It's appropriate that the new Puzzle Quest game should take place in space. Just like a black hole, it's impossible to resist; you wind up crushed into a subatomic particle. Who wouldn't want to play a game that fuses casual, gem-swapping puzzle gameplay with the tropes and the sweep of an epic, space-faring RPG? Yet like its predecessor, the high-fantasy-themed Challenge of the Warlords, Galactrix is an uneven experience whose execution doesn't live up to the concept.
|Puzzle Quest: Galactrix | For Nintendo DS and PC | Rated E10+ for Everyone 10 and Older | Developed by Infinite Interactive | Published by D3 Publisher|
Prior to Galactrix's release for the Nintendo DS and PC (with a PSP version on the way, along with downloadable editions for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3), a Web-based demo appeared on-line that showcased the game's best qualities. You face off against a computer-controlled opponent on a battlefield of brightly colored gems. Match three or more gems of any color to damage your opponent, power up your weapons and shields, or earn extra turns.
That's how it worked in the first game, too, but there are two key differences this time. A hexagonal grid means that you can swap gems in six directions instead of four, and new pieces can fall in from any side of the screen, depending on which direction you've swapped them. Even better, the computer no longer seems to be able to predict the future; it makes boneheaded moves that pay off in long, powerful chains. The demo is close to perfect.
The full Galactrix, however, still manages to repeat many of Warlords' mistakes. In true RPG fashion, your character begins the full game with few abilities and the opportunity to power up as you progress. So far, so good, except that the battles soon begin to seem unbalanced. Your various enemies boast their own special attacks and powers — none of which is explained in gameplay or in the manual. Some are obvious; most are baffling. The number of energy meters and status updates on the screen would be unwieldy even on a big-screen monitor, never mind the tiny display of the Nintendo DS.
And, really, the entire game is inscrutable. Unhelpful menus and an unintuitive interface make managing your inventory is a bear. Even acquiring items is more of a guessing game than anything else. Building new weapons and power-ups is crucial to the gameplay; you can mine the necessary raw materials from asteroids, but each asteroid contains only three elements, and if it doesn't have what you need, you have to keep looking, sometimes across several more systems. Besides which, if your ship is full to capacity, the game will simply discard everything you've mined instead of letting you choose what to keep. Crafting items, selling inventory, and collecting loot are integral to success, so these operations need to be implemented well. They aren't.
Then there are the technical snafus that plague the Nintendo DS version. Load times before battles and between star systems seem out of place on a cartridge-based system, but they're more forgivable than the finicky touchscreen detection. If you've lost one battle by inadvertently switching the wrong gems, you've lost too many.
Yes, Galactrix is a smidgen better than the original, if only because the AI has been improved. Battling enemies seems more a test of skill and less like receiving corporal punishment. Your opponents are devious but fair, and in a dogfight between two evenly matched vessels, you're often in for a drawn-out, dramatic affair complete with improbable comebacks and devastating last-second defeats. Yet the overall impression is the same: a game destined for the stars that blows up on the launch pad.