If your only exposure to Galak-Z is a few screenshots and some un-commentated YouTube videos, you’d be forgiven to dismiss it as a simple twin stick shooter. Heck, I briefly went hands on with it at last year’s PAX East, only to come away with but a sliver of what this game has to offer. But in an unapologetic effort to contribute its own spin on the “rogue-like” genre, Galak-Z is more aptly defined as a rogue-lite, one which takes the form of an episodic, brutally difficult 2D space shooter.
Referencing this game’s stages as episodes insinuates that there’s some form of story here, which there is… sort of. You play as A-Tak, the last surviving ship pilot in his fleet that’s now aboard the Axellios, an Earth mothership which is under the command of the good-humored Beam. The relationship between the two is highlighted by some refreshing banter, both kickstarting and bookending each mission. As charming as it may be though, it all feels like a trying effort to validate Galak-Z’s 80’s anime style. It works best in the grainy start up screen and VHS pause menu, though not so much in Flash like animations of the game’s few cutscenes. The amalgamation of missions that fill the gaps between story beats are randomized in order to properly fit within the rules of a rogue inspired game. Because of this, what’s left of the story isn’t nearly established enough to be compelling, but when it comes to lightening up the mood, it gets the job done.
The episodic format – or in this case, seasonal format – works well enough to facilitate a means of progression instead of simply tossing you into constant runs from the very beginning of the game each time you die. Every season contains its own rogue-like arch, relinquishing you of nearly all of your gathered earnings upon death. But Galak-Z isn’t so unforgiving that it hits the reset button every time you fail. There’s a persistent, yet gruelling trade economy that exists underneath which stands as a half-eaten carrot on a stick.
In the field, blue chests and occasional enemy drops will gift blueprints that unlock new abilities and perks for your spaceship (you also come across other chests that hold cash and auto upgrades). Said blueprints can be bought, swapped, and applied given that you can afford it with your Salvage bucks. All upgrades and cash on hand are wiped clean at the end of every season or whenever you die, though you will continue to unlock blueprints after death. The other persistent collectibles you’ll acquire are Crash Coins. This meta currency can grant you a second chance at a run and an opportunity to reclaim your ship’s upgrades, or they will be automatically traded in at the start of every season, banking you 250 Salvage dollars for each coin. Sounds pretty fair, right? Well, the maliciousness of this economy creeps in once you recognize the unwanted spontaneity of the in-game shop.
Galak-Z frequently encourages you to keep throwing yourself into space, collecting and unlocking blueprints. However the game does a poor job of rewarding you for your efforts, as the shop’s inventory randomizes the available blueprints in stock after every completed episode. Not only can it take multiple runs to even see, let alone purchase a desired upgrade, but the randomized vendor prevents any sort of consistency or monetized goal to work towards. To be fair, Galak-Z does offer a second opportunity to purchase a particular item once you manage to find the vendor tucked away in an asteroid or an abandoned space station. But while some players may enjoy tumbling through orbit by the seat of their pants awaiting luck to cross their path, this system ultimately represents a cruel metaphor for the void of space that inflicts the uncertainty of aimlessness and the unknown.
Galak-Z wants nothing more than for you to get good at the game, and your skill will continue to build significantly even long after you’ve unlocked all of the precious, yet completely randomized blueprints. Though you may feel cheated out of getting that sweet ‘Mirror Shield’ perk, when you die, the tight-ass controls reinforce the fact that your demise is always your fault. Ship manoeuvres during combat is surprisingly robust, allowing you to circle strafe, fly backwards while shooting, and stabilize your position all under the guise of the ship’s momentum based physics. The term “twin stick shooter” is a complete misconception as the right analog stick is reserved for you to look beyond the boundaries of your field of view which, in this game, is factually necessary. You’ll begin to feel like [enter grizzled action actor here] in a car chase scene, careening around objects and exchanging fire while in reverse, but doing so in a practical manner.
‘Practicality’ is the name of the game here, as Galak-Z’s difficulty comes from relentlessly intelligent enemy AI that operates with cones of vision and a no-nonsense health system that demands you to avoid permanent damage for the entire duration of each season. A subtle expanding ring that acts as a noise indicator around your ship encourages consideration on whether or not if you want to engage the enemy at all. Picking your battles is just one of many choices in Galak-Z, as there’s no shame in bypassing an enemy completely to live and possibly die another day.
Mastering the ship’s controls alone is an ongoing process, but Galak-Z quickly triples its combat options by revealing your ship’s ability to turn into a mech. Here, the game becomes far more mechanically and systemically sophisticated, thanks to its abilities that allow it to interact with the environment not unlike Far Cry 4. However it differs in principle in that instead of offering toys to play with in a sandbox, it presents you with environmental tools and systems that are absolutely crucial for survival.
Along with a beam sword and a suitable shield, the mech comes with a grappling hook that amplifies the awareness of your surroundings tenfold. Depending on the stratospheric environment, you can grab and throw organic and explosive objects such as thruster-crippling bubbles or combustible barrels. Other stages allow you to bait and hurl enemies into hazards such as carnivorous bugs and pools of lava. Even sabotaging pathways with flaming fuel lines and punctured air pipes is an extremely effective option. This all works for relatively static objects and surroundings, which is far more reliable than manipulating the different factions to fight one another.
Galak-Z’s ugliest blemish is the inconsistency in its remarkable AI design. You’ll encounter three different enemy types, between the Void Raiders and Imperial Empire, along with space bugs that stand in as wildlife. Their dichotomy exists only as a systemic tool to encourage you to pit them against each other, which theoretically is an imperative strategy to avoid taking damage yourself. In my sessions though, this has demonstrably proven to be a death trap tactic. Far too often I’ve found myself fighting two to three groups of enemies at once with all sides completely ignorant of one another until they’ve lost complete sight of me. At that point, they’re less likely to continue fighting each other, and more likely to just continue their patrol.
Because relying on space goons to do your dirty work for you proves to be more of a danger than an asset, Galak-Z is at its strongest the better you interpret its layers of mechanics and incorporate it all into skill. To this day, I’m still learning new approaches and combinations that further enrich my play experience. Tactics like “stun locking” (when you continuously knock enemies into walls and stun them) and reflecting enemy fire Jedi style are rewarding in discovery and even more gratifying in practice. High level players will switch between both the ship and the mech, using each of their dynamic move-sets to outsmart and out-maneuver the unabating opposition.
Galak-Z is not a loadout game. Galak-Z isn’t a game that often facilitates ship customization which grants some sort of amalgamated win button to success. While its randomized custom options greatly emphasize luck, this is a game that weighs heavily on mechanical experimentation, mechanical discovery, and mechanical mastery. When you get farther in Galak-Z, you damn well earned it.
Feeling like a badass fighting your way out of a black hole
Galak-Z is a skill based game in the truest sense of the word, a game that is perpetually rewarding every time you pick up the controller