Review / Puzzle Quest: Galactrix (XBLA)

When Puzzle Quest: Challenge of Warlords was released in 2007, it was something of a revelation. The unique combination of a Bejewelled-like puzzle game with RPG elements was simple yet novel enough to be inspired. By marrying hugely addictive match-three gameplay with the constant leveling-up of an RPG, Challenge of the Warlords was something akin to digital crack. It didn’t matter that the presentation was awful, the story woeful or the dialogue shameful. In fact, that just added to the game’s charm.

And it charmed millions. For independent studio Infinite Interactive it was a bigger hit than even they could have hoped for, spawning a release on just about every platform. So with such a great success under their belt, it’s no surprise that work began on a sequel. The result is Puzzle Quest: Galactrix.

The reasoning behind the design of the game is simple enough; transport the setting from the high-fantasy of ogres and dragons to the sci-fi of aliens and spaceships, add a little more depth to the puzzle element and polish up the presentation. It’s the obvious direction to take, and on paper at least it’s the recipe for another hit. It’s a shame then that Galactrix ultimately disappoints.

The very heart of the game remains the puzzle element, the basics of which will be familiar to even the most casual gamer: match three or more colored tiles to make them disappear. Within this simple mechanic you can match three or more mines to deal damage to your enemies, match silver tiles for XP, purple tiles for ‘PSI’ (to help avoid enemy encounters) and blue tiles to restore your shields. Matching three or more red, yellow and green tiles collects energy for your weapons, engine or computer, enabling you to unleash certain special attacks. Simple.

The main difference here comes in the tiles themselves and the way they fall. There are more colors to deal with this time around and they have more sides too. So instead of matching square tiles vertically or horizontally, you now match your hexagonal tiles diagonally and vertically. In addition to this, the new tile shape means you can now move them in six directions instead of four. The result is a loss of immediacy. While matching tiles and masterminding combo cascades in Warlords became like second nature, the abstraction of the process here just isn’t as fun.

Furthermore, the tiles no longer fall just downwards and can instead be manipulated according to the gravity of your move. Put simply, if you move a tile to the right, the new tiles falling into board will cascade in from that direction, if you move the tile left they will fall in from the left, and so on. Coupled with the new tile shape this constitutes a significant increase in the strategic possibilities available to you.

But it’s a step in the wrong direction. The joy of Warlord, or indeed any successful puzzle game, is best summed up by that well-worn phrase, “easy to learn, hard to master.” While Galactrix isn’t a massively difficult game to learn, all the “improvements,” additions and tweaks here obscure the accessibility. There is added depth, but it comes with unnecessary complexity and, ultimately, diminished enjoyment.

Providing the overarching context to all this tile swapping is Galactrix’s RPG element. The story is inconsequential guff, but that’s fine, it never did Warlords any harm. Choosing from a rookie male or female pilot, you’ll have to save humankind by battling with enemy ships, mining asteroids, exploring solar systems, crafting new ships, trading resources and hacking leapgates; with all of these activities executed via a uniquely-flavored version of the puzzle game.

It’s the last of these activities that is most problematic. Hacking leapgates, essential if you are to traverse the galaxy, is a major pain in the ass. There is nothing massively wrong with the game itself – match certain colored tiles in certain orders before the time runs out – the issue comes instead from the frequency with which you have to do it. The galaxy is truly huge and there are many leapgates to overcome, many. With no XP or rewards up for grabs beyond access to a new solar system, it quickly becomes a chore.

By attempting to build upon Warlords rather than refine it, Infinite Interactive have forgotten just what it was that made their game fun in the first place. Unfortunately, all the major changes here are for the worse. The result is a watered down Puzzle Quest experience that, for those with the time and patience to invest, offers masses of content and a whole ton of strategic options, but just isn’t as entertaining as it should have been. While it is often said that Warlords stole away hours and hours of gamers’ lives, time spent with Galactrix feels more like robbery, and at a hefty 1600 Microsoft Points we mean that all too literally.

+ Puzzle mechanics offer greater strategic options and depth
+ A truly massive universe to explore
+ Hours and hours of gameplay…

– …but it’s still too expensive
– Unnecessarily complicated gameplay
– Repetitive leapgate hack mini-game quickly becomes a chore.