Review: Galactic Keep

By Owen Faraday 26 Aug 2015 0
Do my student loans count as "another sentient creature"? Do my student loans count as "another sentient creature"?

Galactic Keep was very nearly iOS gaming's own Duke Nukem Forever, the vaporware yardstick that internet wiseguys trot out to declare that some other game is doing comparatively better -- as in, "at least it came out before Galactic Keep." When Duke Nukem Forever finally slouched over the finish line in 2011, punters wondered where all the effort had gone. No one had expected DNF to be good, exactly, but we expected a spectacle -- fifteen years' worth of it.

By contrast, there is no question at all where Galactic Keep's six years of development were spent. This is a game that is hand-made the way a Fabergé egg is. There is extraordinary detail everywhere, from the character back-stories to the enormous bestiary of enemies right down to every last insignificant corner of the options menu. Though the game is the work of a handful of people, the game's art direction is so cohesive and so out-there-weird that it sometimes feels like a found object from an earlier time, like a pen-and-paper RPG printed in a forgotten zine self-published by a slightly unhinged neighborhood character.

Number of eyes in this screenshot: zero Number of eyes in this screenshot: zero

In Galactic Keep, you take control--one character at a time--of the members of a special forces group in a galaxy where humans co-exist with a vast menagerie of beings. A whole colony of humans have vanished and you have to piece together the mystery of where they've vanished to.

One of the telltales of a really fine work of science fiction is how well it convinces you that if you pulled the curtain off the stage, there'd be a vast universe stretching out beyond, with a history and future all its own. Galactic Keep sells this illusion really well, dropping you into a colorful space opera setting that seems like it's been a part of nerd pop culture since the 80s. Part of the trick is that creator Rob Lemon (quite notably) does not share most people's prejudices about bipedalism and bilateral symmetry -- his creature designs include sentient piles of refuse, skull-headed cyborg warriors, and undead samurai who manifest in this world as a noxious sword-wielding vapour. By my reckoning only about 50% of the characters in Galactic Keep have eyes at all, 25% have more than two, and I've definitely seen at least one of them driving a cab in New York.

It's a memento mori, I guess. It's a memento mori, the Fafnir says condescendingly.

The originality of the setting and the characters is dazzling. Lemon emphatically rejects the labor-saving concept of generic enemies -- you will encounter a few repeats here and there but there were so many different opponents packed into Galactic Keep's free-roaming levels that I lost count of them all. It's like seeing the Mos Eisley Cantina for the first time, albeit a very Cronenberg-ian one.

The game's story is lean and told entirely through small dialogue and narration pop-ups that show up as you move around the Galactic Keep's several maps. Galactic Keep is wholly committed to the premise that it is a real pen-and-paper RPG, with a friend as the dungeon master. The DM's narration has a pulpy space opera feel, but Lemon is capable of evocative prose and I was genuinely interested to see where the story was taking me.

Devoid of dialogue choices and plot decisions, Galactic Keep is primarily concerned with combat, and this is where the game stumbles a bit. My opinion of the combat swerved wildly as I spent more time with it: initial disappointment, then admiration, ultimately coming to rest somewhere between the two.

12. Balkyn is the cuddliest Galactic Keep hero, though that's like being the Winnipeg Jet with the most remaining teeth.

In Galactic Keep, you can always see your character and all enemies within areas of the map you've explored, represented as You can unlock more player characters by exploring , which will come in very handy in your hardcore playthrough. You can unlock more player characters by exploring , which will come in very handy in your hardcore playthrough.[/caption]

While meatier combat would have made my time in Galactic Keep a bit more cerebral, it's one of my favorite game experiences of 2015. A few days ago Kelsey wrote that Galactic Keep is like a time machine to your nerdy childhood, and I couldn't agree more. It might have been in production for six years, but it feels more like twenty-six. It's the very essence of what indie gaming is all about: this is no game made by committee, but one man's utterly original and compelling vision brought to life. I hope we get to see more of it.

Review: Galactic Keep

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