Developer: Infinite Interactive
Release Date: Q1 2009
I didn't know what I was really in for when I sat down with one of the developers from Infinite Interactive to look at Puzzle Quest: Galactrix. I was shown how missions worked, the basics of gameplay, and eventually went into a sort of information-gathering mini-game that required a player to match so many of a certain color of tiles within a time limit. The developer knew I had been a tremendous fan (and addict) of the original Puzzle Quest and simply handed the mouse to me to watch me play. As the seconds ticked down and my moves became faster and more precise, he began laughing in appreciation. "Oh wow. You're really in the zone." I was. In little more than 20 minutes, Puzzle Quest: Galactrix had me as hooked as the original ever did. Even as I type this, I remember the clicking and scheming of that sublimely tense movement. Trying to write about Galactrix frankly makes me want to play it again so badly that it's hard to focus on finding the words to describe it. Playing Galactrix is an emotion, a feeling, as pure and intense as any you can ever experience playing any video game.
On a superficial level, Galactrix is to Mass Effect as the original Puzzle Quest was to generic RPG fantasy settings of all kinds. Instead of being attached to a character class, you now grow your character's abilities by investing points in four core stats. What your character will be good at is dictated largely by how you've spent your level-up points. Your abilities in combat will be a blend of your character's intrinsic skills and various weapons and traits you've equipped to your spaceship. Customizing your spaceship works a bit like customizing your character with gear did in the original Puzzle Quest, but your choices are far more important to victory. Instead of your character having a HP bar, damage in Puzzle Quest: Galactrix first reduces a ship's shields, and then begins affecting the ship's HP. In a very welcome addition to preparing for battles, your protagonist actually has three spaceship slots and can pick which slot he or she wants to use before a fight.
The screen for combat in Galactrix bears the same immediate resemblance to the screen for the puzzle game Hexic that the original Puzzle Quest's bore to the screen for Bejeweled. While it's true that Puzzle Quest was essentially Bejeweled with ogres and hilarious leather armor, Galactrix absolutely does not play anything like Hexic. It is still a basic match-three game where you have the ability to "swap" the location of any two titles. So, why the distinctive "hexagon" playing field on-screen? This is actually one of many changes Infinite Interactive is making to ensure that Galactrix is more balanced than its best-selling predecessor. After eliminating tiles in Galactrix, the board can be refreshed from any of the hexagon's six directions, chosen essentially at random, rather than necessarily refreshed from above. This cuts down on incidents where the turning point of a battle is a series of lucky tiles dropping from the top of the screen rather than a skillful use of abilities. It's also harder to get extra turns from using abilities and making big matches in Galactrix, too. Instead of a free turn for a match of four or five as in Puzzle Quest, now you only get free turns by making matches of five tiles, which is fairly difficult given the unpredictable way in which the field refreshes after a match.
As part of the demo session, the rep from Infinite Interactive walked me through the basics of obtaining and fulfilling a mission. This isn't going to be anything new to veterans of previous Puzzle Quest titles. Go to a location, and an NPC will tell you to go somewhere else and accomplish a particular thing. You may need to talk to another NPC, defeat an enemy, or go through weird little "hacking" mini-games reminiscent of the mini-game I described in the introductory paragraph. Then, go report your quest to advance the plot and get rewards. What makes Galactrix's missions a little more interesting than Puzzle Quest's is that there's often a mystery aspect to them. In the demo mission, it was clear what I had to obtain and what general area I needed to be in to find it, but I was not told specifically which planet to go into. Instead, I had to use my own judgment and visit a variety of planets in the system before I found the right one.
After completing the mission, the developer beside me smiled in the mischievous sort of way you don't often see from developers doing a demo. "So, that mission was just one system. Let me show you the game's entire map." He took over the mouse for a moment (Galactrix has wonderful controls) and zoomed out the screen. My eyes widened, and while my jaw didn't actually drop, I felt the urge. It cannot be understated how enormous the total game map of Galactrix was. It was too big to fit on a single screen, containing dozens upon dozens of system nodes. Each system contained at least one planet. Most of them were locked away, but I pointed out that the game had to contain hundreds of planets. The dev smiled and nodded, pointing out that while it wouldn't be required for a player to explore them all, power users and completionists would find great rewards waiting for them if they were willing to undertake the enormous task of trying to visit every planet in every system.
Something I went out of my way to discuss a bit with Infinite Interactive's rep was multiplayer. Unlike the original Puzzle Quest's simple two-player multiplayer, Galactrix supports up to four players in a single battle. In Puzzle Quest, the extremely broken equipment and skill combinations possible meant that for two high-level players, who would win was a simple question of who got the first turn. I had to wonder how Galactrix intended to fix this. Infinite Interactive wasn't able to say much about multiplayer balance, stating honestly that they were still doing core design and balance work. I was assured that balancing out the gameplay was a primary concern, and that players would be allowed to keep different profiles for single- and multiplayer games. This would allow people who wanted multiplayer action to set up characters specifically for multi, probably without whatever super-broken abilities and ships you'd be likely to acquire after a lengthy haul in the single-player campaign.
The visuals for Galactrix are as Spartan and simple as the original's, mostly composed of 2-D stills and various menu interfaces. PC is the lead platform for the game this go-round, so the various art assets seem to be getting prepared at higher resolution than the original's. You can pick from a variety of portraits for starting to build your character, and there are oodles of assets depicting various ships, NPCs, evil robots, and the various planets you can visit. The tiles in the actual puzzle part of the game are new, and as in Puzzle Quest, certain colors represent certain game functions. Various colors produce particular types of energy, purple produces "psi" energy, white produces intel, and the glowing red tiles are attack tiles. The tile-based attack system has been overhauled, so that each attack tile spawns with a randomly determined damage value. When you make attack tiles to launch an attack, the damage dealt is the sum total of the damage value of each individual tile.
I sank dozens and dozens of hours into Puzzle Quest on various platforms, and with a mere 20 minutes to spend with Galactrix, I began to feel the twitch of that old gameplay compulsion. Right now, Galactrix seems to be solidly designed on both the puzzle and RPG fronts, with plenty of character customization balancing out the need to play the puzzle game well. If the spaceships really do balance out multiplayer combat, then that aspect of the game is going to give the title enormous longevity. If the vast map is half as fun to explore as it seems, Galactrix is going to have even more gameplay in the core quest than its mega-hit predecessor. All told, Galactrix is looking like a sequel well worth waiting for, and an adequate apology for the flood of cash-in ports of the original that we sat through for the past few years. Also, with Galactrix hitting the PC first, any game balance issues will hopefully be worked out before the 360 and Nintendo DS releases scheduled to follow it. Infinite Interactive is also promising vast amounts of DLC, which should be a great incentive to buy on PC or the Xbox 360 and a slight bummer for prospective Nintendo DS buyers. No matter what platform you play it, Galactrix should definitely be an even more fun enhancement of the formula.
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