Space sims can be daunting affairs. Their mind boggling complexity often means that they're more at home on the PC than consoles, and anyone that's invested time in gaming black holes like Elite: Dangerous or EVE Online, will freely admit they're not to everyone's taste. So, what if you're the sort of person who wouldn't mind blasting your way across the cosmos, but don't fancy spending hours meticulously plotting trade routes? Well, Rebel Galaxy's abridged approach to genre may just be for you.
The game opens with your character travelling to the frontier of explored space at the request of your Aunt Juno. When you arrive, you find out that she's disappeared without a trace, leaving her spacecraft – the fittingly named 'Rasputin' – in your care. As if that wasn't mystery enough, she's also saddled you with a strange metallic item – supposedly some sort of AI – that doesn't seem to do an awful lot. Rather than heading straight back home like any sensible person, you take to the stars to track down your Aunt, and hopefully make a bit of money in the process.
When you first head out on your hunt, you pick up the first in a pretty lengthy string of campaign missions. These provide a bit of direction in the early game, and also act as a good barometer as to whether your current ship – as well as its equipped weapons and components – are up to the task ahead. With each mission being given a difficulty rating based on your equipment – which range from very low to very high – you can gauge the level of risk and decide if you want to attempt it with your current set-up, or need to make some upgrades before heading into danger.
Captaining your star ship is all handled from a third-person view, and it'll be mere seconds into your maiden voyage when you realise that you can only steer you craft left or right. With no ability whatsoever to pitch or roll, you're locked into one plane of movement. Fortunately, so is everything else – including space stations and planets – with only smaller objects such as fighter crafts, asteroids, and jettisoned cargo containers able to drift above or below your position.
Cranking up the throttle only moves you forward at sub light speeds, so if you want to reach other locations, you'll need to accelerate to warp velocity. Engaging your warp drive hurtles your craft forward at a breakneck pace, and as you rocket towards your destination, you can try and avoid any obstacles that lie on your route, as straying too close to an asteroid field or a fleet of ships will pull you out of warp.
Compared to other space sims, getting from A-to-B is really straight forward. That said, while there isn't a lot of complexity to flying around in Rebel Galaxy, it still manages to be enjoyable, mainly due to the fact that you're always in full control. There's quite a bit of fun to be had seeing how close you get to planets without dropping out of warp or grazing the side of an asteroid as you try and avoid enemy laser fire in a battle. In addition, since there's no fuel to worry about, and crashes barely dent your shields, you can truck around like a mad man without getting yourself into too much trouble.
What you do need to be careful about, though, is biting off more than you can chew in any of the space battles you get into with the hostile factions that you encounter. Right from the start, you'll occasionally get pulled out of warp by enemy fleets, and the first thing that you need to do is to assess the threat by scanning their ships. This gives you an idea of ship types and strength, what cargo they're carrying, and if there's any bounty to be claimed for destroying them. Working out whether to fight or run is key to your survival, as stronger ships will tear through your shields and hull in seconds, turning you to dust.
Getting obliterated sends you back to the last time that the game auto saved, which it unfortunately only does when you enter or leave a space station. As a result, there will be times when you complete a task only to get destroyed before you can make it back to a base, forcing you to redo everything again. After you lose your progress a couple of times, you'll start returning to space stations more frequently, which becomes a real annoyance due to the sheer volume of needless travelling it introduces.
So, what about Rebel Galaxy's ship-to-ship combat? Well, due to the decision to limit the action to one plane of movement, its battles feels more akin to those in a naval combat game than one set in space. In fact, if you've spent any time playing Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag, you will see a number of parallels here.
By shifting your view around to either the port or starboard sides of your ship, you'll highlight the fields of fire for your broadside weapon, and by using the L2 trigger you can focus their aim, changing its wild and inaccurate volleys into a precise chain of shots that can be used to hit much more distant targets. On top of your broadside weapons, ships also come with a varying number of turret emplacements, which can be fitted with different turret types that have their own strengths and weaknesses. For instance, flak turrets are great against fighters but useless against capital ships, while mining lasers have a short range but are really good for taking down shields.
While all weapons can be controlled manually, turrets can be left to automatically target enemy crafts, with each turret able to be programmed to only attack certain types of targets. This ensures that you don't have to micro manage them during a fight, freeing you to focus on firing your broadsides effectively, and positioning your ship in a way that allows you to dish out the most damage, while minimising your own exposure to enemy fire.
Your positioning in any battle is often the key to success, as even with weaker weapons it's still possible to come out on top as long as you're not completely outmatched, and it's this layer of strategy which ultimately makes its ship-to-ship combat one of Rebel Galaxy's biggest draws. It's really exciting to draw off and destroy the fighters escorting a capital ship, before flying between its fields of fire to give it everything that you've got at close range.
There's way more to do in Rebel Galaxy than just getting into fights, though, with each of the other activities you can mess around with serving a single purpose: getting you money. As alluded to earlier, there's a constant need to upgrade every aspect of your ship in order to progress, and if you've not invested your money wisely you'll hit a brick wall as the encounters get so difficult that your ship will have no chance of surviving.
Whether you want to buy a completely new ship or switch out some weapons on your current craft, you're going to need a steady flow of credits to fund your purchases. The acquisition of these funds will be the primary concern for most of the 30 odd hours it can take to complete the main campaign, and as you gain access to higher level components or decide to purchase one of the massive dreadnaughts available later in the game, you're going to be forking over some serious cash.
Fortunately, there are plenty of ways for you to earn credits. So, whether you decide to take on missions for one of the game's factions, haul cargo between space stations, or turn pirate, there are quite a few options open to you. The problem is that after the first ten hours or so you'll have seen most of what these activities have to offer, and it starts to feel like a grind as you try to find the quickest way to earn credits for the minimum effort.
Constantly having to put the brakes on your progress through the campaign in order to top up your funds really damages the pacing, and while there's some really great missions towards the end of the campaign, it's easy to imagine many players getting bored way before they reach them just because of the tedious repetition that steadily creeps in. Obviously, if you get really reductive about space sims in general, most of them are built around earning credits to buy better ships and parts, but in Rebel Galaxy's case there just isn't enough here to support the 20 plus hours of grind.
One aspect, though, that you won't get bored of during your time playing Rebel Galaxy is its setting. The frontier systems you travel through are presented as the Wild West of space, where everyone is out for themselves and life is cheap. As a result, the systems you travel through are filled with debris, and the ships you encounter feel like they'd be right at home in the Firefly TV series. This interesting setting is epitomised in its choice of music which is made up entirely of licenced tracks that straddle the border between rock and country music in a surprisingly effective way. In fact, this aesthetic works so well that it's probably going to be the first thing that'll pop into your mind when you look back on what you enjoyed most during your tour of the stars.
Rebel Galaxy is a streamlined take on the space sim that while nowhere near as complex as its PC peers still has enough going on to keep you more than entertained. It's a real shame then that despite its enjoyable ship-to-ship combat, interesting setting, and fantastic soundtrack, it ultimately ends up being tarnished by a repetitive grind that needlessly pads out its length.