Puzzle Quest: Galactrix Review
It's been a few years since Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords from D3 Publisher seemingly came from nowhere to mix Bejeweled puzzle gameplay with a fantasy RPG. Since then, we've seen quite a few ports, and it was reasonable to assume that we'd get a direct sequel. But D3 has really thrown gamers for a loop with their sequel, Puzzle Quest: Galactrix. Now, it's a sci-fi based game where you'll travel the galaxy and try to save it, one star system at a time, and do more gem-based switching to defeat opponents.
But the first thing any Puzzle Quest veteran will notice is that the tiles are now six-sided and play on a circular board. This adds plenty of depth to the choices you'll get to make, but it also adds a level of complexity that you'll have to wrap your brain around in order to start winning. And to take it further, depending on the gems you swap to make your line of three or more, you can control which of the six directions gems can come in from.
Sadly, the same problems that plagued Puzzle Quest after hours of play continue to be a problem for Galactrix. The biggest of these is that because you have no idea what the replacement gems that slide onto the board will be, you lose a level of control of what's about to happen. Yes, you might be fighting a tough battle, slowly wearing down your opponent, and you make a move that causes a massive 10-damage mine gem (the replacement for skulls from the original game) to slide onto the board in an easy place. Then your opponent makes the obvious move to drop 20, 30, or even more damage onto you, and it was all random chance.
Of course, both you and the AI can come into some seriously massive fortune, too, and when the AI does it, it looks a hell of a lot like cheating and will sour you on the experience greatly. It's not cheating, but it is hard to watch the AI make some simple move on one side of the board and cause a massive chain reaction of matches - many of which are coming in from off the board, so it's hard to trust that this really is random - without hitting Alt-F4 and going to play some Call of Duty where at least it feels a lot more fair when you get killed.
There's a pretty bland story here, told through text windows and a few bits of appropriately bad voice acting, but the bigger draw is the notion of being the space-bound freelancer. You'll mine asteroids (itself a gem-crossing mini-game) and sells and buys cargo in order to buy a better ship and make better weapons to use in your battles against pirates, enemy forces, and automated planetary defense systems. But with the difficulty ramping up quickly and quests sending you towards nearly impossible fights before you level up, you'll quickly find that yes, you will have to go out on your own, make some cash, and buy yourself a new ship so you won't die in battle so fast. But the game doesn't lay out the best way to do this, so you're on your own.
Luckily, there's no real penalty for losing a battle (other than your own personal increased blood pressure and a bit of time wasted), but it still might not feel worth it after running around for an hour, mining materials, building a new ship and upgrading its weapons only to find out that you'll still have to get super-lucky just to win that next fight for the main quest.
And yes, you can get hilariously lucky; I spent an hour retrying one battle over and over, determined to win despite the fact that the enemy ship had 30 more HP than me, better shields, better weapons, and what seemed to be a batphone connection to whatever gems were coming next - it was an interesting challenge. I was getting sick of losing repeatedly, and on my final try, I had been beaten down to a sliver of health and had only barely scratched the enemy's hull. I did some random move, not caring about the outcome anymore, and got some ridiculous combo that gave me a Nova, then Supernova bonus, bringing up some big damage multiplier, then did 90+ damage to the enemy's ship in one set of mines, killing him instantly. It felt good, but if I had been on the receiving end of it, I'd have picked up my laptop and thrown it across the room.
But it's not just feeling out of control of the battle outcomes. You'll also start to feel the tedium set in when you start losing the jumpgate hack mini-games, which require you to get a certain number of specific color matches in a limited time (and getting combos or 4- or 5-gem combines give you nothing). You might even mash the Alt-F4 keys once you realize that a hacked gate only stays that way for so long, so by the time you get most of them hacked, the first ones start reverting back and require you to re-do them. I've no idea how the developers figured this to be a good idea, considering that the hacking game is easily the most boring part of Galactrix. It also doesn't help that the quest system will ask you to do multiple gate hacks in a row to make deliveries early on - and waiting until you happen upon these systems for other reasons isn't really doable, since the quest log only holds four quests at a time. Get to delivering that food, delivery boy!
I applaud D3 for doing their best to make Puzzle Quest look and feel fresh and original, but it's got the same deal-killing flaw that ruined the fun for me last time. The weird part is that there actually is room on-screen for "next" gems to be shown, especially on a widescreen display which most people are using nowadays. With that, gamers would feel just a little more in control of what's going on. Still, other new elements - related to the puzzles rather than the RPG parts - will wear on you quickly.
Even with the modest $20 price tag for Puzzle Quest: Galactrix, it's not worth the frustration after a taking a couple of losses that are completely out of your hands. I understand that those who played the hell out of the first game and enjoyed the demo for Galactrix may not understand how this game could actually wind up so bad, but as someone who liked the demo as well, I warn you to stay away. The game's just not built for playing any longer than an hour without some serious aggravation.