There is a joy to be found in uncertainty—of having a general idea of what you might encounter but awaiting the surprise of what fate will bring on this occasion. It was far more frequent in the ’80s and ’90s, when comic books disappeared from newsstands rather than populate app stores in perpetuity and action cartoons were syndicated on local networks rather than streamed on Hulu. The episodic nature of these stories demanded that they rage forward, unaffected by audience members who may have missed a chapter because their local drug store was sold out of Uncanny X-Men or because Sailor Moon was preempted by the baseball game. There was no DVR. There were no internet message boards. There were no second chances. We took what we had and filled in the rest as best as we could. Finishing the story often meant solving the puzzle on our own.
Galak-Z is a throwback to those kinds of stories and that kind of experience. On the surface, it’s a typical 2-D space shooter: explore planets, shoot lasers at enemy ships, rotate your ship 360 degrees, etc. What sets it apart, though, is its framing device and what that structure allows. The game is presented as a forgotten ’80s Japanese cartoon series—the last survivors of a human armada scrounging together the scrap they need to survive while under constant pursuit by rival factions of bugs and raiders. The story unfolds across several “seasons” of the TV show, each consisting of five “episodes.” In order to maintain continuity for the audience at home, the hero must survive the whole season. If he dies during episode three, the season is scrapped and you start back at episode one.
Starting over, though, can be brutal. Players lose all their ship upgrades, money, progress, and sometimes as much as an hour of play. Most importantly—much like watching cartoons on a syndicated network—episodes may not repeat in the same order. The game randomly pulls from a list of possible objectives each time a season restarts, so the goal of Season Two: Episode One on your first try might not be the same as Season Two: Episode One when you have to start over five minutes later. Making matters all the more difficult, the planets and enemy layouts are also generated at the start of every episode, so there’s no use plotting a course or memorizing maps. The key to survival isn’t knowing your environment so much as it is knowing your enemies.
From hungry bugs to ruthless thugs, the vacuum of space is ripe with foes who want to reduce your ship to scrap metal. Most successful runs in Galak-Z will spend more time waiting and watching than blasting away the competition. Ducking behind corners and watching enemy patterns is crucial, as the element of surprise is often more powerful than a fully upgraded suite of lasers and missiles. And with three rival factions against your lone ship, it’s not hard to bait one group of enemies to pursue you into another group’s formation, and then hide behind some rocks while they slaughter each other. It takes quick wits, nimble fingers, and bit of luck to make it out alive sometimes.
If this sounds a bit harsh, that’s because it is. Galak-Z is as unkind and punishing as space itself. The cartoon aesthetic, though, adds a great deal of charm to what could otherwise be a cruel and relentless gauntlet, and the voice of Michael Sinterniklaas (Dean Venture on The Venture Bros, Sasuke on Naruto) softens the game’s rookie hero, A-Tak. Seasons are capped with cheap credit slates, complete with studio logos that feel authentically analog. Even the pause screen delivers a fourth-wall breaking VCR menu with screen tearing and the game’s graphics splayed out as red, blue, and green shadows of their former selves. All of these design decisions are meant to ensure players are never immersed in space combat so much as they are preoccupied with the experience of watching old cartoons on VHS tapes.
That split focus can be a real problem when the bulk of the action is space shooting, though. The game shrugs its shoulders when missions end in failure, as if “re-running” the season is no big deal, but the sense of rediscovery that comes with procedurally generated levels doesn’t provide any feeling of accomplishment. It makes for a fascinating exploration into the retro anime experience and mindset but a frustrating game, especially when it threatens to be too much for even the lofty PlayStation 4 to handle.
Frame rate stutters were frequent—an inconvenience, to say the least, when the difference between victory and crushing defeat can be one missed tap of the thrusters—and, on more than one occasion, froze my game mid-episode and forced me to back out to the PS4 menu and start the entire season again with none of my accrued resources carried over. I counted five frame-rate skips during the end credit sequence, a section of the game that doesn’t use any of the game’s impressive 3-D rendering or artificial intelligence. As incredible as it feels to build up your arsenal and make short work of the armies in your path, that sense of empowerment is fleeting when you have the knowledge that it can all disappear in an instant, often due to the sheer dumb luck of randomized enemy layouts or the game simply freezing.
Galak-Z’s alignment with retro Japanese cartoons is little more than an excuse for its story arc structure and some playful voice acting. The lighthearted tone belies the game’s undeniably merciless difficulty, and the regular sudden pop-in of environmental set pieces and frequent frame rate stutters suggest it isn’t quite ready for primetime. Like the cartoons that inspired it, there are big ideas displayed within Galak-Z, ideas that are exciting and worthy of deeper exploration. Also like those cartoons, the resulting product feels rushed and indistinct. The nature of the shuffled episode order suggests that, in the big picture, none of this really matters. Galak-Z wants to have it both ways, with a playful structure and hard-core action, but neither one feels resolved, resulting in a package less like the revered anime that influenced future generations and more like the niche cartoons that are forgotten by many but beloved by a small and passionate audience—spoken of in hushed whispers in the back of comic book shops where its flaws are as legendary as its successes.
Galak-Z: The Dimensional
Platforms: PlayStation 4; PC coming in the fall
Reviewed on: PlayStation 4