Spelunky has a lot to answer for. Ever since it single-handedly championed procedurally-generated levels back in its enhanced 2012 version, many other games have been lining up to try and emulate its perfect blend of slow progression and brutal punishments. 17-Bit’s Galak-Z is the latest to follow this trend, openly shifting from its initial open-world design in favour of a chaotic and frustration-filled set of tough challenges. And it so nearly gets it right.
The inspiration here is drawn from some delicious slices of sci-fi nostalgia: Battle Of The Planets, Bangai-O, Macross, even with a little Rez thrown in for good measure. You are a lone pilot; young, cocksure and chomping at the bit for an opportunity to prove yourself. Set amongst the wreckage of a final, cataclysmic battle against the evil Imperials, your host mothership sets you a series of tasks to complete to aid their survival and ultimate escape. Between the Imperials, Space Pirates and Bugs roaming the various labyrinthine asteroid interiors (read: levels), it’s up to you to pilot your single fighter to juggle your ship through lasers and danger and get out of there.
The levels are randomised, but they’re invariably the same thing – journey inside an asteroid, find a waypoint, and survive long enough to escape. Along the way, a variety of enemy types will do their best to crush you – Imperial ships with missiles, giant ramming bugs, snapping claws that hide under piles of alluring space junk. Its this junk that counts as currency; back on the mothership is a shady weapons dealer who’s more than happy to outfit your ship in exchange for collected recyclable materials. Soon, your ship will learn to juke over incoming shots, to flank around enemies, fire explosive rounds, and so on. Trust me, it’s the health and shield upgrades that will soon be the most valuable to you, though.
And that’s because, underneath Galak-Z‘s lush Saturday morning kids’ cartoon aesthetic, it’s a bastard of a game that actively wants you to fail a thousand times in its twisted clutches. In keeping with its style, the game’s story is split into sets of five missions that form a series. Each mission typically takes around ten minutes to complete (in fact, weirdly, each of the missions in my first competed season took eleven). Health, shields, scrap and upgrades carry over from one mission to the next, so the fifth mission can often see you limping around, hanging on to health as you desperately try to find the waypoint without attracting too much attention. The kick in the teeth is that, if (and when) you fail, you are shot back to the beginning without anything to show for your trouble. Upgrades, scrap, weapons; they’ll all be taken away from you, meaning that you have the potential to lose over an hour’s worth of gaming.
Enemies are placed randomly through each freshly-generated world, so Galak-Z really starts to show itself as a game of learning systems rather than levels. Your ship is the first, biggest learning curve; it might take a while to adjust to the ship’s controls (my thumbs seemed to resort to Geometry Wars mode whenever things got dangerous), but once it clicks, your ship moves with a delicious curve that’s somewhere between ballet and drift racing. Using the hard boost as main propulsion (rather than the standard boosters) worked better for me – it gets you out of sticky situations much more quickly – and the moment you learn that running away and fighting back can be the same thing is an important gamechanger.
Unfortunately, though, the confidence with the ship that usually comes in mission three can prove to be your undoing. Overconfidence in Galak-Z is punished quickly and without mercy. Sometimes it’ll be a swarm of enemy types removing the option to flank or flee, sometimes it’s the sudden appearance of a Hunter or mech. If you’re not paying close attention and showing patience, your game can quickly be over. Back to the beginning. If you’re lucky, you may have some Crash Coins that somehow survive death and give you extra starting credits, but beyond that, it’s a complete restart.
Having experience as the reward for play isn’t quite enough here. It can be such a hard game that it often feels unfairly so. However, if you’ve got the time to dedicate to it, Galak-Z‘s missile-splashed treasures could be one of the most rewarding experiences you could find on the PS4. Each season brings its own surprises, some more extreme than others. It’s filled with details that bring the game alive, from full credits at the end of each season to even a pause screen straight out of a VHS machine. The flying, when mastered, can be absorbing and addictive. When it comes together and you flip over the exploding hulk of a laser-strewn Imperial as you unleash a volley of missiles into a looming bug, it feels wonderful. However, to have an hour of carefully piloted exploration taken away just because you got ambushed by a new enemy type can be more grating than motivating.
Galak-Z isn’t for everyone. It’s hard to say if its former open-world setup would have been more gratifying, but its adherence to being a tough procedurally-generated experience means that it raises its own entry standard extremely high. The time and patience required to meet its full set of missions is certainly beyond me, and I’m sure that I’m not in the minority, but for those lucky few who can give it the attention it deserves, it is a rich and punishing experience that prides itself in dealing out pleasure and pain in equal amounts.