I’m sorry, I’m going to spend a lot of time talking about Elite Dangerous in this review of Rebel Galaxy. Because the comparisons between Rebel Galaxy and Elite Dangerous are unavoidable, so let me get this out of the way first: Rebel Galaxy is nowhere near as deep and, indeed, as rewarding as Elite Dangerous has the potential to be.
The potential to be.
I have nothing but respect for Elite Dangerous. I think it is an amazing game with amazing potential and amazing depth. But for my part, I found it to be dense to the point of near impenetrability. The sheer size of the universe and all the possibilities presented before you were incredibly intimidating. Elite Dangerous has the potential to be one of the most immersive space flight sims on the market. But it also requires an intense amount of time commitment and a lot of up front effort from you to get the most out of it.
Rebel Galaxy presents a game with much of the same appeal of Elite Dangerous on the surface but sacrifices much of the depth for approachability which, to me, is a wise decision. Within moments of starting up Rebel Galaxy I was gallivanting around the galaxy, rescuing traders from funny-looking alien pirates, hunting down bounties in the hopes of saving up for this titanic ship the size of a small moon that I would use to crush my enemies ‘neath my mighty tread and just generally being an awesome space cowboy.
Within moments of starting up Elite Dangerous, I was still crashing into shit trying to dock at a space station.
I’m being too hard on Elite Dangerous, of course. And unfair to Rebel Galaxy. It’s unfair to ever review a game in comparison with another game but, as I said, it’s unavoidable because at a very basic level, they are essentially the same game. But Rebel Galaxy is a game needs to be judged on its own merits and there’s plenty of merit to Rebel Galaxy. But unfortunately, there’s a lot about Rebel Galaxy that always feels like a bit of a chore.
Like Elite Dangerous, Rebel Galaxy can seem like an act of repetition. But while in Elite Dangerous you feel like you’re carving out a life in the stars, Rebel Galaxy feels decidedly more video-gamey. I suppose that’s not really a criticism for a video game, but it’s hard to deny how repetitive Rebel Galaxy truly feels compared to Elite Dangerous. Elite Dangerous makes you feel like you’re earning a living as a bad-ass space bounty hunter (or a miner or a trader or an explorer). Rebel Galaxy can sometimes make you feel like you’re just grinding money in a video game.
Perhaps it’s a product of the game’s controls. Elite Dangerous literally puts you into the cockpit of your vessel, going to far as to make you feel like you’re inside of it whereas Rebel Galaxy makes you feel like you’re some external entity controlling the ship itself – a byproduct of the fact that the camera angle puts you outside the ship rather than inside the cockpit. That’s where these two games differ the most: Elite Dangerous is, at least in part, a flight simulator. Rebel Galaxy is…something else altogether.
Ok, that’s the last time I’m going to talk about Elite Dangerous for awhile, I promise. In Rebel Galaxy, you are a dude (or dudette, I guess, it’s never made particularly clear – at least not in the 20 or so hours I played it) who’s searching for his (or her) aunt, Juno. Juno sent you a ship – the Rasputin…spoiler alert: it’s kind of a piece of junk – and told you to come and find her. Along the way, you meet an alien who knew your aunt and who gives you a strange device called a Spectre and…well, the rest verges on spoiler territory, but suffice to say that the Spectre is the plot-macguffin that drives the whole thing along.
Overall, the plot is interesting. Unfortunately, the interesting plot doesn’t hide the fact that there’s a lot of grinding in this game.
As I said before, the Rasputin is kind of a piece of junk and you’re going to want to replace it as soon as possible. Unfortunately, that means you’ll need money. And doubly-unfortunately, that means you’re going to have to do a lot of menial labor. You could hunt bounties but, at least at first, that’s a difficult proposition since…well, piece of junk. So you’re going to have to either mine, play the trader game, or do missions given at each station.
Mining is pretty boring and…well, let’s face it, I don’t play a thrilling space adventure game to be an asteroid miner. Trading is somewhat more interesting, at least. It allows you to see more of the galaxy and since fuel costs you nothing, it’s pretty much all profit no matter how many stations you have to go to to find a good deal on the 20 tons of yik yak meat and data cubes you bought. Unfortunately, finding that good deal can sometimes be a matter of traveling to four or five different stations and the game’s fast travel is prone to freak out and drop you back into regular-speed if you pass within the same light-year of an asteroid. The missions, meanwhile, run into the same problems of bounty hunting and trading: your ship is a piece of junk and traveling can be a finicky proposition. Fortunately, after awhile bounty hunting becomes more feasible as you trade up for a better ship and better weapons, but – at least in my experience – it remained the least cost-effective method of gaining money. The pay is just too low in general to offset the cost of repairs and replacement of munitions.
