Rebel Galaxy Outlaw sits at a crossroads somewhere between American Truck Simulator's slice of trucking Americana and the iconic combat of Freespace 2. It's a highly competent, single-player space combat sim complete with warring factions, pirates, corrupt cops, and dubious sectors filled with all manner of undesirables, a nicely detailed trading system, and stellar combat. While intense difficulty spikes and lacking mission information leaves some scarring on the hull, Rebel Galaxy Outlaw delivers a worthy payload.
You play as Juno Markev, a pilot stuck between the search for her husband's killer, her need to make cash to cover the debt of replacing her recently junked ship, and her shady past. Told largely through comms messages and cutscenes between missions, many of the characters you meet are fairly archetypal, but share a sense of relatability and groundedness that lends them a lot of their charm. Character animation in story cutscenes can feel quite stiff, lending them an uncanny valley vibe, but these moments are short and don't distract from the wider storytelling. Juno herself is a big highlight; her endearingly grounded sense of self-belief and her inability to suffer the fools she finds herself constantly dealing with always makes for fiery dialogue.
Story threads are easy to lose track of due to the sheer number of things to do. When it's just you and your ship, it's all about surviving the hustle of being a space trucker; trading and smuggling goods, taking mercenary jobs, mining and selling resources--anything you can do to keep those credits rolling in so you can upgrade or outright replace the colossal junker of a ship you're given at the game's outset. In the opening hours, your travel is limited to one system and a handful of local missions, but once you get your hands on a jump drive you can start making your way across the galaxy, and things start to open up some more.
There are five ships you can purchase from various stations, each with traits that make them suitable as freighters or as fighters. While some ships are better suited for certain tasks than others, you're not locked into a playstyle because of your choice. Fighters can add cargo bays to move more items, and you can take a freighter fully kitted out with advanced weapons pirate-hunting and it'll still feel pretty good.
The beautifully detailed cockpit is the default view, and it is daunting at first--though you can also play in third-person--which seems weird given that you play an experienced pilot; the numerous switches, lights and dials each flicker away, and you're not really sure what they do at first. There's no tutorial to help with this, so it can feel like you're being thrown in the deep end. But while it takes some time to understand what the ship systems are telling you, it's not long before you're fluent in reading the controls and gaining a better grasp on any given situation. There is support for a flight stick and a HOTAS, but I found it best with a gamepad as everything you need is right at your fingertips.
Stations are where everything outside of combat happens, although you don't hop out of your ship and wander around. Instead you browse a handful of menus to get what you need before setting off on your next journey. This is where you make repairs or ship upgrades, handle commodities trading, sign up to one of the guilds that offer side missions, or browse the standard side missions for that station. It's an elegant way of handling station traversal, and the nice visual shots and animations of the station internals give you a sense of what type of station you're in and the kinds of things you might find there. You can bother the local bartender for helpful gameplay tips, sector news, or other information or play one of the handful of trite but fun mini-games like slots, 8-ball, or Star-Venger, a simple take on an Asteroids-based sprite shooter.
Missions are either picked up from stations or, in the case of story missions, given through dialogue. They generally amount to going to a waypoint and finding or killing something for varying factions. Some of these have an effect on your standing with different factions, which can change who treats you as hostile when out amongst the stars as well as the stations you can land at. Missions also show a level of risk from mild to extreme, but these aren't a great benchmark, as countless times I warped into a mission zone of mild-to-low risk only to be completely overwhelmed within 10 seconds of my arrival. At least a reload after death is super fast, returning you to the last jumpgate you took or station you'd left and allowing you to do something else for a while before coming back to try again. But this is also a huge source of frustration as the only way to push through these difficulty spikes is to grind for credits and ship upgrades.
The tension in a good firefight is wonderful. When you're not tuned in to one of the seven different radio stations that broadcast throughout the galaxy, the game's southern hard rock soundtrack kicks into overdrive as the lasers start flying. Firefights will sometimes offer up instant rewards, either as bounty credits or loose cargo that's been freed from the breached hull, and you can freely engage the tractor beam to suck these up in order to sell on yourself and reap the benefits. In some cases you may also find an ejected pilot who you can haul in for detention, or you can enslave them and sell them on the black market, though doing so will put you on the wrong side of the space cops, which can make life in the outer rims much harder than it needs to be.
The cockpit views on each of the game's crafts are tight, and there's no option to move your head around, so you rely heavily on your radar to know where to go and what's around you. It's invaluable when in the thick of the action, which can very quickly get overwhelming unless you act decisively. Power management is a big part of this, and it's a system that adds a nice slice of tactical thinking to the visual feast of the combat. Weapons fire has two modes, linked and staggered, and while linked fire will unleash the full power of your hardpoints, it'll drain your available power quickly and severely limit your ship's capabilities. Staggered fire only fires one hardpoint at a time, meaning it uses less power overall, but can be sustained for longer. You can also quickly reroute power between the engines, weapons and your shields, but as there's only so much to go around you're always settling on a compromise between offense and defense, so the system as a whole works wonderfully well as a test of situational awareness.
Rebel Galaxy Outlaw's gorgeous visual design is one of its biggest strengths. There's a huge assortment of stations, ships, planets and other things to see while out in the vastness of space. From the huge casinos of the Nevada sector to the glass-capped atriums of Hobbes Station, there are postcard moments to be found almost everywhere in the galaxy. There's also a wildly in-depth and excellent ship painter that lets you completely redesign the paint job of your ship, so you can customize to your craft's look down to minute details. That extends to the combat, too, with under fire shields flashing in protest and hull plating falling apart as its struck by cannon fire before bursting into a flaming wreck in front of you. Distant firefights look like a laser light show.
There is a lot to do in Rebel Galaxy Outlaw, so much so that it's easy to lose yourself among the myriad of activities beyond flying around and shooting things. Juno is a great character despite her sometimes jarring movements, as are much of the rest of the charming cast. The combat is fast, frenetic and consistently challenging, although that challenge can sometimes feel impossible without stepping back and grinding out some progress elsewhere, which quickly gets frustrating. Thankfully the core of the game--its combat, trading, and space flight--are all superb and had me launching into the stars for many hours of galactic trading and explosive firefights.