For some game developers, it’s almost a law that a game has to be fun within a certain number of minutes. That was particularly true back in the arcade days, and I suppose things have come full circle because it seems to be especially true now. I think there’s a lot of merit to that philosophy, but like any attempt to make a rule like that, it doesn’t fit every game. Galactic Keep ($3.99) is not very fun in the first few minutes, perhaps even in the first twenty. It’s confusing, it offers little guidance, and it’s just sort of frustrating. A player would probably be forgiven for giving up on the whole thing and jumping to something that offers a smoother and more obvious slice of gratification. Let’s be honest, there are plenty of games where if the first few minutes are rough, things don’t really pull up. But there are also cases where the confusion clears up, the goals start to become more tangible, and frustration melts into a feeling of pure satisfaction. Galactic Keep is one such case.
I imagine for many of our readers, asking for a little more patience is going to be the tiniest little request in the world when it comes to this game. TouchArcade’s first story on this game went up six years ago, after all. That’s a long time in any gaming sector, but in mobile it’s practically another age. Naturally, there’s been a lot of stop and start, with plenty of rebuilding along the way, so the game hasn’t been in consistent development for six years. Still, it’s a long time to have an idea stewing, and Galactic Keep shows that respect in more than a few ways. It’s like a giant, tangled clump of beautiful ambition, with little bits of thread and other assorted bits hanging off of it in places. And I, for one, am absolutely thrilled with it.
Let me help you get over one of the first humps I had to pull myself over to start enjoying the game. While Galactic Keep uses the aesthetics and some of the mechanics of a board game, this is not a board game. The best way I can describe it is as a turn-based, open world RPG. You’re rolling the dice to move, and everything is laid out on a sketched-out grid, but the world you’re moving through in the initial module is bigger and grander by some measure than board games offer at the best of times. You start the game by picking one of several characters. You’ll roll a few stat bonuses and choose one of a few unique skills, and set out on your mission. The developer appears to have plans for multiple adventures, but for now there’s just one. But it’s a real doozy, spanning multiple maps and a variety of locations. In total, I sunk more than twelve hours into it, so don’t worry that it’ll be over too quickly.
Although you start by picking one character, you technically have the whole lot at your disposal. And that’s good, because ‘disposal’ is the operative word early on. The game offers a hardcore mode where character deaths are permanent, and I’m going to strongly advise you don’t play that mode until you’re comfortable with the mechanics, because you’ll probably put your first character in the ground after a few minutes. It’s very easy to die early on in Galactic Keep, especially if you get ambushed by more than one monster. Provided you’re not in hardcore mode, the penalty is rather light. Simply bring another character to the remains of your fallen ally, and you’ll not only be able to recover everything they were carrying, you’ll also be allowed to select them again with no penalty to experience or anything. On top of that, any damage they dealt to the enemy that killed them persists, allowing you to whittle down tough opponents by throwing team members at them one after another. As long as you recover some bodies before you lose your last character, you’ll be able to keep going.
At first, I saw this as a serious flaw. Making the game difficult but essentially allowing the player to slam their head against the wall until it breaks doesn’t appear to be very good design. And it’s not, but it does have certain checks against it in the long run. The further out you venture, the more difficult it can be to recover your teammate’s body. The enemies get tougher, the terrain is less open, and since your dead character was probably carrying all of your good stuff, you’re going to have to make the rescue with your starting gear, a proposition that gets trickier as time goes on. You thankfully don’t have to walk all the way from the starting point to whatever far-out location you perish in. Whenever you switch boards, the entrance becomes your new respawn point. Somewhat related to that point about the gear is that after a few successful runs, you’ll probably have developed a couple of the characters considerably more than the others. Maybe you gained a couple of levels, used a few permanent stat upgrades, or something like that. Trying to recover one of your powerful characters with one of your weaker ones can offer a decent challenge later in the adventure, though not an overwhelming one.
It’s a pretty lenient system, but it basically ensures forward progress unless you make several very big mistakes. It also makes exploration relatively low-risk, encouraging you to duck your head into all sorts of places you might otherwise avoid. That’s where the real joy of the game comes in. There are so many things to see, with points of interest accompanied by a little bit of flavor text that helps flesh out the story. A great deal of it is optional, or it at least feels that way, but even things that have no connection to the main goal have their own little story to tell. From a practical point of view, you’ll usually find some useful loot down these unplanned detours, making it more than worth your while even if you’re not very interested in the story. When you stumble into one of these situations, it almost perfectly scratches that itch that every open world RPG strives to: the feeling that you’ve found something you weren’t supposed to, something that maybe other players haven’t. The lower stakes of the regular difficulty setting make that sense of discovery just about inevitable. There was probably a more graceful way to make that happen, but if it works, it works, I suppose.
