There are few games that have absolutely grabbed hold of me in the way that the original Puzzle Quest did. I had barely touched the demo by the time the DS and PSP versions released, so I only got the PSP version on launch day. However, within a week I had the DS version. Then since my kids loved it so much I ended up grabbing another DS version. Then a Wii version, and a PC version, and a Mac version, and a scaled-down cell phone version … and finally a full version for the iPhone. That’s right – eight versions of this simple ‘match three’ puzzle game tied to a simple fantasy story. Nothing to get all that excited about when you look at it on paper, yet in action, it is just an amazingly compelling experience. Based on that you might guess that I would be an ‘easy mark’ for the next game, Puzzle Quest: Galactrix. And you would be correct – I have the DS version and had already bought the game on Steam before my review copy arrived.
So you will likely sympathize how much it pains me to tell you that while the PC version is better than the DS version, neither one is very good. That might sound unfair, and to an extent it is – so let me explain.
Puzzle Quest: Galactrix changes up the familiar ‘casual meets hardcore’ styling of the original RPG/Puzzle hybrid in nearly every way, adding a new depth and complexity to the core gameplay mechanic. The story shifts the action from fantasy-RPG to science fiction space adventure, with you once again in the role of a youthful adventurer thrown into the pits of danger! There are strange things afoot and you need to unwrap the mystery by engaging in quests and searching out answers from the various factions around the galaxy.
It looks and sounds promising from the outset – you can take on a variety of crew members, each of whom adds something to your capabilities. For example, you get a crew member who helps you mine for resources, and another who helps you hack leapgates, and so on. Mining? Leapgates? Don’t worry … we’ll get there! Your ship travels around each system in real time, and you can click on any of the planets, asteroids, leapgates or other ships to initiate some action. When you click you get a sub-menu of possible actions for the selected item. For example, very early on you will need to take care of some brigands who have been harassing a local sector, and when you approach their ships you would select ‘Challenge the ship’ to initiate conflict.
Actually, in plot-oriented sequences you will see a cut scene before engaging in combat which will have you on one side of the screen and the enemy captain on the other. You will exchange some witty banter and then head into battle. Occasionally there are choices, but generally you are just clicking and watching things play out.
The basics of combat are simple – the square grids of the original Puzzle Quest are replaced with hexagonal gems. Instead of having a single ‘gravity feed’ that resulted in gems falling vertically, you now have to deal with gems moving down from any of the three vertical directions depending on the gravity effect of the last match. Sound complicated? It is if you think about it too much, but it actually makes a lot of sense once you start playing. Basically, the current move will impact the way new gems fill the board from above. Other than that things are fairly similar to the original Puzzle Quest – you have special weapons that are very similar to spells and skills, and that can be used for offensive or defensive purposes. Matching bombs does damage to your opponent based on the multiplier at the center of each bomb. Your ship has shields and health, and once your shields are down your hull health decreases until you die – or until you destroy your opponent.
Because it is an RPG there is more than just combat – you will take on quests throughout the game, and invariably these will have you traversing several systems and then returning to get your reward. You can have no more than four quests at a time, which quickly feels like a very stringent limitation that will force you to spend more and more time backtracking across systems just to keep filling and emptying your quest log to gain more experience and resources in order to improve your ships and upgrade your capabilities. The quests themselves are fairly mundane – mostly ‘fetch’ quests or ‘destroy the ship’ sorts of things.
In order to get from system to system you need to use leapgates. These allow you to gain access to inter-system travel routes, but have been locked out by hostile activity. So you need to ‘hack’ open every leapgate prior to use by completing a time-based mini-game. These are rated Easy to Hard based on how many matches and how much time you have to complete those matches. In the upper corner there is a line-up of colors representing what needs to be matched next. Getting the right color is more time consuming than just making matches, and is most often the cause for failure.
Let me just bluntly say that hacking leapgates is the most time-consuming and frustrating thing in the entire game. Nearly every system has at least two leapgates, meaning that getting across five systems and back could mean hacking up to ten leapgates, often taking several attempts for each! Worse still, over time the leapgates will lock up again, meaning that you will have to hack them again.
Other mini-games are not as frustrating, such as mining and creating items. Neither are time based, but there is the possibility to fail and lock out a meteor from further mining, for example. This is unlike combat or hacking, where it is just a matter of trying again and again until you succeed or leaving to attempt again later.
Puzzle Quest: Galactrix offers a multiplayer mode as well, and this can be fun, as you know there is no ‘AI cheating’ or preferential drops going on, but just a matter of who sees which combinations first. There is still a strong luck component, but it focuses on the best core part of the game, which is a good thing.
I mentioned that the PC version was better than the DS. Why is that? The game is identical in terms of content, from plot to cut scenes to quests and so on. So how can it be worse? Because the DS screen layout adds to the frustration, especially when hacking leapgates . The split between screens plays badly against you when looking up to see what color to match and then down to actually make the match and so on. Also, the DS version seems to constantly be loading something, and the load times are rather long, especially in aggregate.
Puzzle Quest: Galactrix has a demo, and as always I suggest you try it. However, the demo only skims the surface and might leave you ready for more – many folks I have talked to have reflected my feelings “I loved the demo, why do I not like the actual game?” The answer is simple yet convoluted: the story is bland, the quests simplistic, the quest log overly limited, hacking leapgates becomes insufferable, and the new gameplay mechanic feels entirely too random to satisfyingly reflect your advancing skills. None of which makes for a great game – but as I say, it is a decent game, it just pales in comparison to the original and even the expectations set by playing the demo.
+ Nice twist on standard ‘Match 3′ gameplay
+ Solid variety of mini-games
+ Looks nice
– Story isn’t engaging
– Feels more luck-driven than the original
– Gameplay gets tedious in most modes
Platform: Reviewed on DS and PC, also available on XBLA and PSN
Developer: Infinite Interactive
Release Date: 2/24/09
ESRB Rating: E10+