Game review: Galak-Z for PS4

Galak-Z is a game I’ve been wanting to get from the first time I saw footage of the early alpha version, and I got even more excited when it was changed to a procedurally generated game, something that’s becoming one of my favorite buzz terms in gaming. So yes, this was a day one purchase for me, and…I want to like this game, even to love it, but my feelings are decidedly negative for a number of reasons.

First, I should cover what I like, and there is a lot to cover. Obviously, the graphics are fantastic, with the backgrounds being so pretty, I had to stop and stare at them on many levels. The ship’s design is also great, and all the enemy designs and the levels themselves are worthy of praise. There’s environmental hazards that can harm or hinder you, but that can also be used to trap or kill enemies.

The combat is gleefully varied, and there’s no one right way to approach fights. This is especially true after you get to the second season and unlock the mech transformation. Then you can choose to dogfight up close, take potshots from a distance while flying backwards and using juke to fly over the enemy’s bullets, use the robot’s grappling hand to grab enemies and slash them with a sword, use the same hand to throw explosive objects, or use the mech’s shield and sword to hack an enemy up close and personal-like. There may be many more methods to dispatching enemies that I don’t even know about, but those are the options I went with depending on the type of enemy I was facing and the number of enemies onscreen. It’s even possible to not fight at all and go all stealth on missions. There’s no one right way to play the game, just the way that feels right to you. That’s awesome.

The character designs are great in a cartoony kind of way, and I like their personalities. Well, I wasn’t so fond of General Akamoto, but it’s because he’s so dismissive of intelligence officer Beam, and he rarely gets A-Tak’s call sign right. (He calls A-Tak (short for Adam Takamoto) A-Taco, A-Taxi, A-Tuna and many other annoying variations.) His plans also suck, so it’s hard to believe he’s some legendary commander worthy of A-Tak’s idol worship.

The music is fantastic, the sound effects are great, and I like the voice acting. I also like how the same mission will often have a different set of dialogue so you don’t always have to hear the same things over and over. I think it’s cute how the worlds and levels of the game are divided into seasons and episodes, and how the end of a season goes to credits.

I’m more mixed on the controls, because I really would have liked the option to remap certain buttons. Also, there’s only one button for strafing, and you don’t get to pick which way it goes. This ended up being a really huge pain in the ass during parts of the game where I desperately needed to move one way, and I flail panicked because I was moving the wrong way. (Usually into lava, spike outcroppings, or a pod of shield-busting electrical sparks.)

BUT, for all these things I want to like, the game has a lot of problems, many of them not being mentioned by other reviewers. The biggest complaint I have is that the game is crash happy. It seemed like I’d just be getting somewhere in my progress to the final episode of a season, and right after winning a level, the game would crash and drop me back to the OS. Half the time, this meant I had to start a season over. Worse, the game also can crash and corrupt the save file, meaning you have to start all the way over, even doing the tutorial level again. Has even one other reviewer mentioned this in their glowing praise? Nope. Not a single one. And I don’t see how they could miss it because the game crashes for me four and five times per session.

Some of the reviewers have claimed there’s “some lag with many enemies on-screen” and I can say that’s not true either. There’s lag even when no enemies are on-screen, and the game can freeze up to two seconds with nothing happening. When you’re in the thick of actual combat, these lag and freeze moments are very frustrating because they’re almost constant. I hope this will be addressed in future patches because for now, the current patch does nothing to address the shoddy performance.

There’s also something to be said about the wonky way the shooting works, or doesn’t. Fitting myself into a tight corridor, I often took aim at an enemy in the distance only to have my bullets burst on the wall underneath me. Keep in mind, I’m not talking about an obstacle in my way. Even with space between the ship and the wall, it was nigh-impossible to get a clean shot. The analogue stick’s liberal interpretation of direction meant that even if I flew away from the wall and fired at an angle, I might fire off about a hundred rounds of ammo and still not hit my target. I’d fire over them, and then under, and then over again. But convincing the ship to aim between those two points was a chore every single time.

