Galak-Z review: into the void

Game Info
Platform Win, PS4
Publisher 17-Bit
Developer 17-Bit
Release Date Aug 4, 2015

There is no way to play Galak-Z: The Dimensional that isn't remarkably stressful.

At best, you can only decide what type of stress you want to submit yourself to. This brutal space shooter requires precise shooting and tactical maneuvers to survive each and every fight. If you fail at that, it becomes a tense stealth game, forcing you to skirt around enemy radar as you try to recover precious lost resources. Fail at that, and — well, let's hope you can outrun an army.

There are a thousand little points of tension beyond the "die and restart" loop, and that's what helps Galak-Z stand comfortably among the best roguelikes ever created. Learning and adapting to the rules of survival in Galak-Z is as rewarding an endeavor as video games can offer — and, on the inverse, failing to follow those rules can dish out a punishment more severe than most games dare to dispense.

you can only decide what type of stress you want to submit yourself to

Galak-Z's aesthetic is based on the best space opera/mech-centric anime never made. Every molecule of the game's artistic design — the transforming ships, the colorful striped jumpsuits, the "Itano Circus"-style missile swarms — is influenced by classic anime series like Macross. Even the pause menu endearingly shows VHS static and lo-fi, superimposed text.

You fill the role of A-Tak, the pilot of an experimental fighter ship that is humanity's last defense against bloodthirsty bandits, the sinister Empire and hordes of alien bugs. Your ship is capable of strafing and juking around enemy projectiles, blasting ships out of the sky with upgradable lasers and rockets, and — appropriate to the genre — transforming into a laser sword-swinging, grappling hook-wielding mech.

The TV series allusion goes beyond stylistic influence; it completely defines the game's structure. Galak-Z is broken into five "seasons" (only four of which are available at launch), which in turn are made up of five "episodes," each consisting of a randomized level. The story arc of each season is set in stone, but the objectives, map and enemy placement of each episode is different every time you attempt it.

Here is where Galak-Z gets nasty: If you die at any point during a season, you have to start that season from the beginning.

After my first death, I was unconvinced that the game needed that roguelike structure. I had unlocked a bevy of upgrades for my ship, giving me a more powerful main cannon, faster thrusters and increased missile capacity. And then, just like that, I was starting from scratch all over again. I've lost a full hour of progress after chomping it in the last episode of a season, and cursed the game for its capacity for heartbreak.

I've cursed the game for its capacity for heartbreak

But Galak-Z's learning curve isn't just easily scalable — it's also a really enjoyable hike. After I started to recognize my opponents' attack patterns and picked up the intricacies of evasion, my survivability skyrocketed and the game's roguelike structure clicked. With a bit of practice, what seemed like a masochistic grind became a deeply rewarding pursuit, with each death teaching a valuable lesson and each season finale delivering a shot of undiluted elation.

Galak-Z - A-Tak art (transparent) 480

The smartest thing Galak-Z does is reward caution, an approach the space shooter genre isn't exactly known for. Some of my favorite moments in Galak-Z have been my attempts at avoiding detection — enemies can hear your thrusters, so sneaking by them involves boosting to give yourself enough momentum to slip by them sans propulsion. Basically, you can throw yourself like a dart, unable to adjust your inertia without alerting nearby ships. It's terrifying.

Galak-Z mech art 1920

Season Five

Galak-Z arrived on PlayStation 4 without its fifth season, which will launch alongside the Windows PC version of the game at an unannounced later date. That might sound damning, but Galak-Z's narrative isn't really its main hook — in fact, it's probably not even in its top 10 hooks. It also doesn't feel anemic; finishing the four seasons included in Galak-Z will take you quite some time, assuming you get killed as often as I did.

In fact, running into a crowd guns blazing is almost always the worst plan of attack. You can't just be twitchy and succeed in Galak-Z — you have to be smart. You have to use the environment against your foes, luring them into a jungle of thorny alien flora or grappling them into a pool of lava. You can fly into swarms of vicious bugs and have them pursue you into an otherwise unbreakable line of Empire dreadnoughts, essentially recreating that one badass scene from Serenity.

I have pulled off more wild maneuvers like that than I can count during my time with Galak-Z, most of which I cannot believe that I survived. Galak-Z achieves a near-perfect balance of danger and opportunity throughout its entire run — the better you get, the harder the enemies get and the more tools you discover to deal with them. It's a self-sustaining loop that kept me plotting strategies well after I'd powered the game down.

Galak-Z - A-Tak window left 480

Galak-Z also has some smart ways of alleviating death's sting. There's a rare currency in the game called Crash Coins that, following a mission failure, you can exchange to restart the current episode rather than replay the whole season. However, reviving in this way strips away all of your upgrades, hiding them somewhere in the level for you to recollect. Those retrieval runs leave you deeply outnumbered and outgunned, forcing you to attempt a stealthy, nerve-shattering rescue mission.

There are dozens of upgrades you'll find tucked away in each episode, most of which augment the rate of fire, spread and element of your main laser cannon. You'll lose all your upgrades after dying or finishing a season — but you can also find Blueprints, which will permanently add upgrades into the rotating stock of a shop you'll have access to before each mission. You can also occasionally find that vendor hidden in an episode, serving up an upgrade or clutch hull repair after a huge firefight.

Galak-Z's roguelike designs offer some genius twists on the genre, but its space shooter mechanics are remarkable on their own. There are so many ways to move through the world of Galak-Z — boosting, reversing, circle-strafing, juking — all of which have a great sense of momentum. A single fight might see you grapple-throw a crate of explosives into a crowd of fighters to drop their shields, transform into ship mode to launch a volley of missiles and then boost backward while cleaning up the rest of the opposition with your lasers.

Galak-Z's space shooter mechanics are remarkable on their own

It feels amazing, save for the game's sole, discouraging shortcoming: When there's too much happening on screen, Galak-Z's frame rate can really plummet. It's only an issue in the game's biggest skirmishes, usually occurring when two large groups of opposing enemies stumble into each other during a mission. Frame drops can make evading a salvo of incoming fire all the more difficult, and considering the game's extremely limited margin of error, potentially deadly.

Like Galak-Z's intended dangers, though, the risk of performance issues can be mitigated. Frame rate spikes usually left me running for safer waters until my foes sorted each other out, which is probably sage advice to begin with.

Wrap Up:

Galak-Z is equal parts punishing and exhilarating

The occasional technical hiccup aside, Galak-Z is a brilliant take on so many different genres, but it's the game's roguelike innovations that make it soar. Some lesser entries in the genre use permadeath as a blunt tool, wielded to tack some artificial length onto a repetitive slog. Galak-Z is going to kill you back to a season premiere constantly, but not for lack of content — it's part of a laser-focused intent to make Galak-Z as tense and thrilling a game as can possibly be.

Galak-Z: The Dimensional was reviewed using a final PlayStation 4 download code provided by 17-Bit. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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