z. The impressive toolkit and unique mobility options are addicting when a fight breaks out, but what really kept me playing Galak-Z was the smart aesthetic trappings and witty dialogue.
Galak-Z is now my roguelike of choice.
In the interest of complete honesty, there are two things I’d like to see added to Galak-Z. The first is the addition of an endless mode. Currently, each of Galak-Z’s seasons are self contained. I’d like the opportunity to tackle every Season in one attempt, a "binge-watch" mode, if you will. It'd be a tremendous time commitment, but an excellent way to add an additional challenge for players to tackle once they've finished the game.
The second involves mid-level pickups. Every powerup accquired in a level is immediately equipped, which, when it comes to your laser attachments, can sometimes ruin your current setup. There's a certain strategy to ignoring pickups once you've got every part desired, I suppose, but these parts can be swapped around at Crash's ship as well. Therefore, ignoring the pick-ups denies the player from future options and experimentation. Being able to pick up these parts without being forced to immediately equip them would be a welcome addition.
Even without these alterations, Galak-Z does so many things I’ve never seen before, and managed to enrapture me so completely, I do not see how I could give it anything other than a perfect score. There’s no game out there that’s combined elements of Gradius, Voltron, and the roguelike genre so perfectly.
I’ve seen complaints Galak-Z’s fifth and final Season is not yet out, but I find it difficult to get upset about this. While I would appreciate having a final season now, the knowledge it is coming later, for free, keeps me eager to keep playing and hone my skills for its release. However, I do think it would be wise for 17-Bit to disclose this information on the PSN and Steam store pages, so players aren’t blindsided by the “Coming Soon” text after completing Season four.
It took me roughly sixteen hours to complete the current four seasons of Galak-Z, but I’ve played, much, much more than sixteen hours. I’m eager to see what challenges Season five has to offer.