GALAK-Z manages to tap nostalgia without feeling empty like the cold void of space.

It would be easy for me to have made this review about half the length that it is. I could just say Galak-Z is another top down rogue-lite. One that employs tropes and standards from anime of the 80s like Macross (Robotech) and Zeta Gundam. I could go on about how along with the permadeath and procedurally generated levels and upgrades, there’s a good amount of ship customization and a welcome variety to combat. I could boil it down it to a modern iteration on Sinistar. It’ a simple review without examining how Galak-Z wields nostalgia properly and why the way it is utilized by media today can sometimes be ineffectual.

Plenty of things chase that dragon, feelings that conjure memories of stuff that comforted us in our darkest moments or directly helped influence how we grew in a very real way. But often in an attempt to recapture the vibe of the original thing, iteration is sidelined. I’m always more invested in fresh experiences wrapped in the stuff that makes me feel nostalgic instead of retreading well worn ground. The summer has been thick with nostalgia: three venerable franchises announcing their return on Sony’s E3 stage, things like Adam Sandler’s Pixels and Ready Player One’s author penning a new novel centered around the premise that time spent at play and with hobbies can be valuable.

What’s interesting is while so much of what Galak-Z does from the core gameplay loop, to the episodic level structure, to the aesthetic hinges on a blatant use of nostalgia in the way that usually ends up leaving me so empty. The agile, laser sword brandishing, Gundam-like robot. The brilliant aerial acrobatics pulled off by A-Tak reminiscent of Robotech. The pause screen has to be one of my favourite of any video game ever in the way it replicates with staggering accuracy, a VHS player and bootlegged/taped off TV look. Galak-Z is very deliberately trying to be that thing. Chase those feelings.

The game is stuffed with plot devices familiar to anyone who has ever watched an anime, particularly with giant robots. Rookie pilot, A-Tak, bumbles himself into the cockpit of an experimental spacecraft and just so happens to be the last pilot of the human faction. The first member of the cast you meet is Beam, an intelligence officer stationed aboard the Axelios. It’s the last capital ship the in the human fleet and becomes your base of operations and where all the NPCs reside. Not that there are a lot of NPCs. There’s really just Beam, a crazy, yet storied admiral and a salvager.

Galak-Z info

The influence of Saturday morning anime doesn’t stop with story tropes. The game is structured into episodes, with each one being a mission. The missions are part of a larger season and the entire thing must be cleared in order to progress onto the next season. They’re randomly generated each time, so the mission layout will never be the same twice for the same episode. Usually each mission asks you to do mostly simple things: destroy an enemy embankment, recover something important or grapple with foes. Missions are plucked from a pool of existing types, so things aren’t entirely random and the final mission is usually some sort of boss battle or special event, acting as a season finale. But if A-Tak makes a huge mistake and gets dead during one of the episodes, it’s back to the beginning of the season you go, sans upgrades. Kicking off a new season similarly wipes all the upgrades, setting things back to the OG ship, kind of like how things never changed too much in those Saturday morning cartoons.

I absolutely adore the attention to detail the developer, 17-Bit, have put into the aesthetic, style and concept. Each episode has a lovely title intro that includes randomly generated fake episode names and writing credits, capped off with a wonderfully ham fisted closing credit reel. In fact, all of the audio is so gosh darn good. The soundtrack mixes elements of grimy analog synths and spacier moments and is worthy of being purchased on its own. The characters dialogue, barring the first week and A-Tak’s incessant quips, are superb in both calibre of acting and sound design alike.

Galak-Z’s approach to nostalgia is like a knowing nod from someone in the hall of a convention. It’s fantastic that so much love has been hewn into every part of it and that really brings it to life. Being reassured that your childhood was cool and that other people also remember it as cool can be a powerful thing. It’s also a dangerous thing. If all Galak-Z did was gently nudge me down a lazy river of memories I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed it half as much as I did. Thankfully, Galak-Z does in fact dole out the freshness.

The structure of Galak-Z’s missions are rudimentary and easy to follow. The episodes begin by dropping you into a field of asteroids on the outskirts of a dungeon that is generated randomly every time. These can be a few things like a base built into an asteroid or some sort of derelict space station. Once you’ve made your way to the dungeon, lay a beat down on whoever or grab whatever random item you need, it’s time to cheese it back to the area designated as the extraction point. On your way out you’ll absolutely have to deal with enemies with a blistering dog fight. I tried to b-line for the exit and make my escape, but was always turned into space dust in relatively short order.

When I wasn’t being turned into teeny-tiny, little pieces, I’d be rewarded with scrap from my victories. This scrap is used as currency. Currency to unlock modular upgrades for your ship like increases to speed, the sort of arc and rate of fire of the lasers and to purchase health, shield boosts and missiles (NEVER BUY MISSILES). While purchasing these upgrades no doubt makes the missions easier as you progress through them, it’s not brute force that will overcome the perils of space. Enemy ships not only have a field of vision to be artfully avoided, but A-Tak’s ship makes a whole lot of racket and a ring indicates exactly how far your noise is traveling.

A liberal application of missiles usually does the trick.

A liberal application of missiles usually does the trick.

