Galerians: Ash Review
Platform: PlayStation 2
Reviewed on PlayStation 2
During the early 2500s, a powerful artificial intelligence named Dorothy was constructed to serve the residents of Michelangelo City. She was given incredible control over the city and its infrastructure, including the ability to self-replicate. She began to drift out of control. Her chief creator, Dr. Steiner tried to use metaphysical explanations to bring her under control, but Dorothy could not bring herself to be subservient to a higher power. She wanted to be a god. She reasoned that if she were to create a race of superior humanoids – Galerians – she would be creator and god to them.
Dorothy followed this line of reasoning, ultimately developing the Family Program, a systematic program of genetic experimentation on human children, creating the Galerians. The Galerians have vast psychic powers and a friendly relationship with radioactivity. They are also young, impressionable, fiercely loyal to Dorothy, and mostly psychotic. Once Dr. Steiner caught a glimpse of Dorothy's machinations, he developed a virus program to destroy Dorothy. The virus program was implanted in the daughter of a co-worker named Lilia, and the vector, or launch program, was implanted in his own son, Rion.
In Galerians, the first game, Rion discovered that he himself was a Galerian. He nearly died delivering the virus program, with Lilia's help, to Dorothy, undoing the AI, and freeing the city from her tyranny. For the past six years, Rion's body has been kept in a state of suspended animation, his mind battling Dorothy over and over again, trapped in one of her partial backup routines. Six years have passed since Dorothy has been defeated, but humanity is in a sorry state. The Last Galerians, those particularly powerful individuals that Dorothy created late in the Family Program, have cornered humanity and are slowly destroying Michelangelo City. They have the means to resurrect Dorothy, and are led by a Galerian named Ash, who intends to do just that. Rion must stop them at all costs.
Galerians: Ash is creepy. The music is creepy. The setting is creepy. If only the pace could be kept up, the game would be incredibly creepy. As it stands, Galerians: Ash is part survival-horror and part console RPG. Where the game succeeds at being survival horror, it is downright disturbing, mixing surreal foes, throbbing music and disturbing subject matter. Galerians: Ash is weaker when you are searching for keys, fighting a limited variety of respawning foes, and engaging in occasional battles against powerful and difficult foes. Even so, the concept is executed well enough to be genuinely frightening at times, and should be seen to be understood.
The premise – that there are insane, superhuman youths, searching for meaning by destroying the world while attempting to resurrect their god – is a fertile ground for a good fright. The Galerians group with characters like Parano, whose singles ad would read something like: "Good with knives. Enjoys spilling blood on a radioactive evening. Looking for SF to help cut out humans' eyes and replace them with chips that turn them into my puppets." The many cut-scenes are filled with folk who might well give you a hollow feeling in your gut. If it's not already clear, this is not a game for young children. That's what makes the story so compelling – moments such as when Ash, the last Galerian and ringleader of the misbegotten youths, sifts enriched uranium dust through his fingers and into his mouth, the same way a child would drain a pixie stick. Images like that stay with you. The beginning sequences are well executed in that they evoke utter confusion and deja-vu, yet leave enough clues that you know you're making progress in this strange world.
Can you have a mature game without drugs? Probably, but the dangerous relationship Rion has with pharmaceuticals fills the story with a mix of familiar, frightening addiction, and compelling alien power. Rion needs drugs. He needs drugs to unlock and focus his innate powers. He needs drugs to develop those powers to a higher level. Combat is just as much about choosing the right chemical as it is about dodging enemy strikes. Should Rion take too many drugs, he shorts. In this state he becomes a deadly force, unleashing uncontrolled power that is instant death to anyone nearby as he staggers around with a blistering headache. He needs drugs to fix this state. He has drugs that can instantly induce it again, too. Add to that the recovery capsules that are standard game healing fare, and you begin to see how the game is about maintaining a precarious balance. Use just enough drugs to allow Rion to defeat Dorothy's minions. Use too many, and you might find yourself out of Delmetor, the drug necessary to bring Rion back from a short, and he dies.
