Saturday, June 14, 2014

I have the biggest crush on Galak-Z.

Coming for PS4, Vita and PC.

Every day during E3 - multiple times a day - I would Google Galak-Z, and limit the search to items appearing the past 24 hours.  I probably ran that search dozens of times, repeatedly finding a single item - the Live Coverage sit-down director Jake Kazdal had with the PlayStation Blog. Jake reappeared, here and there, on some other sites' live streams - looking progressively more tired as the week wore on.  But I kept searching for more in-depth interviews than the standard questions he got asked, again and again.

Again and again, he explained Galak-Z to folks who didn't seem to know about it, again and again, he explained what made this little 2D spaceship game so... so damned special.  In honor of Jake's repeated efforts, I will now do the same.

Galak-Z is a 2D game with the style and (beautiful) explosions of 70s-80s sci-fi anime, in which you fly a little ship around asteroid fields and within planets, shooting enemies, built from the ground up to take advantage of all the under-the-hood technology that benefits modern game design.  It's a Roguelike with Metroidvania aspects - your ship becomes more powerful and customizable as you add ever-cooler stuff to it.  The game is played by pointing your ship's nose with the left analog stick, with thrusters on the right trigger and reverse-thrusters on the left.  You fire lasers with X, open your missile lock-on cone with circle, and press square to "juke," a short evade with invincibility frames that throws you out of the plane the combat is taking place on for a half-second.

Every weapon, enemy, creature and environmental hazard has been hand-tweaked by the folks at 17-Bit (who gave us strategy standout Skulls of the Shogun), but every level, and the massive open star-fields that separate them, are procedurally-generated to allow for infinite replayability.

The game is designed to stand up to this amount of replay thanks to its design, sharp controls and the clever behavior of enemies, driven by the stunning-sounding artificial intelligence of Seattle-based startup Cyntient, who are developing an AI plugin for developers who want Bungie-quality artificial intelligence in their games.
"I'm a huge fan of the adventure shooter, stuff like Halo and Far Cry 3, which I thought was fantastic. Having these enemies out on these organic patrols, out looking for you with their vision cones, where you can choose to sneak past them or engage... We're putting a lot of effort into the AI."

And it shows. Circle behind an enemy and you can dispatch them before they know what's hit them, but take them head on and things are different. They're incredibly aggressive, chasing after you, calling for backup and communicating, their chatter intercepted by your ship when you're close enough. Knock out an assailant's shields, however, and it will retreat, letting others keep up the pressure while its defences recharge. "We spend a lot of time talking about the dynamics, how characters should react, how much self-preservation they have under different circumstances. These guys will continue to track you. It's not like you can run past an invisible line and they'll stop coming after you. They'll continue to chase as long as they have an idea of where you are. I want this feeling of freshness, of responsibility. You really have to engage. You can't just walk out of the room and restart it."
-Edge Online, December 2013-

Like the difference between a Grunt and an Elite in Halo, different enemies have different aggression levels, different behaviors, and a keen sense of self-preservation and tactics.

How delicious.  In recent months, as 17-Bit experimented with the procedural generation of zones to assist with level design, the project was re-directed from a traditional Metroidvania with very unique mechanics to a straight-up Roguelike.

"1 life, 1 death, every action counts - don't die" the latest trailer tells us - and like the best Roguelikes, Galak-Z is designed to become an ever-more intuitive world for the player.  The first time you come across a bloom of space-spores drifting on their stalks, you won't know what to make of it - until you fly your ship into it and get slowed down by the sticky spores.

The next time you're blasting away from a pursuing foe, you'll remember those spores and what they do - perhaps in time to spin your ship 180 degrees as intertia keeps you gliding backwards and fire a shot into those pods to explode the spores outwards and entrap your enemies.  There's all sorts of cool environmental stuff to take advantage of.  Spike traps, carnivorous space monsters, opposing-faction ships and even lava pools.

With such rich tools at the player's disposal - so much to intuit, understand and interact with - the question of Galak-Z then becomes one of whether or not it is, simply, fun to play and a pleasure to control.  I can't say how well it plays, of course - I've never touched the game myself - but what I see gives me so much hope.  The difference in skill and style between the ship that zips and swoops about in the game's trailers and journalists who muddle through the game on easy mode is vast.  Like Dark Souls, like Resogun, like Street Fighter, like Dragon's Crown, like Devil May Cry and Mark of the Ninja, Galak-Z appears to be a title of supple controls that can be mastered by the player to provide the most delicious treat an action game can offer - something expressive.

A game in which the controls bleed away, and one just plays and plays and plays in a zen-like pool of immersion.

Not many games manage that - and I'll be the first to admit that hype can color a game in more beautiful relief than a real, released title can often manage - but this quote from 17-Bit's homepage gives me hope.
"17-BIT aims to deliver iconoclastic games that take the very best memories of the 16-bit era, looking as good and playing as well as they do in your head"
...and if Galak-Z plays as well as it does in my head, it'll be this year's Dragon's Crown.

I've adored everything I've seen of this game since its announcement, and the news that's been revealed throughout its development has only deepened my desire. It went from a traditional Metroidvania to a full-on Roguelike, and this past March, after months of wishing it, the game was announced as coming to PS Vita.

I want it so much.  I wrote up a (surely incomplete) post the other day about what games are coming up in 2014, and scanning it now, I find scant few titles that spark my imagination like Galak-Z does.  The only question that remains, then, is when is it coming?

"This fall" is the answer - but it sounds like 17-Bit are working themselves to the bone, in the hopes that the game will launch before the Fall Rush, and not get swept away from gamer's notice under a deluge of big triple-A releases.
IndieGames: So how's development of Galak-Z coming along? I confess, I don't really know when you plan to ship.

Jake Kazdal: Yeah you know it's funny, 'cause we don't either! We're trying to hit a certain date and we don't know if it's going to happen or not, so it's kind of a big mystery around here right now.

IndieGames: That's cool, I...

Jake Kazdal: Nah it sucks, it's terrifying and we're all running for our lives.
-IndieGames interview, May 2014-

And I'm... terribly sorry to hear that.  I love the work that 17-Bit is doing, here, and I loathe the idea of these good people working themselves ragged, unsure if they'll be able to make it... but Kazdal is so confident that switching the game's direction mid-development was the right move that I can't help but be swept up in his enthusiasm, and admire his conviction that - challenging or not - Galak-Z will be a more-perfect game for the choice.

This beautiful, stylish, rock-hard 2D Metroidvania Roguelike - a simple little spaceship game - is currently at the very top of my most-anticipated list.  Like Jake and his team, I really hope it makes its late-summer release and beats the major fall titles to the punch - I hope it has its day in the Sun - 'cause this is the kind of game you never imagine a developer will actually make, and play in your dreams.

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