Galak-Z: The Dimensional was something of a cult hit back in 2015; after sizeable pre-release hype it launched on the PlayStation 4 to decent reviews, with many praising its tough arcade gameplay and eye-catching anime stylings. However, it perhaps didn't reach the audience it deserved to, and following the rather disappointing Void DLC, you'd have forgiven developer 17-Bit Studios for moving onto other challenges. Mercifully, that hasn't been the case and – in conjunction with GungHo Online – the studio has revived the property in the shape of Galak-Z: Variant S on Nintendo Switch.
This isn't a port of the original; Variant S is a sequel which follows on from the events of the Void DLC, thrusting the wise-cracking hero A-Tak and the crew of the Axelios into fresh conflict with bug-like aliens, space pirates and the might of the Imperial fleet. However, in order to facilitate the move to free-to-play mechanics 17-Bit has made some pretty drastic changes to the core experience, the most obvious of which is the removal of the ability to transform between spaceship and mech. Instead, you have to select one of these craft before starting a mission; the former has ranged weapons while the latter uses a laser sword to dash in and dish out high amounts of damage.
The core gameplay is very much the same; your ship has rear (ZR) and forward (ZL) boosters which can be used to propel it through space in either direction, and the left-hand analogue stick is used to orient your ship. Because you're flying in a vacuum it's rather tricky to manoeuvre your ship initially, and you'll need to get used to applying both thrusters to control its inertia. Your main weapon is activated by the Y or A buttons, while your secondary weapon is unleashed with the X button. When you begin the game, your ship form has homing missiles and your mech form has a tractor beam attack, but as you progress these can be augmented with other options. Finally, pressing B will perform a dodge move, but this has a cool-down period and can't be relied on too much.
In combat, you'll have to keep an eye on both your shield gauge and your health. The former takes damage first, but will recharge given time. The latter does not recharge, so when your shields are down it's often a case of retreating from battle and waiting for them to recover before rejoining the fight. As is the case with your armament, you can boost both of these elements throughout the course of the game.
Indeed, upgrades form a key part of the experience in Galak-Z: Variant S. Not only does A-Tak earn experience during each mission, the ship he's piloting also gains XP. By collecting special relics you can build and equip new weapons, better armour and much more besides, giving you a fighting chance against the progressively tougher enemies you face as you move through each sector of the galaxy. Tied in with this upgrade process are Bots, which you'll build a collection of as the game develops. Not only can these be bolted onto your ship to improve various stats, they're also used to decrypt the aforementioned relics and engage in asynchronous battles with other players. These contests offer the perfect chance to gain XP for your Bots and earn valuable materials, but the catch is you only have access to three of them at a time; once you've taken part in this trio, you have to wait for the timer to run down before more battles are offered up. This can take hours.
Timers are pretty common in Galak-Z, which is understandable as the game is totally free-to-play. Everything from auto-healing your ship (which can also be done manually with salvage acquired from missions) to decrypting relics has a timer attached, although some of these can be overruled by spending the game's premium currency, Crash Coins. Introducing this kind of mechanic into any game is a tricky process, but 17-Bit has done a remarkably assured job here. Sure, it can feel that you're being pushed into spending real money at points, but even if you don't spend a single penny, it never feels like you're getting less of an experience. In fact, opening your wallet doesn't instantly buy you an easy route through the game; there's still a lot of grinding to be done here as you replay previously beaten missions to gain the materials required to boost your armour, increase your health and gain more powerful weapons.
We'd imagine that GungHo has had some input in the design of Variant S as the game does a good job of encouraging you to play on a daily basis, just like GungHo's famous Puzzle & Dragons. Merely logging into the game will earn you materials, and rewards are dished out for fulfilling in-game challenges and unlocking achievements. Special events are also planned, so it's very easy to get hooked into the cycle of playing each day to make sure you get your bonuses. This certainly helps maintain interest, as after a few days the gameplay becomes rather repetitive; while the different enemy types call for different tactics and the increased difficulty means you'll need to master dodging and movement, the core elements don't change a great deal.
The shift to a tighter mission-based structure to suit portable play has resulted in some negatives, too. The expansive levels seen in the original game are gone, replaced by stages that force you down corridors and restrict your ability to explore. The aforementioned removal of the transformation feature means that tactically, your options halved – one of the thrills of the 2015 original was being able to dart into a horde of enemies in ship form and then morph into your sword-swinging robot in the blink of an eye, dealing the maximum amount of damage. Another drawback is that the storyline has been effectively sidelined here; there are short, joke-filled cut-scenes between missions but the feeling of playing a Saturday morning cartoon show has been all but removed, which is a shame – that was one of the key hooks of the first Galak-Z.
Galak-Z: Variant S is a more focused and tighter experience than its forerunner, but one that offers surprising depth thanks to the often staggering upgrade opportunities on offer. By taking the freemium route developer 17-Bit Studios has been forced to introduce timers which can be overridden by spending actual cash, but these are thoughtfully deployed and even if you do decide to dig deep in your pocket, you'll still need considerable shooting skills to overcome the increasingly stern - if somewhat repetitive - challenge.