You know that a genre has reached peak cliché when you can generate new episodes with math, so if 17 Bit Studios’ Galak-Z is any indication, then anime space operas are as played out as it gets. The story of the Roguelike SHMUP is broken into episodes that comprise several seasons, each of which features its own self-contained story arc. Many points of those arcs are fixed, but the dialogue between characters and the way events shake out changes as drastically between playthroughs, as do the endless procedural levels.
Galak-Z has been described as a love letter to old-school shooters such as R-Type and classic anime like Gundam and Macross, but it is so much more than any of its inspriations. Combat and flight use a physics system similar to Ring Runner (a comparison I never thought I’d have to make), where understanding inertia and acceleration is essential to effective dogfighting. Your ship will accelerate whichever way you’re pointing it with a push of a button, and it will keep going until you fly in another direction or use your air brakes. You can use that to pull off some insane maneuvers, strafing around enemies as you pepper them with laser fire and ducking behind an asteroid before they have a chance to shoot back.
The game portrays space as a sprawling dungeon of asteroids, caves, and planets, and as crack pilot A-Tak it’s up to you to chart the abyss. In every episode, you’ll be sent on missions that ask you to find certain objects or hunt down enemies, each providing a unique challenge – as well as an opportunity to collect big rewards. The maze is full of hidden treasures and resources, but it’s also littered with deadly traps, so you’ll need to exercise utmost caution in navigating it. That can be a little hard, though, when you have two enemy squadrons bearing down on you.
Three alien factions are at war within the asteroid field, and all of them are willing to drop everything to hunt you down. Enemies in Galak-Z are smart – they’ll flank you, lure you into traps, use space debris for cover, and even call in reinforcements if you don’t deal with them fast enough. They’re comparable to soldiers in open-world shooters like Far Cry, and like in those games, you have a number of options for dealing with them. Often by watching their patrols you’ll be able to sneak by unnoticed, avoiding the brunt of their offensive strength, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg. You can lure imperials into battle with space pirates or alien bugs and swoop in to clean up the remains, or even turn traps and hazards against your pursuers.
Oddly it’s not the characters or art style that remind me most of classic space anime, but these innocuous hazards. While you’re zipping around in space there’s a good chance you’ll fall foul of spores that slow you down, exploding space mushrooms, or deadly lava pools that spit fire out into the void, and while those incidents are rarely life threatening, they do leave an impression. Later on when you find yourself outgunned by a swarm of alien fighters, you might spot the same traps from before, and in seconds you’ll formulate a plan. It’s that ability to improvise based on prior knowledge, rather than raw piloting skill, that makes the heroes of most classic sci-fi anime so strong. Galak-Z is the only game I’ve played that allows you to experience that firsthand, and it’s exhilarating.