When it comes to indie games, there are many things to give thanks for. In particular, praise should be given to the indie gaming world for its role in the resurgence of many bygone eras of niche gaming. The PC, notably, housed several sub-genres of gaming which enjoyed a degree of prosperity not seen on other platforms. The space flight genre, for example, once reigned supreme. Games such as Freelancer, Wing Commander, and Freespace all topped the sales charts at one time, yet still managed to take unique approaches to their astrological subject matter. Some were economic space truckers, focusing on the transport and trade of coveted alien goods. Others channeled the spirit of the arcade and focused on violent galactic combat encounters. A couple took a more “realistic” approach to the science fiction backdrop, building spacecraft simulators with granular controls which spanned the entire width and length of the keyboard. Though many of these games sold well, and nearly all met with critical acclaim, the space flight genre eventually reached a point of virtual extinction. The concept driving these games was simply passe, suffering the same fate as point-and-click adventure games. However, just like the latter, the space flight genre has begun to rise from the ashes, thanks in part to crowdfunding by nostalgic space pilots, and the curiosity of a new generation of gamers.
Into this brave new space frontier comes Rebel Galaxy; the brainchild of Double Damage Games. This fairly new house of indie development is comprised of a whopping two people. Two people who, some space aficionados may be surprised to learn, possess resumes which mostly tout experience in development of action RPGs, specifically Diablo and Torchlight. Perhaps this unlikely developer pedigree lead to the unique approach of Rebel Galaxy. On the surface, it is indeed a space flight game, but its personality and execution is quite non-traditional when compared to classic, and even recent, entrants in the genre.
In Rebel Galaxy, players assume the role of the new guy in town, an inexperienced nobody who has come rattling into the galactic neighborhood in a hand-me-down, piece-of-junk spaceship in a quest to find their lost aunt. The player attempts to ask around interstellar dive bars, combat cosmic bandits, and conduct business with unsavory individuals in order to find clues to the whereabouts of their missing auntie, and to learn the secrets of the mysterious artifact she left behind. These tasks are accomplished by piloting a capital ship around an extensive, procedurally generated galactic sandbox comprised of several solar systems linked by wormholes. The scope of the game world is impressive, especially for a game made by two people. Each solar system feels realistically sized and must be traversed with the help of a light-speed drive, and is populated with several dozen space stations, discoverable asteroid belts, junk fields and nebulae, and native denizens of the hostile, neutral, and friendly variety. Immediately, the player gets a sense that Rebel Galaxy is as much a space flight game as it is a naval adventure and spaghetti western.
Allow me to explain: several design elements contribute significantly to the naval flavor of Rebel Galaxy’s gameplay. Beyond merely being impressive in scope, the design of the game world reinforces the notion that each solar system is essentially an expansive sea, populated by pirate ships and militia navy, with merchant citizenry caught in the crossfire. The space stations are ports of call for commerce and information, and asteroid belts are packed full of treasure hunters slicing meteors apart with mining lasers, searching for rare alloys and valuable artifacts. Several people I’ve spoken to have compared the game’s structure to Sid Meier’s classic Pirates! While brimming with maritime flavor, the game’s dual personality also prominently manifests in the “Wild West” nature of the game universe – the world feels like a volatile, dangerous frontier, and most characters sport an old Wild West style accent; if they’re not speaking an alien dialect, that is.
The sense of freedom instilled by the game’s maritime layout and Wild West presentation plays well with the game’s progression. The story surrounding the player character’s aunt and the unknown trinket grants the common thread which drives the main quest of the game. Otherwise, the player is free to roam and carry out missions, claim bounties, transport trade goods, and accost whichever random passersby they so choose. Regional difficulty within solar systems is the main check which throttles the player’s progress. The ship in which the player starts is barely adequate to survive the first few encounters of the main quest, and is lacking a few pieces of essential equipment. Once some cash is accrued, subsystems are upgraded, and maybe a sweet new ship or two is purchased, the player can more or less go wherever and do whatever they want, performing sections of the main quest at their leisure.