Those looking for more teeth in their game will find the hardcore mode happy to oblige. Having character deaths be permanent adds a very palpable tension to just about every move you make. Instead of the somewhat tender margin of error of being allowed to make several mistakes in a row, in hardcore mode you simply get six mistakes, one for each character. If you lose your strongest member because you stuck your head where you shouldn’t have, that’s just too bad for you. On top of that, you can’t heal damage by resting the way you can in normal mode. I haven’t even come close to finishing the included adventure in this mode. I imagine it’s going to take me quite a while before I do. There are an awful lot of random elements that can make things go badly for you, which can make this mode a little too frustrating at times. The game’s a bit too long to get away with it, compared to shorter roguelikes that use as many if not more random happenings. I appreciate that this mode is here, though. I also like that you can toggle it on and off as you like, though be warned that any character who dies in hardcore mode will stay permanently dead even if you switch it off.
Those random bits are probably where Galactic Keep feels most like the board games its presentation is based on. Movement is a random roll of the dice no matter how swift your character might be. It feels kind of out of place, to be honest, since there are plenty of times where there’s no reason to have you moving according to a dice roll. However, your best source of free healing is connected to rolling high numbers on your movement roll, so if there are enemies about, there’s certainly a point to it. You can recover hit points based on how many spaces you have left to move when you end your turn. When chaining battles, the difference between life and death can certainly come from rolling a ten instead of a one as the next enemy approaches. The other random aspects feel pretty familiar for RPG fans, even if they can equally wreck you on a hardcore run. Rolling for initiative, doing savings throws, and critical hits during battles are genre staples at this point. The critical hits in this game can be devastating, though, since they generally not only do a lot of damage but also incapacitate the target in some form. It’s very hard to come back from being on the receiving end of one.
The battle system is another part of the game that takes a little while to warm up properly. At the beginning of the game, you have very few strategic options in a fight. One of them, blocking, is essentially worthless until you build up your endurance stat, and even then, its effectiveness is dubious. Another, using your character’s special attack, is limited to one use per battle until you level up a bit. That means most of your early fights will involve hitting attack, using healing items if your hit points get low, and praying nothing goes ca-ca in the interim. Soon, you’ll start accumulating weapons and items that have interesting effects in battle. Things become a lot more interesting once you’ve gathered up some of this fine gear, especially parts that can modify your existing weapons into far more deadly configurations. Battles are turn-based, always one-on-one, and the enemy is usually clever enough to turn tail if you’ve got them on the ropes. Any other enemies in the room will patiently wait their turn to take a swing at you, but they certainly won’t give you a break to heal.
It could use with some speeding up in places, and I certainly grew weary of watching the well-rendered D10 spin on every turn. I’d love to be able to reroll my initial stats on a character before I take them out the first time, since bad rolls here can make one of your handful of characters worthless. I feel like the free healing could be set up to let you bring your character back to full without painstakingly rolling the die for several turns, even when nothing is around. The difficulty curve and overall balancing is really weird, and the random elements will probably drive high-level turn-based tactics fans absolutely bonkers. I wish I could have multiple save files, though I do love the iCloud support. And yes, the early minutes of the game could probably use just a little more direction, even if it’s nothing more than making the non-linearity of the game a bit clearer. That’s pretty much the entire list of criticisms I’ve got.
The sense of exploration is great, thanks in no small part to having a big world filled with lots of little things to come across. The presentation is unique for the type of game this is, with evocative text more than making up for any lack of refinement and detail that the board game motif carries. You really get invested in your characters, especially as one or two start to break from the pack and start gaining meaningful improvements. The game only gets better the more you play it, and that’s only partly on the rough beginning. The majority of that steady uptick in enjoyment comes from the game carefully pulling back layers to reveal just how densely-packed its world really is. It’s quite the magic trick. I haven’t even talked about the art, which is abstract and alien in all the right ways.
Galactic Keep is an obvious labor of love. Anyone who has followed its development probably doesn’t need to be told that. Like many labors of love, it has some rough patches, no doubt about it. Taken on the whole, though, it’s one of the most compelling RPGs I’ve played this year. Once I pushed through the awkward stuff at the start, I found myself hopelessly and happily lost in exploring all of its nooks and crannies, chasing down every little piece of flavor text, and making my squad into the best bunch of goons they could be. Even if developer Gilded Skull never adds another module to the game, there’s plenty here to enjoy. I sincerely hope there’s more to come, though, because friends, I think I’m in love.