One of my favourite tactics was inciting a group of enemies, like the abominable and quite toothy space insects for instance. After getting them all riled up, it was simply a matter of juking and maneuvering on my way to another pack of enemies like the space pirates. Fortunately for A-Tak, all of the enemy factions seem to hate each other more than they hate him. Later on with some of the more powerful enemies this sort of strategy is hugely effective at leveling the field. It takes some time to work out precisely the best way to kite some enemies because they can be faster than you, but eventually it all sort of falls into place.

This can unfortunately lead to the first few hours of play feeling punishingly brutal. The precision required by the game to control the ship, coupled with a fairly bare bones tutorial make it an exercise in trial and error. Galak-Z controls quite similarly to Sinistar. Shoulder buttons take care of forward and reverse thrust, the left stick controls which direction the ship faces and on top of these controls there is a drifting mechanic and afterburners. The name of the game is momentum and working out the timing and speed of things is most of the battle with only a basic dodge move as a defensive fallback. For slightly more controlled movement the mech can be great and it comes with a shield! Neither of these things guarantee safety and if anything simply make it easier to find yourself surrounded and in a world of hurt.

After you get comfortable with the controls, spiraling and weaving through fields of debris while crazed enemies gnash at your thruster feels and looks wonderful. It really exudes the feeling of the sort of lavish brawls that would take place in Robotech. When you’re blitzing through asteroids and you quickly transform, spin around to grab some debris as the mech, launch it at the enemies then reforming as the ship, circling around and unleashing missiles on the unfortunate stragglers.

The super tight gameplay is but one part of the equation that is Galak-Z. The rogue-lite elements that pervade the entire game are the other. While there are plenty of great examples of what games with roguelike elements can be like Spelunky, Crypt of the Necrodancer and Rogue Legacy, Galak-Z forges its own trail. The feeling of continual progression is harder to experience directly because when you find blueprints for cool parts all it does is unlock it in the store’s pool of upgrades. And while there are Crash Coins, the currency that carries over, the only thing that carries over, after A-Tak bites the space dust. This means that the time investment for Galak-Z is very different. It’s easy to feel like you don’t really have a leg up going into an episode after biting the dust. There’s no fast traveling to levels you’ve reached, or incremental upgrades being accrued and it can be kind of daunting.

In some weird way, it’s also one of Galak-Z’s most praiseworthy aspects. Games that emphasize player skill like CS:GO, Dark Souls and the new kid Rocket League will always have an audience. Galak-Z is one of those. While an hour of Rogue Legacy will net you some sort of tangible return for your time, in Galak-Z you could be close to rounding out a season, get scrapped and be left with nothing. Over time Galak-Z teaches you to rely on whatever load-out you’ve happened to luck out on and make it work. It ties together so many elements and demands the player navigate them all with guile and aptitude and once you find that groove, it’s so sweet. Dancing through the stars and debris as I orchestrate a war between two rival factions to farm more salvage is a reward in itself.

So much of Galak-Z is wrapped up in learning as you, even down to the roguelike elements. There’s no easy way to just buff yourself up and blast through enemies. You can’t just purchase a more powerful ship and there are no definite loadouts. This forces experimentation and demands that new things be tried in an effort to push forward. Galak-Z doesn’t allow you to rely on a favourite weapon or combination of upgrades to breeze through it. In this way there’s a real feeling of improvement as you play.

Let's do the time warp again.

Let’s do the time warp again.

Galak-Z, however, is totally at fault for not being entirely up front about this structure from the start. It can take some time before that set up becomes apparent. With a little bit of luck the first season or two can be blitzed through without much trouble, obfuscating much of Galak-Z’s beautifully tailored progression. While the lack of variance between maps can make things feel kind of stunted, once all of the finer interconnected parts become more apparent, reruns make sense.

What astonishes me the most about Galak-Z is that it’s more than some laundry list of features and things that someone thought would skew well with their demographic. Galak-Z deftly handles a migration of styles from one media form to another. It hits many notes and will resonate with more than just anime’s old guard. The appeal is wide reaching and goes beyond nods and jokes only a certain crowd in the know will understand. The time, place and subject matter appropriated by 17-Bit for Galak-Z fit the uber unforgiving live and learn ethos of the game to a tee. Moreover, the loop of try, fail, improve, bares a deeper significance. Deeper in that it mirrors not only a plucky protagonist learning to deal with limitations and figuring out how to overcome them, but that you too are doing the exact same thing.

GALAK-Z: The Dimensional: The Review
GALAK-Z's is an incredibly charming video game. The steep learning curve and unforgiving AI might push you away at first, but give it time. After that initial rockiness, GALAK-Z feels familiar, like an old friend. An old friend from space. And they have a giant mech. And It's awesome.
MACROSS
  • Tight, nuanced controls
  • Dark Souls in space
  • Wonderful handling of nostalgia to make something cool even cooler
ZOIDS
  • Missions can be a little samey
  • Reminds me I still don't own a giant mech
8Overall Score
Reader Rating: (1 Vote)
9.0

About The Author

Evan T
Editorial/Reviews Writer

Evan is a super serious, real life production assistant, video editor, and current review and editorial writer for Gamer Assault Weekly. A failed knife salesman and former member of a prestigious World of Warcraft guild, renowned for his voice and childlike enthusiasm for video games. Has never broken a bone. Hates possums. Mumble-sings.