By Scott Southard. This is Load File, where we play games again and again and again and again. This week, Scott travels deep into the infinitus of Galak-Z: The Dimensional, developed and published by 17-BIT and released on Playstation 4.


The space shooter formula has been worked, reworked, perfected, and deconstructed. The roguelike has been molded, stretched, and sculpted. The Metroidvania (ugh, that name) has gone through one thousand iterations, endured both a renaissance and a great depression (and is maybe on the upswing again?). Every day, new games are released within these genres, but very rarely do all three tried and true classics get jammed into one budget-priced title, and even more seldom does that title end up being worth playing in any capacity.

But here we are with Galak-Z from 17-BIT (creators of the notable Skulls of the Shogun), an innovative release that manages to fold elements of multiple game styles into a cohesive whole. The result is a game that harkens back to something along the lines of trying to drink your friend’s booze-hardened dad under the table; from the start you know you’ll fail, but maybe this is the one time that everything falls into place. It’s in those moments of blind hope in the face of consistent failure that this game breathes and resuscitates the player’s confidence that this time — yes, this time — she will succeed.

What we’re given is a game that forces us to face a cycle of life and death that’s nearly endless. Luckily, we’re given just enough building blocks to frame a sense of worth, and a need to push forward towards the neon of the final frontier.


“No Man Can Live Facing Death Knowing That Everything is Nothingness”

The game stays true to form straight from the opening credits, with the nostalgia-inducing 17-BIT intro screen, a quick jolt of a jingle track, and a cut to the most simplified menu I’ve seen in a while (you can choose from PLAY or OPTIONS. That’s it). The MIDI-inspired soundtrack vibes perfectly with the throwback visuals and makes the player feel instantly comfortable with a game that will very soon make them throw their television into the street.

In a standard anime storyline, we follow a young and inexperienced space pilot, A-Tak, as he’s stranded in his ship in the midst of a space-terrorist assault. Luckily, he runs into Beam, a rebel with her own small team and a serious beef with the enemy. Past this point, the story becomes pretty inconsequential. The structure of the game is laid out into five Seasons, each comprised of five procedurally generated missions.  The term “season” isn’t entirely accurate, as they’re not all that long or dramatic (a more appropriate term might be “chapter” or “episode”), but they do feature an escalation of difficulty and an introduction to characters and enemies commonly found in the traditional sense of television seasons.

On top of the pseudo-television themes in the story and structure of the game, it’s impossible to gloss over the look of the game for a couple reasons:

  1. It sticks to the cel-shaded look and character models of a traditional 1980s anime show, and
  2. It’s absolutely stunning to look at.

More than any other game, I found my roommates plopping down next to me during late night sessions just to watch the simple dynamics of a laser beam alien asteroid dogfight. The high contrast visuals (and cute-as-hell pause screen) make everything feel important and heavy, while maintaining a sense of storyline continuity and in-world consistency. It’s a bit of a one trick pony, but goddamn if it isn’t a real pretty show horse.


“Most People Think Neither of Death Nor Nothingness”

Galak-Z, on its anime-polished surface, is a bit of an Asteroids-esque shooter, which is incredibly reductive but I think it’s important to point out the ancestors before we continue. The lone ship in a vast expanse has been done and done again, but that’s just the base level of Galak-Z’s gameplay. From there, we’re introduced to the sadistic truth behind mission structures and the inevitable cost of death. To put things bluntly and basically: you die, you start over. There are certainly caveats, like the permanent upgrades of “jumping” and “strafing,” coupled with the seasons acting as checkpoints from which the player can start anew. But other than those bare-bones donations from the generous folks at 17-BIT, you’ve gotta start from scratch. Which introduces the driving gameplay question of Galak-Z: How masochistic are you?

One of the most apt comparisons in terms of progress design is that Galak-Z follows the  Spelunky school of play by not handing out persistent upgrades but instead forcing the player to upgrade themselves. With new skills and an understanding of the gameplay and enemy behavior, the player learns and adapts, finding a chronology of acquiring items and tactics for dealing with specific enemies. The negative reinforcement caused by the enormous weight of dying forces the player to approach each mission and each encounter with thought and strategy. Every time I died (I lost count after the first hour), I felt like I came back knowing one more fact about the game, and that became ingrained in the way I approached things from that point onward.

The new tactics and stratagems are critical to success, not only because the game is hard as hell, but it’s also smart. Varied and balanced AI requires thoughtful gambits and a varied technique for each encounter (I still can’t figure out how to effectively deal with those phallic blimp-looking guys). From there, the enemy count and combinations are ramped up, so eventually you’ve given up button-mashing for circle-strafing and missile-barraging (with intent!) all before you transform and go in for the kill.

Oh, right, the transforming part.

A revelatory moment in Galak-Z is the point in which your ship transforms into an enormous mech. On the fly, mid-battle, whenever you feel like restructuring your spaceship into a Voltron/Power Rangers humanoid battlesuit (complete with laser sword and holo-shield), you can. Sometimes it’s hard to know when the most opportune moments to morph arise, but like most skills and battle plans, you’ll pick it up as you go along. It’s a mechanic that doubles your options for attack and really opens up the game for a variety of gameplay styles the player can use to face the terrifying oblivion of space pirates and aliens.


“And The Strict Lord Death Bids Them to Dance”

The Möbius strip of spawn to death, spawn to death, spawn to death seemingly makes concepts like dying and resurrection (at least, in this game) meaningless. However, the stakes that Galak-Z implores causes the player to take care and assert a sense of urgency and significance into each inevitably ill-fated run. This obviously causes some controller-throwing sailor’s mouth, but each death is felt with a sense that what happened was fair and that the player can and will do a better job next time.

This, however, doesn’t quell the existentialist crisis that occurs with each run. It’s not often one gets to look Death in the face with understanding and acceptance. The game is a tenuous balance of tenuously balanced moments, a plate spinning act that continues to up the ante as you progress through its unforgiving systems and settings. The weight of life and death is real, and that alone makes it a hell of a lot of fun to play.