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Galak-Z review: tough love works in space

Galak-Z: The Dimensional is a game that seems to hate you. But once you play it for a while, you'll learn that it loves you. Developers 17-Bit made some design decisions that are off-putting at first, but turn out to be inspired; the result is one of the best games on the PlayStation 4.

With its colorful art style and perky voice acting, Galak-Z doesn't look like the kind of game to test your patience. It's a loving homage to ‘80s-era anime — the pause menu distorts your TV's image as if you were playing a VHS tape — even if the stiff CG characters come across as closer to Penny Arcade than Mobile Suit Gundam. But the styling is subtle; there have been an awful lot of 2D space shooters on consoles ever since Xbox Live Arcade took off, and Galak-Z doesn't necessarily stand out at first glance.

Galak-Z's controls are tuned to perfection

That all changes when you pick up the controller. Galak-Z's unorthodox control scheme is tuned to perfection. It's a little like Asteroids in that you can only fire straight ahead and have to rotate your ship like a tank to aim, but you have two types of acceleration and a lot of say in how you fling yourself around the levels. Momentum is key; you'll often find yourself boosting away from enemies before turning around and firing back at them as you continue to hurtle in the opposite direction. And the laser-dodging juke button is a genius addition, serving as both essential function and cocky touch of flair. It's one of those games that just feels right as soon as you start playing.

If 17-Bit had taken this solid foundation and built a series of conventional levels to burn through, Galak-Z would have turned out to be a fun but unspectacular space shooter. I've been playing the game at various trade shows for a long time, now, and always thought it was looking great, but those experiences gave next to no indication of how Galak-Z actually plays on my sofa.

galak-z

You see, Galak-Z is a "roguelike"; this term used to refer to games that hewed closely to the template set out by brutal 1980 ASCII-art RPG Rogue, but these days is often applied to games as diverse as Spelunky and FTL. What these games share in common is randomly generated scenarios and a willingness to strip you of all your progress once you die, which is very much the case with Galak-Z; it is to Asteroids what Spelunky was to Super Mario Bros. The game is divided into "seasons" of five procedurally generated levels each, and if you die even once you'll be sent right back to episode one.

This is painful, because throughout each season you upgrade your ship to the point where you're a lot more powerful than you were when you started out, and it's demoralizing to see that progress erased. But it's also fantastic, because it forces you to play the game in a much more cautious and entertaining way. Since your health carries over from episode to episode, losing just one bar feels like a major setback; the upgrades available when you finish a level are also randomized, so you might not even be able to restore your health for the next episode.

Painful and fantastic

You'll find yourself avoiding your own engines and relying on inertia to sneak past space bugs, or waiting for an opportune moment to dodge the Metal Gear Solid-like vision cones of enemy ships. The "season" metaphor is perfect — each time you sit down to play through one, which could take anything from 15 to 60 minutes, you feel like you're telling your own personalized story. While the overarching plot of each season is predetermined, the mission objectives and levels are different every time you play.

I don't know if I'll ever get to the end of Galak-Z's fifth and final season (four are available at launch). It's a punishing game, and at first I thought 17-Bit had made a mistake by skewing so hardcore from the start. But after sticking with it for a few hours, it's clear that the team made the right decision, even if it's no less gut-wrenching to die on a season's final boss. Galak-Z's auto-generated, bite-size structure will make it endlessly replayable and rewarding for those who can get past the initial learning curve. If you're up for a little initial frustration, Galak-Z has my absolute highest recommendation.

Galak-Z: The Dimensional is out now on PS4, with a PC version on the way.