Much has been written on the enemy AI and how you can get enemies to fight with one another. I have yet to see this work out. It is possible to see one type of enemy cross paths with another and fight, but this is slow and painful to watch, with both groups jittering all over the screen, failing to kill each other for the longest time. I usually lost my patience and just went in to kill them all myself or just flew past them if I was low on health. They talk to each other constantly, and after repeating the same lines for a few minutes, it’s very irritating. (This is really a sticking point for me, too, the amount of radio chatter that constantly repeats. Say the line once for flavor, that’s fine. But repeating the same thing over and over and over is annoying.)

The thing is, when I actually tried to lose an enemy by leading them into another faction’s squad, what almost always happens is that they all start chasing me. I’ve often had a line of all three enemy factions on my tail, with not a one of them attacking each other. And if I should happen to luck out and get away, I can fly back and find all those enemies have gone back to their patrol routes with none of them engaging each other. The very few times I could get them to fight, they failed to kill one another and eventually lost interest and went their separate ways.

All the enemy types are fairly stupid creatures, and it’s possible to make them stick to walls and forget they were looking for you. I’ve seen the raiders blow themselves up by firing at a wall, and I’ve seen imperial fighters veer into lava, fly free from it, and then turn around and dive in it again. I don’t even have to do anything to these enemies. They’re simply too stupid to live.

The level designs all are the same, and there’s really only two mission types. You destroy an item or steal it. Sometimes you might be instructed to move the stolen item to another area, but it doesn’t make much variety in the game. Even the boss levels require you to go through the steal or destroy routine first. There is some variety in the enemy types, but in a lot of cases, it’s just a size variation or a change of paint schemes. You have to get used to hearing the same radio chatter a lot, because there aren’t that many voice actors. One of the raiders constantly says “heh heh heh!” and every time I heard that I alternated between repeating it myself or growling “Shut up!” (An option to turn off the enemy radio chatter but leave on the sound effects, vocal track, and music would have been greatly appreciated.)

But the number one biggest pet peeve I have about the game is the stinginess concerning items. The cost of the items is so ridiculously expensive that to just buy one item will require murdering almost every last enemy on a level. This isn’t so hard on the first world, but going into the second, third, and fourth, the game strips all items and upgrades from your ship while giving the enemies bigger guns, better ammo, better shields, and better armor. It gets to the point where they can wipe out your ship’s shield and take off hit points with one blow, but you have to shoot them forever to kill them. Most of the time, the only way to repair the ship is getting one hit point back in the shop. BUT sometimes, the game goes, “Fuck you, I won’t even let you repair that one hit point.” So if you lose three health points in the first level, there’s no guarantees you’ll be able to repair the ship even if you have the scrap to pay for it. And this is bullshitty bullshit. (Oh, and DO NOT get the Nuts and Bolts upgrade, because even if it restores one health point for each successful mission, it also means you will NEVER see the repair option again during that season, nor find repair kits in the supply crates.)

I suspect the reason this decision to strip all upgrades and items was made was because the makers realized anyone allowed to keep their items from the first world would finish the whole game in an hour, tops. Even a rank amateur like me could whip this game in a short time once I collect a few items to help even the odds. Rather than build a longer game with more mission variety and more level designs to keep things interesting, they chose to be cheap to pad the length. So instead of an hour, it took me five days to get through the four seasons.

Even that wouldn’t bother me so much if it wasn’t for certain items showing up in the first level shops for a price you can’t possibly afford yet. A shield upgrade is 1200, so you go out in that first level, and you murder every last enemy to scrape together the scrap for that upgrade. Doing so takes forever because the bad guys are all bullet sponges with shields, and it takes forever to kill one, much less all of them. Then you get back to the shop on your home ship and…fuck you, it’s not there anymore. And you can go ahead and hold onto the money to buy it, but it will never appear again. The only time you’ll see it is when you can’t buy it. And fuck you for playing.

