Name: Puzzle Quest: Galactrix
Genre: Puzzle, RPG
Platforms: Xbox Live Arcade, Nintendo DS, PC (Reviewed on Nintendo DS)
Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords, is responsible for the grids etched into 75% of Nintendo DS screens. The game was simply addictive, wonderful, and the largest issue with it was that it ended. When Puzzle Quest: Galactrix was announced, fans around the world early anticipated the new version, which was set for a jump into the future, shedding its fantasy garb for a science fiction setting. Initial screenshots also revealed the hexagonal puzzle mechanics, which seemed like no small departure from its predecessor. During the slow unraveling of news surrounding Galactrix, it seemed like adding more to the game is exactly what the Puzzle Quest series needed. After extended play, however, it feels like the series might have gone slightly off course.
Several aspects are simply swapped out for their futuristic equals, but other aspects of the original game were replaced completely. Instead of choosing a character class, players begin the game by simply selecting a sex, and there is only one character available to each. Instead, purchasing ships and upgrading their equipment replaces the Druids, Mages, and Warriors. It might seem cosmetic at first, but later in the game, when players can have multiple ships, it definitely adds a new feel to the game... for better or worse.
The puzzle mechanic, at its core, is improved over Warlord’s. Instead of working on a square grid, the game has shifted to hexagons, allowing for several new mechanics to be worked in. Instead of being able to shift a square in four directions, six are now available, and the direction chosen is important due to the game’s gravity device, which will slide gems in the appropriate direction from where the initial one was moved. This, on the whole, is a success, and Galactrix does a great job at creating a deeper experience with a new set of strategies within the puzzle itself. The problem is that they’ve overcomplicated things outside of the puzzle, losing sight of the key features that made Warlords engaging and adding new features that feel redundant and overly complicated.
In addition to battles, which take place somewhat infrequently, there are also mining, haggling, crafting, hacking, and other minigames, all of which maintain the basic rules of the puzzle. Similar modes existed in Warlords, but they never took the forefront, and none were as invasive as those in Galactrix. The biggest offender is hacking Leapgates, where, instead of competing with a foe, the clock is the enemy, and a number of gems need to be matched level to be completed, opening up a new location on the map. Every new area has two to four Leapgates, each needing to be hacked, and each growing slightly more difficult. Even when compared to the series’ combat, which many have criticized as being one-sided and favoring the computer player, hacking Leapgates can be either extremely simple or entirely too difficult, all depending on the initial supply of gems on the board. It’s just not very fun, and takes away from the game’s otherwise interesting single player component. No experience is awarded upon completion, no money is gained, and opening a new section of the proves to be insufficient compensation for the work.
Leapgates seem to bring out the absolute worst in Puzzle Quest: Galactrix, and also contain the game’s largest issues with the touch screen. When in the world map, the player’s ship follows the stylus to allow for more control over the flight-paths. When landing on a planet a small menu pops up prompting the player to make a selection. It requires pixel perfect accuracy, and for some reason will occasionally send the ship flying across the map for seemingly no reason. It feels like they could have compensated for the touch screen’s occasional wonkyness, but instead it was assumed that players would be be able to consistently hit the selection perfectly, and, almost fittingly, Leapgates end up being the biggest offenders.
Luckily, after the early, tedious segments of the game, these issues fade away. Little by little, more areas of the map are unlocked, the interesting story is explored, and the focus shifts away from monotonous hacking and more on what makes Puzzle Quest great: deep RPG strategy wrapped in an puzzle. Unlocking new ships and crafting, which, at first, are annoyances, become appealing, and the problems that tarnish the beginning of the game are simply small snags in what is otherwise a fun, well made title.
While most of the aspects improve, not all are resolved. Control issues continue to be a nuisance throughout the experience, load times can be bothersome, and the graphics don’t seem as polished as they could be. Galactrix really feels the limitations of the DS's screen resolution, and while it's an issue fixed by spreading information across the two screens, it still looks as though the game would be more at home on the Xbox Live Arcade or on the PC. The portability more than makes up for this fault, but it's still interesting that the sequel suffers from issues the prequel didn't have problems with.
None of that changes the fact that it’s still solid Puzzle Quest fun - no way around it. The series remains the only true blending of the two genres, and Galactrix, if nothing else, proves that the Puzzle Quest definitely has room to grow. Hopefully inevitable sequels will be able to refine the tutorials, learning from PC strategy games in easing players into mechanics, instead of piling them on from the outset. Either way, it’s worth picking up the title for the late game payoff, and an excuse to carve some hexagonal grids into the DS screen.