Have you ever seen the “Heavy Metal Queen” episode of Cowboy Bebop? If you haven’t then you should, it’s one of the best episodes of one of the best shows ever made.
For those of you who have seen it here’s the elevator pitch for Rebel Galaxy: It’s Heavy Metal Queen meets Firefly meets Battlestar Galactica – with a vastly inferior story to all those properties and a single repetitive loop of game play. Complete mission, get credits, buy new ship, upgrade ship, get new missions, etc. If being in outer space with a big ass capital ship jumping in and out of warp and blowing up entire armadas tickles you right then you’ll probably dig on this.
For the rest of you still reading here’s the rundown:
Rebel Galaxy is an indie space sim action RPG by Double Damage Games in the same vein as Elite or Wing Commander: Privateer, but highly simplified and streamlined. At times to a fault.
You play as the recent inheritor of an outmoded, space-faring frigate bequeathed to you by your kick-ass aunt Juno who has recently gone missing. Along with the ship comes a mysterious artifact of unknown origin and a message for you to come and find her in an obscure corner of the galaxy. Soon you’re in it deep with a series of shady pirates and militia soldiers as you try to unravel the meaning of Juno’s artifact and make your mark on the obsidian monolith of galactic history.
It’s a simple enough setup that never outgrows its uncomplicated premise. There are a few decisions for you to make regarding your dealings with the various characters you encounter, but it all leads to an anticlimactic finish that feels more like the first chapter of a greater saga than a satisfying self-contained story. The main campaign is also inhibited by the game’s unnecessary sprawl as the 25 or so hours I spent on the main campaign could have been a much tighter 10 without all the grinding I did to keep up.
Grinding is kind of what Rebel Galaxy is about though. Double Damage Games is made up of some of the original team members from the likes of Diablo and Torchlight and as a result Rebel Galaxy plays like a loot-based dungeon crawler. The basic gameplay loop is a constant repetition of accepting missions within your comfort zone (low to high risk) posted on the board at local space stations then heading out on those missions, blowing some shit up, collecting a paycheck, and selling off any cargo you acquired so that you can buy new ships, weapons, defensive upgrades, and systems at those same space stations so you can to take on harder missions for higher pay. It’s essentially a loot treadmill that feeds directly in to the progression system. Money is your XP and your ship and systems are your skill tree. Simple, simple stuff.
So simple, in fact, that the whole thing would fall apart if the combat wasn’t so gratifying. Rebel Galaxy eschews the dog fighting of its closest predecessors and instead goes with a unique system of broadside combat that sees you using massive particle weapons mounted on either side of your capital ship to unleash electric death on anything stupid enough to wander into your path. Your broadside cannons are supplemented by a secondary weapon port that can contain anything from defensive flak that blows missiles out of the sky, to a mine-layer that creates a DMZ no ship would dare to cross. Rounding this out are several turret mounts (the number increases with your ship’s class size) that give you fast offensive and defensive options or even a mining laser that will allow you to increase ore yields from asteroid belts. If that sounds like a lot to manage during a heated battle, it’s because it is. Just about every button on the controller is used and if you’re the kind of person that likes to micro-manage then flipping between turrets to maximise your tactical advantage can get a bit overwhelming. Not to mention the fact that the camera fights you the whole time, occasionally obscuring too much of the action behind your own ship. I found I was happiest sticking to my broadsides and secondaries and setting up the tactical AI to manage my turrets which can be told to target particular types of enemies.
The result of all this is a kind of beautiful dance of death where you’ll drop out of warp and turn your broadsides to a group of fighters then let your turrets thin their remaining numbers while you pull up along a fellow capital ship and match speed as you both exchange close-range broadsides and manage your manual deflectors until one of you turns to star dust. Rinse, repeat ad infinitum. It’s very entertaining for the first few hours but I found it wore thin once you settled in to a regular groove.
If you’re the kind of person that loves chasing new gear and seeing just how powerful you can get, there might be enough here to keep you invested in Rebel Galaxy beyond that initial settling period. There are a ton of ships all ranging in sizes from tiny, fast frigates to gigantic, lumbering destroyers and dreadnoughts. Some of these are locked behind a reputation system I found I could pretty much ignore without consequence but it’s there if you want to play around with it. There are also special weapons and ships that can only be attained by leveling up rep with the Merchant or Mercenary’s guilds if you want to screw around with that.
This is kind of the problem with Rebel Galaxy. Everything is so streamlined and simplified that it all jut kind of feels optional. The different factions and guilds don’t really have any sort of personality outside of the ships and weapons they offer. The missions you go out on are mostly indistinguishable from one another except for the painfully annoying escort missions that have you spend long stretches of time in warp just twiddling your thumbs. Some of the ships look great and clearly draw inspiration from Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica but they all play more or less the same.
Even the graphics are a little drab. The models are nice enough and well-detailed and the particle-effects are cool but there’s a lack of impact and urgency to the sensory feedback you’re getting. Everything is desaturated and dull, and though Double Damage did an admirable job of modeling a convincing enough procedural galaxy with all its collapsing stars and spinning nebulas, I wish they had done it in full, vivid colour. Also, their version of space is just a two-dimensional plane with some elements placed in the third dimension. I understand why that is but I spend so much time already struggling with my existence as a 4D intelligence in a 10D world that it’s more than a little annoying when I get a chance to go in to outer space and a whole directional axis is taken away from me. Am I right all you theoretical physicists out there?
That same, drab galaxy is also filled with nothing but open space. Yes, I know that’s what outer space is but this is a video game and there’s so much of it, and even with your warp drive it can take up to a couple of minutes to traverse from one side of a solar system to another. Unlike Grand Theft Auto or other open world sandboxes, this is just a straight shot from one location to another with nothing to entertain you in between. Unless, of course, something kicks you out of warp and forces you to manoeuvre around it before you can continue your journey. Which it will. Always. Warp inhibited by stellar mass. Warp inhibited by stellar mass! Warp inhibited by stellar mass!
There is one untarnished, shining star in this cold and lonely place though. The soundtrack. The rockabilly tunes blaring out over what I imagine to be cosmic loudspeakers on your ship, pumping hard rock sound waves in to the unperceptive void as these steel chariots of the heavens turn the sky to fire, are just too damn good. Do yourself a favor and check out the track list here.
I know it sounds like I’ve been hard on Rebel Galaxy up until this point but it really is a lot of fun; it just overstayed its welcome. By the end of the campaign I had seen literally everything it had to offer and was left to simply stew over its flaws until I could grind out that final confrontation. I can appreciate that Double Damage wanted to offer something fast and accessible but they left the whole thing so barren that what it really needs is some added nuance and complexity, both in its plotting and game systems. Something to make each new encounter feel fresh again. As it stands it’s well worth the price of admission but it probably won’t have you playing uncontrollably.
At the end of the day, if you’ve ever wanted to pilot your own capital ship, and you like games like Diablo and Borderlands, then Rebel Galaxy is a definite must play.