Galak-Z, a game that looks to the likes of Star Wars and Voltron for inspiration, is something I wanted to love, mostly because it combines two of my favorite things: intergalactic dogfights and giant mechs. Unfortunately it rarely fires on all cylinders and often has trouble enough just functioning, with technical issues that constantly disrupt a game where every choice you make could be the difference between pulling off an impressive victory or being devoured by the space bug-like mandibles of defeat.
Galak-Z touts itself as a rogue-like—a genre of games that richly rewards the player for success and sharply punishes them for failure—with the game divided into four sections and each section comprised of five levels. Failing any of those levels sends you back to the start of that particular section so you basically hit a save point every five levels. These levels are called “episodes” and the sections are called “seasons,” which is part of Galak-Z’s homage to the various animated series that developer 17 Bit clearly has an affinity for. However, the episode/season titling doesn’t have any function beyond being amusingly referential. Every season doesn’t end on a dramatic twist or intriguing plot development, which is what Alan Wake and even Battlefield Hardline did with their faux TV episodic format, so it’s a little superficial, which is unfortunately something that can be said about much of the game.
You play A-Tack (yes, that is his name), humanity’s sole remaining pilot as he squares off against nasty space critters, pirates, and a cartoonishly evil empire. Lucky for him A-Tack pilots a ship that has the ability to turn into a mech armed with a laser sword and grappling hook. The story is flimsy at best but that’s mostly fair since story is so clearly not the draw here; however, the characters, whom you are forced to listen to say the same lines over and over again, are grating and I often looked down to find my thumbs reflexively searching for a non-existent mute button to shut them up.
The bleak scenario of being The Chosen One in a time of despair thematically supports a design that punishes you for failure, but the execution of that design just isn’t that interesting. The game has you flying your ship through giant procedurally-generated labyrinths—sometimes derelict space stations, other times caves infested with various monsters—in order to accomplish a random goal, such as fetching scrap metal or killing four of the same kind of monster. While navigating the maze you come across various enemies you can fight, avoid, or use environmental traps to ensnare and destroy. After you accomplish your objective you retreat to a teleportation pad, always guarded by a baddie or two you have to fight or sneak by, and then it’s off to the preparation screen for the next episode. Every single level is like this and it gets old fast; making a mistake and getting sent back to the beginning of a season makes the whole process that much more tedious. Both Spelunky and The Binding of Isaac, two of the best games in the rogue-like genre, have savvy level and narrative design that give you a sense that everything is connected to one another in their respective universes and every playthrough is filled with new, exciting surprises to discover even when you’ve poured hundreds of hours and thousands of attempts into those games whereas Galak-Z’s levels have you doing slightly different variations of the same chore over and over again.
The tactical core of Galak-Z is entertaining, but it’s just not amusing enough to save the game from its repetition. Shooting or slicing at every enemy you come across is a bad idea and will get you killed pretty quickly. Instead the wise pilot will catch one squadron of enemies’ attention and lead them into another faction’s domain so that the two groups of foes will go at it, leaving them to pick off the survivors and collect precious scrap used to buy upgrades for your ship-mech, like more powerful lasers and shields. Once you’ve unlocked the mech, you can also grapple hook your enemies and send them flying into explosive objects or other foes, removing their shields and allowing you to slash them to pieces. The game’s focus on making you learn which enemies it’s necessary to use guerilla warfare tactics against and when it’s okay to rush in with lasers blasting is somewhat inspired, but these aren’t hard-to-comprehend lessons, either. I never really feel like I’m learning anything when I’m sent back to the start of a seasons—especially when so many of my game-overs arise not from an error on my part but instead because of one of the many technical issues plaguing Galak-Z.
The frequent framerate slowdowns have a horrendous and detrimental effect on the quality of the game, especially in later stages where you regularly encounter large groups of ships. Engaging numerous enemies in battle effectively means the action becomes choppy; dodging enemy fire is nearly impossible. I’ve died repeatedly near the end of later seasons because of this and random points where the game would just freeze for a couple of seconds during a pivotal moment in battle. I’ve also had the mech’s grapple hook function just stop working in a level where I needed to transport cargo, effectively breaking that session of the game and obliterating 30 minutes or so of progress. The worst issue was Galak-Zcrashing to my PS4 home screen on the last level, with numerous upgrades suddenly vanished—along with the remaining vestiges of my patience.
There are moments of absolute joy to be found here, like leading a group of foes into the lair of a beast that will devour them or even juking over an enemy combatant and firing a missile up their exhaust, but they’re rare instances, buried deep in the heart of a frustrating grind that doesn’t do much to separate itself from the legion of rogue-likes out there. Sadly, in the end Galak-Z is yet another would-be great game undone by a ho-hum execution of ideas that must have sounded great on paper.
Galak-Z was developed and published by 17-Bit. It is available for PlayStation 4 and PC.
Javy Gwaltney devotes his time to writing about these videogame things when he isn’t teaching or cobbling together a novel. You can follow the trail of pizza crumbs to his Twitter or his website.