The control and combat style is worth noting, due to its unique nature within this genre. These items are handled in a manner more reminiscent of maritime activities than of an old-school space flight sim. Double Damage elected to all but eliminate the Y-axis as an area of concern for the player. Players don’t pull off loop-the-loops and barrel rolls in Rebel Galaxy, but instead maneuver their ship on a horizontal plane. Altitude of the ship adjusts gradually and slightly on its own in order to align the player to the orbits of nearby planets and other capital craft. Perspective is of the 3rd-person variety, and combat, for the most part, is a matter of managing which side of the ship to present to the enemy as a target, while trying to bring opponents within range of one’s own broadside weaponry – a familiar dance of naval strategy. To aid in the whittling down of capital ship defenses, and to eradicate smaller fighter-class targets, the player may outfit their ship with several different types of turrets. Turrets, by default, automatically home in on belligerents within range, and the AI which drives turret behavior can be customized at any time to prioritize certain targets over others; for example, only fighter-class craft, or only a craft which the player has manually locked on to. If necessary, or if preferred, the player can momentarily abandon the command of their broadsides in favor of taking direct control of any subsection of their secondary weapon systems; bringing beam cannons, missile silos, or pulse turrets to bear on specific targets.
Through the feelings of seafaring freedom and Wild West abandon, and a unique approach to space flight, Rebel Galaxy shines. The player can have their fun the way they want it, for the most part. Time can be spent on nearly any activity within the game world and progress can still be made. If death and destruction is the player’s thing, they can buy the game’s most daunting and cumbersome destroyers, bristling with turrets and broadside ports and seek out enormous cinematic battles. If they enjoy running contraband and trading goods, there are smaller, zippier ships designed to avoid trouble and obfuscate cargo. If bounty hunting and escort missions are the flavor of the day, there are plenty of ships and pieces of equipment that can strike a balance between speed, strength, and trunk space. Ships are also highly customizable beyond their weapons systems, and stations can be searched far and wide for a significant variety of different engines, shields, repulsion fields, mining equipment and defense countermeasures to enable nearly any preferred play style.
Ironically, Rebel Galaxy’s greatest strength also confers its greatest weakness. The wide open world can feel a bit empty. Obviously, this is space, there’s going to be a lot of uninhabited territory, but this is more a critique of the game’s procedural nature, which could also be a critique of procedurally generated games at large. Being that there’s only one main quest threading the entire game together, there’s not a lot of context for everything else the player does. This can be a positive as it allows for a lot of imagination through which the player can be living out their fantasies of participating in an epic Star Wars battle or reliving nostalgic set pieces of space flight games of yesteryear, but those who crave more character and plot could be disappointed. I even found myself wishing more had been done with this vibrant, interesting world the developers had created – that they had injected more Wild West or piratey, swashbuckling set pieces into a larger and more well established plot. Off the main quest line, the motivation can be a bit thin. For example, the solar systems are teeming with activity, but the activity can be pretty superficial. Since things are procedurally generated, once you’ve dealt with one trader, shot down one bounty, escorted one ship, or broken one station siege, you’ve essentially done all instances of that activity. The ships and difficulty may change from system to system, and there is significant enemy variety, but the activities the player engages in are always pretty straightforward, and lacking in depth. Even trade is simplified: prices of goods are marked as above or below average at space stations. Achieving profit is an easy affair; simply by low and sell high, and each station’s market will instantly tell you which is which. Also ironically, this cuts down on the games replayability. Procedural generation is supposed to be a boon to this factor, but the lack of depth means a second play-through won’t feel much different.
Even on the main quest line, the plot is still left a bit wanting. The story ends somewhat abruptly and several questions go unanswered. It’s difficult to comment more without spoiling anything, but I will say that anyone who’s played the Freespace or Mass Effect series’ will find the plot eerily familiar. There are role-playing style choices through dialogue trees during the main quest, but few lead to different outcomes. The biggest effect through these dialogue choices is manifested simply in which faction the player character is aligned with more closely in the game, the criminal gangs or the lawful militias. This mainly only affects which stations one can visit without being shot at. Some stations hold faction-specific equipment for sale, but these items don’t represent a large variety when compared to the rest of the components the game has to offer.
Some of these complaints can be attributed to, and maybe even explained away by, the size of the development team, and perhaps some were intentional design choices that were meant to be homages to other entries in the genre while simultaneously keeping gameplay accessible without being overambitious. If that was the intent, I would certainly say Double Damage was successful. Though I wish there was more, what’s on display here is very impressive, and enjoyable, for a game made by two people plus art contractors.
If you’re looking for a fresh take on space flight, wanting to experience some well-executed nostalgia, or looking to try out the genre for the first time, Rebel Galaxy is a sound investment which I found myself sinking 40+ hours into for the price of a budget admission. Though the game can sometimes feel superficial, the main components are cleverly designed and the world swells with enough personality to keep the player engaged and enthralled for dozens of hours.