IGN Review of Puzzle Quest: Galactrix
The gaming scene is littered with Bejewelled clones and other variations on the "match three" genre. But when Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords arrived in 2007 it took this casual concept and ran with it into role-playing territory. The result was one of the most addictive experiences in modern gaming. Players sank good portions of their lives into completing quests, leveling up their characters, forging items, seizing castles, capturing monsters, and learning spells. Oh, and matching gems. Lots and lots of gems. Now Puzzle Quest's successor, Galactrix, has arrived. Although it is set in a different universe (our universe, actually) and stars an all-new cast, the addictive and varied gameplay is still here.
Galactrix sheds the fantasy setting of Challenge of the Warlords and blasts off into outer space. The mood is a bit more serious this time, although certain characters will provide comic relief when they join your party. After a great war destroys Earth, four mega-corporations arise from the ashes and assume leadership of mankind. The survivors head out into space to find a new life -- and they find new life. Hundreds of other races and cultures make their home in the various galaxies of the universe. Galactrix begins hundreds of years after these events, when mankind has established a stable presence among the alien races.
Instead of several characters and classes to choose from, Galactrix limits players to a choice of two: a male or female pilot. This is a bit of a disappointment, as the various classes in Challenge of the Warlords gave us a different arsenal of spells depending on what we chose and allowed us to approach battles in different ways.
Once you've made your choice of pilot you'll find the game moves along quickly. After a couple brief tutorial missions you'll be gaining crew members and chasing after a mysterious genetic experiment that apparently broke loose and murdered an entire crew.
The flow of gameplay in Galactrix will be familiar to Puzzle Quest fans. Players cruise around the galaxy accepting missions and sidequests, fight battles on a match three puzzlefield, and gain experience along the way. The main differences are the size of the universe (Galactrix is huge), how you earn cash and items, and how the puzzle game works.
Let's get the puzzle game out of the way first. You're still matching different colored gems in rows of at least three, but now the pieces are hexagonal. That means they can be swapped in six directions instead of four. Since Galactrix is set in zero gravity, pieces can be replenished from any direction of the playing field. The direction you swap determines which way new pieces will fall in, so if you swap upwards the board will shift up. Galactrix has some fun with this concept and you can use items to disrupt your opponent's flow of gravity. You now have to match five in order to gain an extra turn. Around the playing field you'll still find attack gems strewn about which you can use to damage your opponent.
I like the new puzzle game a lot. It's more complicated than Bejewelled and gets you thinking in new ways. Now, it's a lot harder to predict how new gems will fall into place. Not only do you have to watch your hull, or hit points, the addition of shields to each vessel adds another layer of strategy. There is a constant give and take between replenishing your shields and attacking your opponent.
Instead of spells, you equip your ship with items to either hinder your opponent or give yourself a boost. Items are bought with credits, which are earned by completing quests and selling cargo. Cargo is earned by mining planets. During these mining mini-games, you simply need to match as many gems as you can before no more matches are available, causing a black hole. One of the most engrossing aspects of Galactrix is that each galaxy you visit has its own economy and your cargo will fetch different amounts depending on where you try to sell it. Your ship can only carry a limited amount of freight, so you'll need to be careful about where you do business and when. Mined cargo can also be used to build items and ships -- if you've found the plans.
But the most important item in your possession is your ship. You can own up to three at a time and take one into battle. There is a large variety of vessels in the game offering many different strategies. Some are faster and will make eluding enemy encounters easier, and some have stronger defenses and shields. Ships can be either bought or, again, built if you have the plans and cargo.
Another mini-game you'll be playing a lot of is the hacking game. Leapgates are used to jump around the universe, and each one needs to be hacked before you can use it. Here, you have to match gems in a specific color order within a time limit. There is yet another mini-game you play to learn helpful rumors. As with the first Puzzle Quest, I'm impressed with the mileage developer Infinite Interactive gets out of a seemingly simple match three game.
Galactrix is an absorbing experience, but I wish it ran more smoothly on the DS. Gems shift around in a herky jerky manner on the puzzle field and the insignificant visual effects displayed when making a match sometimes don't even bother to show up. This is a big game in terms of length and variety of gameplay, but the visuals really shouldn't give the DS too much trouble. There isn't any animation, just sprites sliding around.
The interface also causes problems, which is discouraging because the touch screen should be ideal for this type of game. It is controlled entirely with the stylus: touch the screen where you want your ship to fly, touch the gems you want to swap, and touch menu items to make selections. But the game has trouble reading some touches. When entering a leapgate, for instance, a menu will pop up on top of your ship asking if you want to use the gate. On too many occasions I would tap "yes," but the game thought I was tapping somewhere else in the galaxy I wanted to fly to instead. So off my ship would go and I'd have to maneuver back to the leapgate and try again. It's not really a big deal -- if it only happened once. But this is a recurring problem with Galactrix on DS.
Another interface issue is that, because the system map is so big, it can't be displayed in its entirety. That means you have to use your stylus to drag it around the touch screen somewhat aimlessly looking for your next destination. It would have been nice if we could zoom out to view the entire map and tap where we want to go.
My final gripe is that navigating menus takes too long. Opening the menu and toggling pages causes the screen to go black while the game loads, and too much time is spent waiting for the game to retrieve basic information. Players should be able to view their status and items at a glance.
Galactrix has a fantastic orchestral soundtrack that perfectly sets the mood for this space opera. It's eerie and ghostly, at times reminding me of bits of John Williams' Star Wars melodies. With more and more DS games using voice acting, though, it's too bad Galactrix DS doesn't let us hear these characters speak.
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