Galak-Z: space-blasting

My objective waypoint has spawned at the end of a narrow tunnel of rock, deep inside a procedurally generated asteroid tumbling through a purplish nebula. Either side of it are tough pirate raiders shielded, and powerful enough to outgun my nimble fighter in a straight battle.

I squeeze the throttle near the entrance to the tunnel and let momentum carry me into their line of sight: then, juking over the first salvo of incoming fire, I flip around and boost hard in the opposite direction. The raiders are pulled into pursuit, falling into single file behind me as I gain half a screen’s worth of distance.

I turn again. This time, my ship is equipped with a precision charge beam with an electric payload: a single lancing blast that grows more powerful as I charge it with the potential to paralyse my enemies. I let it build as I boost away, then juke again, flipping around and skewering both pirates with a single supercharged shot. One explodes with a bark of surprise; the other careens into the asteroid and sprays scrap metal down one end of the tunnel. I jet back in, check off the waypoint, and get ready for the next mission.
I don't know if we've figured out how many combinations there are, but there’s a lot
Galak-Z is a 2D skill-based space shooter with roguelike elements, a combination of R-Type, Spelunky  and  Ecco the Dolphin styled after classic anime (Ulysses 31, Star Blazers, Battle of the Planets). It’s fundamentally about memorable plays like the one I’ve just described, moments when you combine dexterous flying, Newtonian physics, enemy AI and custom-tooled weaponry to great effect. But the structure of the game means that you have to balance those plays against the risks they entail:  Galak-Z isdivided into six ‘seasons’, each of them composed of five missions; die during a season and you’re reset to the beginning, each mission location and objective being randomly generated every time you restart. Fly well and you can carry an advantage in health, shields and ship upgrades into the difficult latter missions of each season: screw up and you lose it all.

“Games have gotten really hand-holdy in the last couple of years,” 17-BIT creative director Jake Kazdal tells me. “I played arcade games growing up and they were brutal. When I was a kid I’d have a single quarter and everything rode on that I miss that tension.”

Indeed, Galak-Z’s permadeath feature feels more arcade than roguelike. Roguelikes tend to be fundamentally about efficiency and resource management, and while Galak-Z contains elements of that (missile stocks, collecting scrap to buy upgrades) it’s also substantially about player skill. The notion that you can beat the game with finesse alone on a single life is what connects it to the feeling of getting through Galaga on a single credit.

As you play the game, you collect or buy weapon upgrades in various categories that can be combined to significantly change the properties of your ship’s primary weapon. My electric charge-beam is one example: another might be a kind of burst-fire space shotgun, or a stream of enlarged freezing bolts that fire as rapidly as you can hammer the button.
  None of this is canned. The foes are intelligent and they’re trying to kill each other
“The high concept was that you'd have enough modules that every playthrough you'd have a different experience,” Kazdal explains. “I don't know if we’ve figured out how many combinations there are, but there’s a lot.”

You’ll naturally pick up preferences based on your facility with  Galak-Z’s game mechanics, but playing within your comfort zone isn’t really the point: it’s about improvising with what each session throws at you, building something that works and enjoying the experience that results. This dynamic is enhanced by environmental hazards that can propel, hinder or destroy you sticky space spores, lava, lunging Star Wars-style space worms and enemy AI that interacts with the world much like you do. Rival foe factions (bugs, pirates, the inevitable evil empire) duel with each other if they meet in each generated space, fleeing for help or preying on weak foes according to a surprisingly sophisticated set of directives.

“None of this is canned,” Kazdal says. “It’s all live. They’re intelligent and they’re trying to kill each other.” You’re never really in a position to manipulate enemies into doing your bidding, but their intelligence opens up opportunities for both skill and accident from getting caught in a crossfire to negotiating a stealthy route through a mission.

Galak-Z’s biggest weakness, at present, is that it takes a little while to click longer than its colourful presentation would suggest. It asks you to learn its unusual structure, tricky combat system and involved navigation all at once, and there’s more that could be done to smooth that journey. In any case, it’s a journey worth making if you’re interested in space acrobatics and building your own laser guns. And why wouldn't you be?

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