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‘Galak-Z: The Dimensional’ is the ‘Dark Souls’ of Space Shooters



In March of 2015, From Software’s Bloodborne rolled out to an incredibly enthusiastic response from critics. If you’re the type to hold Metacritic ratings in high regard, then the game picked up a rare 92 rating, which stands for universal acclaim. Work your way through those reviews, however, and you’ll notice that it’s not just the acclaim that’s universal; almost every review of the game contains some variation on the phrase, “But it’s not for everyone”. Even for staunch supporters of the title like myself, who believe that it deserves all of the acclaim that it gets, it would be dishonest to say that I’d recommend it to anyone. It’s difficult, frustrating, and obtuse, and that makes me wonder how many copies of Bloodborne are sat on the shelves of “Used games” sections across the globe; the result of purchases made by eager, but less informed gamers, picking up titles based solely on their review scores.

It might seem strange that Bloodborne was one of the first games that popped into my head as I was spending my sixth hour with Galak-Z: The Dimensional – a brand new downloadable space-shooter from 17-Bit – as on the surface the two games couldn’t be more different. Galak-Z is bright, colourful, funny and endearing. It’s inspired by ’80s anime shows, right down to the audacious music, the mechs, and the incredibly charming way that the screen mimics that of an old VHS system when you pause the game. The game is even broken up into “seasons” as though it’s a television show, with each mission in that season having it’s own self-contained story, complete with writing credits. It’s unabashedly old school in it’s presentation, but what surprised me most is how old school the game is in how it plays, too; it punishes the player for lost lives in a manner that modern video games tend not to do. And it’s in this regard that the game draws a parallel with Bloodborne; it’s how it feels to play.

The story begins with you as A-Tak, a space-pilot of a pioneering new ship that unbeknownst to him, at least initially, doubles up as a mech. Your squad is decimated by the evil empire, and you’re directed to safety by an officer named Beam, who resides upon what will soon be your mothership. Now you’re the last man standing between Earth and the empire, and so Beam hands out missions to you that are critical to saving humanity. Typically, this will involve going from point A to point B, either collecting something or killing something, and then making your way to point C to exit the level. Along the way you’ll encounter enemies, power-ups, and salvage, which acts as a currency, allowing you to upgrade or heal up between missions.

Space battles become all the more personal when you the pilot of the enemy ship pops up on screen to taunt you.

Space battles become all the more personal when you the pilot of the enemy ship pops up on screen to taunt you.

Flying your ship through space is a breeze. Forward thrusting is handled with R2, with L2 allowing you to reverse. Shooting is as simple as holding down the cross button, while circle releases a payload of missiles. Later, square lets you perform a dodge manoeuvre to avoid incoming enemy fire, and triangle lets you switch between ship and mech mode. You aim with the left stick, and the on-screen pointers show you which direction you need to head in to reach your objective. Killing enemy ships or space bugs yields salvage, and exploring off the beaten path often leads you to ship upgrades, blueprints for items you can later buy in shops, crash coins which will provide you with salvage on your next life should you die, or more salvage.

Each season of the game is split up into five episodes. You make your way through level 1-1 collecting all the power ups and salvage you can, making your ship stronger to help you through level 1-2. You do the same in level 1-2 to prepare for 1-3. Then you come across an impossibly hard enemy vessel that makes embarrassingly short work of you, and you suddenly find yourself back at 1-1, with no power ups, no upgrades, and no salvage, save what you’re given from the crash coins you’ve collected. It’s basically back to square one. And once you’ve experienced the gut-punch that is losing all of your progress with naught but a hoarse throat from screaming as a keepsake, you’ll get the feeling. It’s tension. Stress. It’s that fear that you just don’t get in most modern games thanks to inventory retention, forgiving check-points, and unlimited continues.

Upon death, you start the whole season again, but this time round the missions have changed, the shop doesn’t sell the same items, and the power-ups you can hope to find in game could be entirely different from last time. The over-arching story remains the same, but how you get there has changed, and this is both a blessing and a curse. On the blessing front, the mixed up structure keeps you on your toes and stops the game from becoming an exercise in muscle memory; you can’t just remember where all the enemies are and learn how to scrape through. It also makes things more interesting since you’ll likely be restarting quite a few times, and the changes keep things fresh. As far as the curse aspect goes, since the power-ups are different on each run, sometimes it can feel as though you’re not getting the rub of the green when it comes to upgrades, making later episodes tougher than they were in previous runs.

Mercifully, crashing into rocks doesn't cause damage, and make an already tricky game borderline unplayable.

Mercifully, crashing into rocks doesn’t cause damage, and make an already tricky game borderline unplayable.

