When I reviewed Galak-Z last year, I felt that it had a chance to breakout on Steam and PlayStation 4. Instead, once the post-launch glow receded, it more or less fell off the map. But with the recent release of a new batch of DLC, it's worth taking another look at 17-Bit's anime-inspired shoot 'em up.
Borrowing heavily from '80s mecha anime like Robotech, Galak-Z is clearly meant to evoke Saturday morning cartoons from that era. It stars a young pilot who stumbles upon a prototype fighter in the midst of a massive firefight and winds up being recruited to fight all manner of alien bugs, raiders, and Imperial fighters. Its story comprises four chapters with several missions each, the majority of which feature randomly-generated mission objectives.
When it launched back in August, it stood out both for its nostalgic touches - its post-chapter credit sequences were particularly fun - and its difficulty. Put simply, Galak-Z was hard in the classic gaming sense of the word. In its default mode, which was the only one available at launch, you had to beat five missions in a row in order to clear a chapter - no easy task given how unforgiving its enemies could be. A successful run was contigent on understanding how to approach that chapter's enemies, finding the right power-ups, and not making dumb mistakes. If you still messed up, Galak-Z would allow you to exchange coins for the chance to continue, but at the expense of all your gear. You also had to make what amounted to a corpse run to where you died in order to get your basic abilities back. Suffice it to say that in later chapters the margin for error was slim to none, and death could be exceptionally frustrating.
Since launch, though, Galak-Z has picked up a number of additions. When the Steam version launched back in October, it brought with it the more accessible Arcade Mode - a story-friendly mode in which death only sent you back to the beginning of a mission rather than the beginning of a chapter. While the challenging Rogue Mode was still the preferred way to experience Galak-Z as the developers originally envisioned it, Arcade Mode at least let you play through the entire story and see everything that Galak-Z had to offer.
Then, last week, 17-Bit finally delivered on their promised free batch of DLC - an endless mode now called "The Void." It's a natural fit for a twitchy shoot 'em up like Galak-Z, and its lengthy delay comes as something of a surprise. But as is often the case with development, things didn't quite go to plan for 17-Bit.
The Void was originally supposed to come out last year. When it failed to materialize, director Jake Kazdal went on Steam to explain that the team had learned the hard way not to promise free additional content, "Over the course of the creation of the DLC we lost our main engineer who was going to basically single-handedly engineer the entire thing, we moved our remaining lead engineer and studio director to join the (now) main studio in Kyoto, Japan, which was a massive distraction in terms of time and resources, and because the sales were well short of expectations, we've had to focus on other projects in order to keep the studio running. These are tough times for most indie developers, the ones that don't win the sales lottery have to scramble to stay alive, something we've gotten used to.
Thanfully, the extra development time appears to have given 17-Bit time to really polish up The Void. As before, you have to carefully make your way through claustrophobic traps and enemies, your main goal being to survive until the very end. In The Void, though, you get a few upgrades early on to kickstart your run, making it a little easier to deal with the enemies waiting for you. You can also find items scattered throughout each level, allowing you to gain momentum the longer you survive.
This being Galak-Z, of course, it's still pretty unforgiving. Enemies will frequently swarm you, forcing you to be extremely careful lest you accidentally attract an overwhelming number of foes. Individual enemies can also do a lot of damage on their own, which means you can never take an encounter for granted. If you're not careful, a couple beamsword swings can knock out your shields and dig deep into your hull, significantly reducing your prospects for survival. Your fighter is quite powerful as well, though, being able to switch between a starfighter mode and a mech mode, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. The fighter can keep enemies at bay with missiles while nimbling dodging through their shots, while the mech can use its hookshot to throw debris for large amounts of damage. All of this makes for a unique and smartly-constructed shooter that forces you to be smart about how you play.
The Void is the distillation of Galak-Z's greatest strengths; and shorn of its story, it's allowed to be much more of a pure shoot 'em up. The Void is a great place to undertake a handful of relatively quick runs, taking me back to the early days of the Xbox 360 and Geometry Wars when online leaderboards were still fresh and interesting. Its presence makes Galak-Z much more accessible.
Alas, The Void is currently exclusive to the PC version of Galak-Z, so PlayStation 4 owners will have to wait a while longer for it to materialize on console, if it appears at all (it's entirely possible that it's just going through certification right now). Thankfully, Arcade Mode is available now; so if you've put off playing Galak-Z until now, you have that option available to you.
However you decide to play it, Galak-Z is a lovely shoot 'em up that's been criminally ignored to this point. If you haven't picked it up yet, now is as good a time as any.