So now let me circle back to the crashing problem. I’m on world 3-4, and I finally find the shield upgrade in the shop in the level itself. So, knowing I won’t ever see it again, I fight and fight to get the scrap to buy it, finish the level, and the game fucking crashed on me AGAIN, taking the one item I so desperately needed to even the odds and starting me back at 3-1 with nothing all over again.

The other major annoyance to this item shop problem is blueprints. You have to collect blueprints to make items available in the shops, but once you move up to the next world you have to unlock them all over again. And many times, you might unlock an item and never, EVER see it in the shops, or in any of the ship upgrade crates scattered around the levels. I might forgive the items not being in the shops after I collected them the first time, but having to keep collecting the same blueprints over and over and still not see it in the shop? Oh man, that gives me such a huge hate boner.

There is a currency in the game called crash coins, purple coins that can allow you to restart an episode if you die. You need five to do so, but if you die and have only two or three coins, the shop keeper will exchange them for scrap. Given the rarity of these coins, you might think you’d get a lot of scrap in exchange for them. And you would be wrong. Sometimes it’s possible to start a new season and get absolutely nothing from the shop because you can’t afford anything. (To get the coins, you need to kill a lot of enemies, a task made progressively harder because you keep getting kicked down the ladder of progression while your enemies keep being given bigger guns and armor. It’s a nasty, spiteful, cheap tactic, and it sucks the joy out of this game like liposuction without anesthetic.)

Even if you do get to restart an episode, you lose everything until you can find a recovery crate in the game and get your stuff back. You can’t even transform until you get it back, so this means you have to spend a good fifteen to twenty minutes sneaking around to find the crate before you can even think to fight. I’m sure speed runners and hardcore players will scoff at this, but almost every level took me around thirty to forty minutes to complete. With the start of each season, I got into a pattern where I would make it through the first episode, only to be killed a few minutes into the second because the enemies are so overpowered and I had absolutely nothing to fight them with.

Taken in whole, this is easily the stingiest game I’ve ever played. I thought The Binding of Isaac was bad, but this is absolutely the worst I’ve ever seen. On my final session playing through season four, I couldn’t find any weapon upgrades except items to slow my rate of fire and shorten my firing range, and I had to resort to sneaking through every single level. This was vaguely amusing because I was using the grappling hand to grab boxes and angle them so the enemies couldn’t see me, but every supply crate and ship upgrade I found made me groan because it didn’t help. I had to resort to fighting the final boss with the pea shooter level gun.

The allure of most procedurally generated games like Spelunky and The Binding of Isaac is that you play the whole game over and over because you don’t know what combination of items you’re going to get this time. But you get to keep what you find all the way through to the final boss, and if you can stick it through the crappy items, eventually, you find something to make the game less difficult. Here, you may find a good combination, but you’re aren’t allowed to keep it from one world to the next. It’s stingy as hell, and it kills any desire in me to replay the game. When season five comes out, sure, I’ll play that and maybe give an updated review for the story. But I can’t see tormenting myself to play through the four seasons again. The effort to pad the game’s length is a huge turn off, and I see no reason to play a crash happy, laggy, stingy game again. I can say for certain that if the makers made an option allowing me to keep items between seasons, then yes, I’d certainly play the hell out of this game. They could keep the item stripping version as “hardcore mode.” But some of us would like our games to be fun, not punishing, and that’s all this game is, a punishment for spending my money based on hype.

In the end, I have to give Galak-Z 3 stars. This could have easily been a 5 star game, something I could pick up and play anytime like Spelunky or the endless mode in Super Stardust Delta. Hell, I even play The Binding of Isaac over and over even if it is brutally difficult, but the number of times I was having fun in Galak-Z are heavily outnumbered by the times I hated the game and wished to do physical bodily harm to the people behind this project. Maybe with a few patches, it will be more stable, but even that can’t convince me to play through again because I HATE the item shop and the increasingly unfair advantage given to the enemies while I’m forced to play with a pea shooter.