Not all deaths in Galak-Z are created equal. Thanks to the way the upgrades are handed out as you progress, and because of the way the different upgrades interact with each other, there’s many different variations on the standard ship, and when you find one you really like, dying and losing it knowing you’ll likely not get that combination of mods back any time soon just makes biting the bullet so much crueler. And it’s at this point that the true evil genius of 17-Bit comes to the fore. Once you have five crash coins, i.e. the items that determine how much salvage you begin the next run through the season with, you can opt, upon death, to spend them for an opportunity to retry the mission you were killed on. But here’s the kicker – you restart the mission without any of your upgrades, and must make your way to a crate, guarded by the enemy, somewhere in the level, that houses all your ship modifications. Get to it and you’re back to where you were, all kitted out and ready to go. Get killed on your way, and you go back to 1-1 minus the salvage you would have had if you’d kept the crash coins, making your next attempt at clearing the season noticeably tougher.

At first, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t find this a tad unfair. In fact, that’s probably putting it mildly. At one point, somewhere around the seventh or eighth death in season one, I screamed at my television so loudly that I was expecting the police to be soon knocking on my door in regards to a call about a domestic disturbance. I’d just lost my glorious ship with fire elemental bullets that bounce off walls causing absolute mayhem. I was livid. But once I’d thrown my tantrum, tossed my pad down on the couch, declared I was giving up, paced around the room, and decided, “Okay, just one more go”, I knew the game had me. I started to accept that my cavalier attitude to interstellar dog-fights was more likely the cause of my repeated dying, and not that the game was “cheating” as I had previously asserted on death number four. Once you’ve felt the sting of death in Galak-Z, and you realize that it isn’t going to get any easier, the game stops being about simple progression, and starts becoming about survival at any cost.

There’s no decree from up on high that says you have to engage every enemy that you come across, and once I got myself into the mindset that I needed to pick and choose my battles a little more wisely I started to reap the benefits. It’s all about strategy. When you’re at full health and you come upon four or five ships together, depending on what class of enemy they are, you might fancy your chances. But with one health bar left, even going up against one fairly powerful foe is a dangerous proposition, and it’s then that you need to consider whether or not stealth might be a better option. The harder you use your thrusters, the more likely it is that enemies will notice you, and so sneaking through caves slowly is a perfectly viable option. Without killing enemies you’ll earn less salvage meaning upgrading will be tougher for you, but without entering into conflict you’re more likely to retain your all important ship health. It’s all about weighing up the pros and cons of any given situation.

When the screen fills with explosions, the game can stumble technically.

When the screen fills with explosions, the game can stumble technically.

While going in all guns blazing or taking it slowly is a choice that often determines the success or failure of a mission, every now and again the game makes the decision for you with a couple of technical hiccups when the on screen action gets too intense. There were a handful of instances during large scale fire fights that the frame rate dropped noticeably. Thankfully, these unfortunate moments were few and far between, but frequent enough to warrant a mention. Also of note is that there were a few audio issues when first playing the game – lines of dialogue being unceremoniously cut off mid-sentence – however this seems to have been cleared up after a patch, so hopefully you won’t run into this if you make sure to download updates.

These slight technical issues are the only note-worthy flaws in the otherwise crisp production of Galak-Z. The game is vibrant and colourful, the sound excellent, and the space combat generally fluid and well balanced. The design of the game is deliberately retro, and anyone with an affinity for old school Japanese anime should feel right at home. If the game were just a simple, and more forgiving space shooter it would probably be worth the recommendation just for the presentation and the enjoyable space combat alone, but 17-Bit have gone the extra mile, and tried to create something with a little more bite. Galak-Z is a tough game, and even veterans of the genre should be prepared to die a few times on the road to galactic glory.

Hiding behind an asteroid seemingly light years from the exit point of a level while down to your final health bar evokes a level of stress that I was wholly unprepared for when I first started playing the game. It’s utterly exhilarating. The punishment for death is severe, and so sometimes merely scraping through a level by the skin of your teeth feels like a resounding success. It aims to challenge the player to adapt their playing style to survive, and it’ll crush those who are too gung ho in their approach to battle. The fear of death increases with each episode you complete, and the better your ship is, the more the thought of losing it thanks to a mis-judged shot or a badly planned battle drives you to survive at any cost. Survival is the name of the game, and Galak-Z: The Dimensional provided me with some of my favourite gaming moments of the year. But it’s not for everyone.

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John can generally be found wearing Cookie Monster pyjamas with a PlayStation controller in his hands, operating on a diet that consists largely of gin and pizza. His favourite things are Back to the Future, Persona 4 Golden, the soundtrack to Rocky IV, and imagining scenarios in which he's drinking space cocktails with Commander Shepard. You can follow John on Twitter at