Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A transport ship alone in the unending blackness of space deals in doing jobs for people (don’t much care what they are). Along the way the ship encounters pirates, militias, and traders just looking to go their way (even if their way is through you). Meanwhile, a western guitar twang belts out on the soundtrack. Sound familiar? Rebel Galaxy, last year’s PC title, brings its special mixture of elements from pop culture such as Firefly, Star Wars, and even a little Mass Effect to the PlayStation 4.
Rebel Galaxy sends players cruising back and forth across the galaxy from space stations to nebulae to asteroid belts to planets and beyond on a series of fetch quests, enemy encounters, and experience grinding. Galaxy residents will ask you to run their errands for them, and commonly there is more than one way to accomplish these tasks. Suppose you’re sent to retrieve ore, for instance. You can either set a course to the asteroid field and mine the rocks for their bounty or track down a miner who has some of the ore to sell you. If you don’t like the price of the ore or just plain don’t want to pay, you can start a battle to steal it. All that matters is returning with the ore, and whether you want to achieve that as an upstanding citizen or as a dirty space pirate is completely up to you. Officially allying with factions can often help you achieve these things more efficiently.
There’s a reason for all of these errands and space battles. Your sketchy explorer aunt Juno has gifted you with a scrappy ship, a strange hunk of alien metal, and an invitation to meet her at a space station bar. Showing up at the bar reveals one of Juno’s alien acquaintances who offers to tell you where your aunt has gone in exchange for a favor. Doing that favor leads to someone else who wants another favor, who in turn sends you on another errand, and just when it seems that RG will be Fetch Quest: The Game, one of these favors ends up awakening the alien consciousness that lives inside the mysterious metal hunk. The alien intelligence is missing its memories and identity, but if you help it by completing a series of missions, it will power up your ship with amazing new equipment. Combine these primary missions with optional tasks you can take on via mission boards scattered around the galaxy (feeling very Borderlands there) such as bounty hunting and shipment delivery, and there’s a lot to do and plenty of ways to meet the next goal. There’s a lot of hours to put into this game for those willing to do it.
Speaking of battles, less Star Fox and more Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, space combat is based around broadside targeting (with a little assistance from forward-mounted turrets). Your ship is confined to the XY plane, but enemy ships and hazards have access to the elusive Z-axis, allowing them to swoop in and around from above and below. It feels unfair and I never did get the hang of aiming my shots off the side of the ship, instead relying on turret fire to save me, but this blame is more on me than RG because I have never been good at broadside combat in any game. Your ship can be upgraded and customized with bigger and better weapons for the right prices, such missile capabilities to bring the pain and strong deflector shields to harmlessly absorb incoming carnage.
When it comes to trading supplies, there’s an in-game stock market of sorts that lists all of the currently available goods up for sale along with their current values. If you have a cargo hold full of, say, food, you can sell that food for a higher price on a planet suffering from a food shortage than at a planet where everyone is stuffed full after every meal. It’s basic economics and all of the running back and forth with supplies best needed at specific places reminded me of an old pre-smartphone game I played for PalmOS years ago called Space Trader that revolved around the same premise. Realizing which goods to best sell at which places was more enjoyable than the random combat, and I wished I could have spent more time wheeling and dealing than shooting and retreating.
Each game of RG is unique thanks to the randomly generated universe, but this also means that sometimes the game feels unfairly balanced. Much of the game is spent traveling between destinations which involves pointing your ship at the next planet, station, etc., engaging warp drive, and watching the screen as the distance to the destination rapidly counts down. It takes a while to get anywhere because space is really, really big. It’s rarely a smooth ride as pirates will pull you out of warp and demand a fight. Sometimes these are fair fights and sometimes you are hopelessly outmatched, and once back in warp it can be frustrating when the game pulls you back out of warp for another fight again and again when all you want to do is reach the next station and sell your cargo so you can then move on to the next mission.
During one particular run, I was pulled into a combat situation for which I was terribly underpowered three times on the way to the next planet (and when I arrived there at last, I was blown up by even more powerful enemies who were hanging around the place). RG has a knack for showing you the goal and then doing everything possible to move the finish line away from you, and after a while I found myself wondering if it was all really worth it. If the alien intelligence needs help so badly, maybe it should team up with one of the overpowered pirates because me and my dinky little freighter are clearly not the best choice.
There’s a lot to do in Rebel Galaxy, it’s just a shame that it’s all too often the same things to do. That’s the selling point for this genre, yes, but there’s so much repetition that I never felt particularly engaged. Watching a distance counter tick down isn’t much fun, but neither is being randomly yanked into combat again and again for no significant purpose. The overall presentation is fantastic however, with some of the prettiest space environments I’ve seen on the PS4 and the guitar rock soundtrack is refreshingly catchy. All of the pieces are there for this game to be something special, but in the end I just wasn’t feeling it. Fans of the genre would be advised to check it out though. Maybe they’ll see magic in it that I could not.
Review code for Rebel Galaxy provided by publisher. Reviewed on PlayStation 4. For more information on scoring, please read our Review Policy here.