Do you like Pirates, Cowboys, and Spaceships? If yes, this is your game. If no, reboot your robotic soul and try again.
Rebel Galaxy is a sci-fi, space exploration, capital ship combat game on a two dimensional plane (though still very much a three dimensional experience). It is the first game from Double Damage Games, founded in 2014 by Travis Baldree and Erich Schaefer. That’s it. Just the two of them. And for such a small team, these two guys have some impressive credentials. Baldree and Schaefer previously co-founded Runic Games, where they made the insanely popular Torchlight (2009) and Torchlight 2 (2012). Earlier in his career, Schaefer was co-creator and lead designer of Diablo (1996) and Diablo 2 (2000)–two games that founded the dungeon crawling genre. In other words, these guys know how to make games. Great games even.
That pedigree is one reason (among many) Rebel Galaxy‘s success is unsurprising. Released through Steam and Good Old Games (gog.com) on October 20, 2015, Rebel Galaxy has already garnered a huge following, and it stayed in Steam’s top-sellers category for almost ten days after its launch. Though it has been called ‘Elite Dangerous on a budget,’ by some outlets, I don’t think that description does justice to what Baldree and Schaefer have put together here. Reminiscent in many ways of the beloved television series Firefly (2002-2003), Rebel Galaxy is part Wild West adventure, part Space Pirate odyssey, and all action.
The game starts with a mysterious message from your Aunt Juno, who has gotten herself into a bit of a scrape. She gifts you her broken down ship and tells you to come meet her as soon as possible, and suddenly, you’re just in the ship. This is no measly fighter craft either (though the fighters in this game are not measly at all, but I’ll come back to that). RG is all about capital ship combat, and as you move through the game earning money from different jobs and quests you take on, you can upgrade all aspects of your current rig, or at the right time, move to a bigger and newer model. These different elements include shields, weapon turrets, broadside weapons, engines, cargo storage sizes, hull density, you name it. While I found the game’s outset rather frustrating in terms of getting adequate turrets and defenses installed to the point I wouldn’t be blown into space bits every time I tried a new mission, the leveling loop Double Damage has created here is very well balanced. This is, perhaps, where their stellar game development backgrounds shine through most obviously. There’s always that next beautiful ship just beyond your reach, but if you do enough jobs and sell enough material, you can have it soon enough. I’ve put about twenty five hours into the game at this point (which, according to the Steam forums, is nothing), and I’ve gone through probably three-fourths of the 27 available ships.
Anyway, after you get the message from Juno and start flying around in your ship, you can do pretty much whatever you want. Want to start mining asteroids and selling the materials for cash? Get yourself a mining laser, and go for it. How about intimidating traveling merchants into dropping their cargo? Yep. Or, you could just fly around and rescue people in distress by blowing up pirates. These are all options you can explore, each of them a completely valid and easily sustained way to get you through the game. Following Juno’s story will take you through an interesting campaign that will at least indicate what new systems you should be checking out, but in general, like I said above, you can do whatever you want.
But, as anyone who has played Rebel Galaxy for more than a few minutes will tell you, the real center of this game is the combat. The entirety of the game is played on a 2d plane, so that nauseating feeling of 3d movement in space isn’t going to be an issue here. You’ll be positioning yourself against other capital ships on a horizontal plane, so you’ll be constantly managing which side of your ship is facing your enemy. At least, that is, until your shields go down and they start ripping into your hull. Some people have complained about the simplicity of such a design, but I consider it a real asset. And boy oh boy, is the combat fun. Each ship has broadside cannons, as well as a series of turrets, both of which can be upgraded at space stations as you gather more money. The turrets can be tactically managed, such that they will either attack specific targets (anti-fighter missiles only targeting fighters, etc.), or you can have them all concentrate on whatever enemy you’ve locked into your sights. I prefer a combination of shield dropping turrets and armor-cutting broadsides. That’s just me though. The sheer number of turret and broadside combinations, combined with the various designs of the ships themselves, lets you make the ship that fits your playstyle.
One of the game’s few downsides, however, is its travel system, and this flaw is about as glaring as it gets. In order to create a streamlined feeling for the game, the developers avoided loading screens for the different areas. Once you start the game, you’ll see an initial loading screen for about ten seconds, then you’re in. The trade-off is that the game’s loading screens are disguised as hyperspace jumps. And let me tell you, you’ll be doing a lot of those. Each of the systems you enter is large, and mission points/space stations are spread pretty far apart. As such, you’re going to be waiting around watching distance numbers tick down. But, if your rig is having trouble loading something, that distance counter will go slower and slower until you pass the object it was trying to load. I’ve even cleared hyperspace a few times almost inside an asteroid or space station. That didn’t end well for me. And for the love of god, prepare for the phrase “warp inhibited by stellar object” to be burned into your brain. Any time you draw too close to another object during hyperspace, you will automatically be pulled out as you hear this phrase in your headphones. This wouldn’t be a problem except that it will happen two or three times per jump, and you’ll usually be in the middle of an asteroid field you’ll have to maneuver out of before you can warp again. In the later parts of the game, when you have a pretty beefy engine, this isn’t such a big deal. But at the games’ outset, when everything you do is sooo sloooow, repeated warp interruptions bring the action to a merciless crawl.
My only other complaints about this game are both minor, and they concern balancing issues. The first, which I already mentioned above, is the difficulty in finding missions to complete at the game’s outset. I don’t know if I just didn’t understand the game’s mechanics yet, but I kept dying on every mission I tried, even the easy ones. This was usually because I was under equipped for literally anything the game had to offer. I think a stronger starting ship, or at least some easier missions to get my money higher for upgrading would have been helpful. There also seems to be a problem with how the game identifies the difficulty of certain missions. When you are choosing missions to undertake at a station board, the game’s AI will evaluate the strength of your ship, then give the mission a rating based on that strength. Most of the time, this system works flawlessly, and you end up taking on missions that perfectly fit your level. However, there are times when a supposedly easy mission ends with you being one-shotted by a massive Dreadnought or swarmed to death by fighter craft. This is beyond annoying, especially since the game only saves when you are at a station. Thus, death sends you back to your starting point, sometimes several jump gates away, and then you get to trek the full distance back to the mission zone. Yuck.
The second complaint, which is closely related to the first, concerns fighter craft. This game has fighters in it, and they are annoying as hell. Unfortunately, you don’t have access to those fighter craft—only your enemies do. And they have A LOT of fighters. On almost every mission. Normally, I wouldn’t think this a problem, but these space gnats tend to be very powerful. And if you get swarmed by more than a few at once, they will take down your ship, no matter what sort of armaments or defense you have. This is doubly frustrating when, as mentioned above, you pick up a mission that was labeled ‘Low Risk,’ only to be instantly killed by a dozen or so fighters warping into a circle around you. It’s an odd design element for a game that seems so meticulously crafted from start to finish, and I hope either fighter strength or numbers are adjusted in a future patch. Or, perhaps you the player could purchase your own fighter escort at some point. That could even the odds a bit as well.
In the end though, Rebel Galaxy is a blast of a game that offers endless replayability. Once the main campaign ends, you can keep playing and upgrading as long as you want. There is no definitive endgame, and while I’m not typically a fan of that kind of design, I think it’s appropriate here. Space stretches out before you, and while there could be a bit more variety in the mission types, the possibilities are yours to explore. And trust me, you’ll keep that exploring/upgrading loop going until you own the stars.