Developer: Infinite Interactive
Release Date: February 24, 2009
Puzzle games are a dime a dozen, and you need to do something special to stand out among the Tetris clones and "match three" games on the market. Developer Infinite Interactive did something incredible two years ago by successfully mixing a puzzle game with an RPG. The end result was the addictive, difficult and wonderful game that was Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords. We now have a follow-up, Puzzle Quest: Galactrix, that feels largely similar but adds and fixes some problems with the original. The result is a mixed bag that's still a very fun game, but it's simply not as strong or innovative as the original Puzzle Quest.
Puzzle Quest has shed its fantasy setting for a sci-fi backstory. The game takes place several hundred years after humanity destroys Earth, and several megacorporations rise from the ashes and lead humanity to the stars. You are a new agent for MRI, an elite peacekeeper organization, and you're ready to leap into the action. That's about as interesting as the story gets, though. Any twists are pretty obvious, the dialogue varies between forgettable and cringe-inducing, and the story just can't hold a candle to the gameplay. An RPG with a weak story will usually wreck a game, but thankfully, the gameplay is strong enough to keep you playing.
Like any RPG, Galactrix starts you off in tutorial land. You'll spend your first chunk of gameplay learning how the world works and getting access to everything. Once you do, you're able to do as you please in the galaxy, assuming you can survive. Just like the previous title, if you fail at a challenge or puzzle, you simply back off or try again.
When you're not in combat, there are a few other things you can be doing, such as hacking, mining and building things based on plans you've found. All four of these activities are simple variations on the game's standard puzzle scheme, and there's a genuine thrill to winning battles and getting rewards for mining or building. Hacking, however, is something that most players will grow to hate.
The map of Galactrix is set up as a series of over 70 solar systems that are connected by ancient LeapGates, which are sort of like wormholes that quickly connect the far reaches of the galaxy. Very early in the game, the system is taken offline by an unknown force, and you discover that you're good at hacking the LeapGates. Whenever you encounter a gate you haven't entered before (and they sometimes close again for no good reason!), you have to win the hacking puzzle to continue.
A hacking puzzle consists of the puzzle board, time limit, and a lengthy sequence of gems colors with which you must create combos. These often rely on the luck of the draw, as you'll sometimes have all of the required gem colors on the board, but at other times, the next color that you need to match is nowhere in sight. You're also under a very strict time limit, but you cannot move pieces while others fall in or vanish. As new pieces fall in, they'll often match with something on the board and launch a long string of combos, which ends up wasting precious seconds as you desperately click and try to move something on the other side of the board. One of the harder LeapGates took about an hour to hack, until I got extremely lucky with pieces falling in and initiating a combo with the next color that I needed. What was my reward for opening this gate? About 10 minutes of side-quests.
One of the more interesting aspects of Galactrix is the galactic economy. It's not perfect and is missing a couple of key components, but it's solid and creates a universe that feels more real. Each solar system is under the control of a different faction, and depending on how much that faction likes you, prices will increase or decrease on items for your spaceship and commodities. To make money, you'll need to get commodities via the spoils of battle or by mining asteroids.
Mining is a simple puzzle where you must match up the commodities on the asteroid in combos of three or greater. You continue until you've mined everything from the asteroid or you reach a point where you can't make another move. From there, it's a simple matter of finding a way to spend the commodities. You can find a place where they're worth a lot and sell them there, or maybe there's a skill that you want to build that requires 20 units of the commodity.
As I said, though, there's a major flaw in the system: Trade routes are impossible to set up. The game allows you to have three ships at a time, and cargo ships are one of the options, but you can never actually buy commodities. Being able to buy minerals low in one place and sell them high in another would have added so much more to the economy, and other space titles, like Freelancer and Escape Velocity, have such things in place, so it's notable that you can get commodities by getting your hands dirty.
Crafting items is yet another "match three" puzzle game. Thankfully, there's no time limit here, but when you match three, they don't completely disappear from the board. You're left with a single new gizmo, which must then be matched with two more gizmos (color doesn't matter here) to progress in building the item. It's not something you'll be doing very often, but it's a refreshing change of pace.
The real meat and bones of the gameplay is in the battles, where you face off against an AI player to destroy the other's ship. Matching colored hexagons gives you a number of that color's energy so that you can use items or level up your character. The items are either purchased or created, and each one requires a specific amount of colored energy to power up. You use these items and slug it out with your opponent by matching Bola Mines on the board until one of you is defeated. Battles are often tense and can dramatically shift direction in a hurry. The right items and moves can make or break you.
There's a fair amount of strategy, from determining which way the new gems fall in (gems come from the direction in which you moved the first selected gem), to setting up large combos that put you in an advantageous position. Unfortunately, there's still some luck at play here, and the AI is handed good luck often enough that it almost feels like cheating. Too often, he'll set up a single combo and every new piece that falls in results in a combo. Your ship will likely be on the borderline of destruction afterward, and you can't help but just stare in a mix of frustration and anger. It's not enough to break the game, though, and for the most part, the battles are still a great deal of fun.
Graphically, Galactrix has tried to step up the graphics from Challenge of the Warlords. It looks fantastic when gems shatter on the battlefield, and the board and artwork are improved in appearance from the previous entry — even if the characters feel a bit uninspired — and the game world has moved into 3-D. The title's controls feel a bit odd, as your ship always tries to head toward your mouse cursor; a click interface would have worked much better. Performance is generally good, which shouldn't really be too difficult, since there's not all that much going on at once.
The sound design was something I wanted to love but ultimately couldn't. While the soundtrack is fantastic and adds to the mood in a wonderful way, it feels buggy. It cuts in and out at random and is extremely jarring every time it does so. It's really unfortunate, since the soundtrack is so well done, and I hope to see this fixed in a patch later on.
If you get sick of playing by yourself, good luck trying to get the multiplayer working. The multiplayer in Galactrix is completely and utterly unforgivable. There's LAN play and Internet play, but the lack of hot seat play is definitely puzzling. Secondly, the Internet play travels back in time to the days of Doom and forces you to know the IP address of the person against whom you want to play. Any modern game has a system that allows you to see games worldwide, and a throwback to 1990 is just plain bad design.
Puzzle Quest: Galactrix does an admirable job of trying to hold your interest for a lengthy puzzle game, but it has a weak story, the AI feels cheap, an aggravating hacking game and the extremely weak multiplayer drag down the experience. It's still a strong puzzle title and a decent deal for $20, but if you aren't itching to get your puzzle on, there's no reason to go out of your way to get lost in space with this one.
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