From the moment the game is launched it's easy to see that Rebel Galaxy pays homage to the likes of Elite and Freelancer on PC. You are placed in the shoes of the typical everyman who suddenly receives a message from an estranged aunt. Cryptically, she requests that you make every possible haste to travel to the edges of known space and provides you with the access codes to a rusty old ship with pop guns for weapons and tissue paper for armour. Upon arrival, you meet with a strange individual in the bar of Rust City and so begins your adventure in the expansive frontier.
From the word "go", the game firmly plants its boots in the old west, pulling together an eclectic mix of licenced music from the likes of Blues Saraceno and Blue News, alongside instrumental covers of those same tracks that will make even the most stoic of travellers whoop with delight. This all goes on to nicely frame an orange-tinted backdrop where stars and planets are spaced by asteroid fields and nebulae. Rebel Galaxy makes a point of selling itself on the procedural generation of this content and gives you the impression of a wild and lawless universe ripe for exploration.
The previously mentioned ship provided by your aunt turns out to be a capital-class vessel, large and lumbering when compared to the small fighter craft you may be used to flying in other titles. This departure will be brought into sharp relief when you discover that you can only fly in two dimensions and that the absence of six degrees of freedom in a 3D universe is slightly jarring, though it did bring back memories of sailing the high seas in Assassins Creed IV: Black Flag. Ultimately, this turns the game into an arcade shooter more than a realistic sim, yet the game owes nothing to realism and delights in the exaggerated flamboyance of ship-to-ship combat.
The two enemy archetypes - fighters and capital ships - will be your ever present opponents and to defend against these, your ships are granted turrets for the former and broadside cannons for the latter. The broadside mechanic further cements the capital ship system and evokes strong images of Battlestar Galactica with individual slugging matches between two giants fighting across the void. Enemies make use of scattered debris to either close on your position or run away quickly, turning a simple attack into a pulse-pounding strategic game to maintain an effective firing distance while accounting for the salvo charging time required for both power and accuracy. Yet capital ships are usually protected with a small fighter screen, necessitating the use of turrets that can either be manually aimed for precision shots or AI controlled. Indirect control of turrets through modification of AI targeting behaviour lends an additional level of strategy that can make individual moments interesting.
Defeated enemies have a chance to drop valuable cargo, which can be taken to local space stations and sold for in-game currency. Moreover, each space station has its own market and economy dictated by the surplus or deficiency of certain commodities. By docking with each station, supplies can be purchased and information gathered on local markets, making trade a potential revenue stream. However, it's impossible to know what other stations require unless research has been carried out beforehand and local knowledge is sometimes out of date or simply plain wrong, making trade uncertain and therefore not lucrative as a sole means of revenue. This also effects mining and (to a lesser extent) piracy and usually ended with us dumping cargo at the nearest station, regardless of price.
As wealth is accumulated, funds can be spent on upgrading the ship. This benefit not only extends to your loadouts but also the chassis, and with numerous cannons and turrets - in addition to cargo upgrades, component boosts and hired mercenary NPCs - this means that no two ships should be the same. While most missions are collected from in-station mission boards, others are provided by gorgeously rendered characters with full voice acting, which lends a nice touch to the universe. Missions provide payouts based on their risk levels but no matter whether you choose the easy or hard route, both boil down to the same scenario and indeed this is where Rebel Galaxy becomes a grind. Higher difficulties come with more enemies which can quickly overwhelm even a well-equipped battlecruiser and necessitate hit-and-run tactics the majority of the time. This process is usually continued five or six times to generate enough income to upgrade another component, with the cycle repeating until you get bored.
This would be less frustrating if the game allowed manual saves, which are currently absent. Instead, your progress is saved every time you dock at a station, which can mean repeating the last two or three missions that you've taken on, if you've not docked for a while. If the worst happens and enemies overwhelm your position, the game returns to the main menu instead of spawning back at the last station visited, instantly forcing you to tread the same path back to the mission start point. Though watching the ship charge up for warp can bring the occasional smile, especially when combined with the amazing soundtrack, returning to a mission start can take upwards of two minutes with little to do other than watch the planets fly by. This assumes that your flight occurs through empty space of course, which is rarely the case, and often you will be pulled out of warp in the middle of an asteroid field that appeared from nowhere just moments before. That isn't to say that you can't manoeuvre while in warp but the boredom induced by travel can mean distracted eyes fail to register in time to avoid things. Being prevented from warping in high mass environments means that you'll have to track back in order to re-enter warp, and adds further frustration.
Unfortunately, the final straw of Rebel Galaxy comes in the form of some tremendously bad AI. While the majority of missions are undertaken in a solo capacity, others depend on the survival of key NPCs, which seem to rely on luck more than skill. Numerous times, you'll fail missions because NPCs become stuck on debris or cosy up to dreadnaughts with more firepower than Butch Cassidy. A quick scan of the official game forums suggests these are known bugs and have been in place since the game's PC release and while there are workarounds, it's disappointing to know these issues haven't been fixed before porting and can make losing feel cheap and unfair.
At face value, Rebel Galaxy is an entertaining arcade slugging match with controls simple enough to be picked up by newer players and customisation options appealing to the completionist. With its bombastic cowboy rock soundtrack and Wild West aesthetic, it's certain to provide a few hours of interesting content. However, the longer you play, the more the cracks appear, with the whole thing eventually becoming a grind with more than a fair share of bugs helping the game to feel overly unforgiving and unfair. Time will tell if these issues get fixed but for the moment, Rebel Galaxy is several light years from where it truly wants to be.