It’s at this point that I turn to talking about the combat and, in order to do so, I have to address the elephant in the room. And that elephant’s (rather awkward) name is 2D Plane.
Remember before when I said Rebel Galaxy isn’t a flight simulator? Part of that is the fact that the camera is planted firmly behind your ship. But the biggest reason is that the piloting – from regular travel to combat – takes place entirely on a 2D plane. However, before you get all bent out of shape and swear your undying fealty to Elite Dangerous, let me say that the combat actually works extremely well in general, even if it can sometimes start to feel like a chore – you rarely get anything meaningful or profitable out of combat unless a bounty is involved. The only ships that can maneuver in 3D space are small, mobile fighters and this does a good job of showing them to be the pesky, maneuverable nuisances they are. The other large, capital ships you fight are on the same plane as you.
This gives the game an interesting, almost nautical feel, which is further amplified by the fact that many of the ships in the game have a significant emphasis on broadside combat – meaning you shoot your weapons out of your port and starboard flanks rather than the front. Ships have turrets as well, allowing you to shoot at any angle, and these turrets often have unique properties like firing salvos of missiles to take out the pesky fighters swarming around you or being particularly effective against shields or exposed hulls, but the broadsides are your bread and butter. I thought this would be awkward at first, but once I got used to it, I quickly traded in my turret-focused Scarab for a more broadside-focused weapon.
So overall, combat’s fun, though it can sometimes get in the way if you just want to rush into a station and do some trading. Enemies will sometimes take over certain stations – well, not the stations themselves, but rather forming annoying blockades – placing disabling mines around them. This is more a nuisance than anything but sometimes the sheer number of enemies and their threat can be surprising, particularly since the game is particularly awful at warning you about threats. I had “very low” difficulty missions rip me to shreds. But for the most part, I soared through the early game crushing “very difficult” missions with no problem at all. Basically, I just disregarded the warnings about difficulty and flew by the seat of my pants, which made the whole thing feel much more reckless and slapdash…which was kind of nice in a way. It made me feel like a brash space captain like Mal or Jet.
The universe is alive as well, though not to the same degree as Elite Dangerous. Pirates and malcontents will sometimes make moves on stations – blocking incoming trade routes or forming blockades – and stations will experience gluts and famine just like in real life. This can make the universe feel like a living, breathing thing…but more often than not, it was just numbers on a page and didn’t really make me feel like I was doing anything other than basic math. Still, it’s nice when you can find out in a bar that a certain station is experiencing a famine and take it upon yourself to buy up all their surplus food to make a humanitarian trip to the starving station. A very profitable humanitarian trip.
My criticisms of Rebel Galaxy might sound like a mixed bag but overall, I would heartily recommend it to fans of the sci-fi genre…though not necessarily fans of sci-fi flavored flight simulators. For all the time I spent comparing Rebel Galaxy to Elite Dangerous, I doubt there’ll be much overlap between fans of the two series. I feel like the sorts of people who will like Rebel Galaxy are the folks who want a more thrilling, fast-paced affair that fans of Elite Dangerous will find shallow and cartoony. However, there’s a charm to the game that even managed to draw me in, and I’m not the biggest sci-fi fan on the planet.
Some of the tedious grinding can feel like a chore, but everything else comes together amazingly well and it’s all because of the game’s masterful atmosphere. It’s full of skeevy characters and betrayal and all that sort of stuff you’d expect from a “junk sci-fi” setting – think Firefly and Cowboy Bebop, a feel that Rebel Galaxy evokes masterfully with its tone and music. I never once felt like following the plot was a chore and I was interested to find Juno and see what she had to say. And this is what the game does best: its atmosphere. Everything from the clunky, junky ships (there are no sleek Protoss battle cruisers here, folks) to the dialogue (all quite well voice-acted), to the character designs and animations and, yes, the music (though it could do with a few more tracks…the ones it has do get old after awhile) are in service to an excellent aesthetic that do a lot to immerse you even when the mechanics sometimes fall short.
Rebel Galaxy is a brilliantly atmospheric game that delivers on the developer’s promises of impactful, enjoyable action sequences that overcomes anything it might sacrifice in the name of approachability. If you ever wanted to be a bad-ass space captain carving your reputation amongst the stars – in a…mostly legal fashion – then Rebel Galaxy will almost certainly deliver.
See you soon, Space Cowboy.
Rebel Galaxy was played on PC via Steam. A copy of the game was provided by the publisher.