The environment mostly adds to the setting. The music, heavy on occasional, throbbing bass notes, somehow shakes your very bowels and heightens the tension (as long as the game is moving at a brisk pace). The physical areas, particularly the organic-seeming ones, are fully rendered in three dimensions and well conceived. The Family Program room, for example, is a round area with grotesque maternal icons spaced around the walls like gargoyles, each with a womb containing a full grown adult in suspended animation. A maze, comprised of damaging energy that coalesces as you approach a wall, is a particularly cool effect that heightens the sense of otherworldly fear. Many areas are a bit empty. Sometimes these are rooms of colossal size, meant to dwarf the characters into insignificance. Other times this just feels like a limit of the PlayStation 2, where blocky textures and empty spaces are all the technology can handle.
Galerians creates a rich environment, but can be extremely repetitive. Many elements of the game slow the pace of progress to a wounded crawl, and evoke more of a console-RPG feel. There are too many "find the key" or "unlock switches in a specific order" puzzles. These aren't bad in and of themselves, but when coupled with infinitely respawning foes, and only a few types of those, puzzle-solving becomes a lengthy, dull and repetitive task. The enemies that do exist are cleverly designed and disturbing, but would be more effective in limited numbers. Once slain, these creatures produce capsules that either contain more drugs, or enhance Rion's statistics, increasing his resilience with respect to damage or drug use. Also a minor irritation, these capsules are sometimes scattered throughout rooms, and only appear floating in the air as Rion approaches. This encourages the player to sweep through every centimeter of every room to turn up necessary and valuable drugs, rather than pursuing the plot. The pulsing music is scary, but not after repeatedly walking the same few hallways, slaying the same foes, searching for a key.
While you will spend a good deal of time in the Uranium Refinery, most of the game is spent jumping back and forth between the Airport Terminal that serves as your base of operations, and the Mushroom Tower that was Dorothy's home. Running around within a location is slow, and the game keeps you revisiting the same places repeatedly by making sure that different doors are locked each time. That means you often need to check all the locations you've previously visited to figure out how to reach your destination. In the Mushroom Tower, you must follow an elaborate one-way path several times to reach various computer terminals. Fortunately, Rion has some basic gymnastics experience, and has grown up to be quite the tumbler. Using his ability to tumble you can often avoid the respawning enemies in locations that you have visited several times. Even Rion's ability to do a forward summersault doesn't forgive the poor design choice of having the player run the same gauntlet of rooms repeatedly. Near the end, at least the walls (of the same rooms) get a different appearance, but when you finally revisit the Uranium Refinery, you have to do a good deal of following a traitor on a tour of nearly every room you've previously visited. Sometimes it's just best to get on to the finale.
More off-putting is that boss battles are hard. Very hard. The kind of hard where you need to go for a walk, grab an ice cream cone, read a book and then come back to die again. These battles are mostly against other Galerians, and all of them can be defeated once you've discovered the perfect combination of attack, defense and relative position – one misstep and Rion dies. Some early battles aren't much of a problem. Spider is pleasantly easy to defeat. The first encounter with Ash requires some trial and error. The first encounter with Nitro is brutal. While you get feedback (if you lock on) about the extent of damage to a normal foe, it's not always clear in the boss battles if you are doing sufficient damage to make victory plausible. This is also aggravating because not only does Rion have to stand still to attack with psychic powers, but he (unless he uses Nalcon – a sort of power blast) has to charge up that power while standing still for a time. The boss battles would be smoother and more enjoyable if the player had more clear feedback on why individual attempts were failures. If all of that weren't enough, you will fight the same bosses several times, each time with incremental changes in their strategy to add difficulty. Fortunately, once you've discovered the pattern that can defeat a Galerian, subsequent battles are simpler.
Galerians: Ash is a great game for people who love a series of challenging boss battles. Those battles are spaced out by a lot of hunting for items, tempered by the excellent style of the enemies and a plot that does its best to blur the player's sense of reality. For everyone else, there are some interesting moments, and a few truly horrific concepts, that make this title worth investigating, particularly a very surreal and visually interesting final battle sequence. If you do decide to try it, be careful not to use too many of your drugs early on, lest you be short on supplies when you need them later.