If you’re reading this, you probably know that the brilliance of Puzzle Quest lies in the beautiful matrimony between casual and hardcore. The original PQ took a casual puzzle concept (Bejeweled) and legitimized it with plenty of hardcore RPG elements like intense battles, character leveling and engrossing story. Puzzle Quest: Galactrix continues this noble pursuit (in space!), and while it may look quite different from its fantasy-themed predecessor, it still has the same feel of the original Puzzle Quest at heart.
Although Galactrix looks more like Hexic, the gameplay is still more akin to the Bejeweled-style play of the original, where you swap adjacent gems to form lines of matching colors. In battles, each opponent takes turns swapping gems on the same board. Each color gem corresponds to a specific power – matching blue gems replenishes your ship’s shields, red powers your weapons, green for computers and yellow for engines. White gems give you experience points (called intel), and purple give you psi points (allowing you to avoid random battles). Of course there are also mine gems that do direct damage to your opponent when matched, and come in four strengths, one, three, five and ten.
One of the greatest improvements over Challenge of the Warlords is the omission of character classes. We were skeptical at first, but in place of character classes (that tend to limit the growth of your character), you have a spaceship you can upgrade and customize however you like. Your special moves come in the form of items you can attach to your ship, like crazy powerful lasers, disruptor fields to jam enemy shields, anti-gravity devices to mess with the way gems fill the board, and so on. The amount of items available as the game progresses is staggering, and it seems like there’s an item for whatever power you can dream up that you’d like your ship to have.
Because of the brilliant layout of the battle field, it really does feel like you’re piloting a spaceship, despite the puzzle-based gameplay. The way your shield and hull points (hit points) are displayed, your power levels that correspond to different parts of the ship, and the various ship attachments at your disposal, all contribute to the feel of being a captain sitting on the bridge of a ship issuing commands and monitoring defenses. It’s nice to discover that PQ’s science fiction make-over isn’t entirely cosmetic – it really does improve the feel of the game overall.
Galactrix also offers way more non-battle variations on the core puzzle mechanic than its predecessor. The most frequent non-battle you’ll encounter is leapgate hacking, which allows you to travel from one star system to the next across the map. To hack a leapgate, you must match a specific number of gems in a queue before time runs out, and each leapgate varies in difficulty. In addition to hacking, there are four other minigames to contend with: mining asteroids for cargo, crafting items, searching for rumors (which flesh out the story and give you experience points) and haggling (to lower shop prices).
All of these minigames do offer a commendable amount of variety, but the problem is this: the battles are still the best part! Since the other puzzle variations are often necessary to get through the story (especially hacking leapgates), the battles end up being fewer and further between than we would have liked. We really enjoyed the hacking minigame at first, because racing against the clock was rather exciting, but it wears thin after awhile because you have to do it so frequently. And since you don’t gain any experience from hacking, it starts to feel like a waste of time pretty quickly.
Fortunately, the excess of minigames is only a problem in story mode, and there’s a convenient quick battle option that pairs you up with an evenly matched AI opponent whenever you want. Even better, find a friend for multiplayer battles. If your friend’s character isn’t up to snuff, he can even select among some ready-made ships so the battle will be more evenly matched.
If portability is no concern for you, the Xbox Live Arcade version definitely offers some extra bells and whistles over the DS. Not only is it obviously prettier and more detailed overall, but little things like the announcer declaring “Enemy shields destroyed!” during battle adds some extra satisfaction to nailing a hostile MRI ship with some direct damage.
Its handful of setbacks slightly outweigh its improvements, but Galactrix still offers an addictive, puzzle-meets-RPG experience that won’t disappoint most fans of the original PQ, as well as anyone looking for an accessible game that still packs plenty of substance.
Feb 20, 2009