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Puzzle Quest: Galactrix

Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords (CotW) began as a somewhat low-budget, low-profile title that ended up exploding into a huge success. The game made its way across pretty much every gaming platform, but the DS version was especially conducive to its pick-up-and-play nature. Now Infinite Interactive and D3 Publisher bring us the next entry in the series, leaving behind the swords and magic of medieval-based fantasy for the far reaches of space.

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For the uninitiated, Puzzle Quest is based upon the match-three-gems puzzle formula. Combing a somewhat generic RPG story with stat building and deep-combat strategy, CotW was an engrossing game that offered both addictive, Bejeweled-style gameplay and an adventure to keep players coming back. Galactrix maintains many of the core features of the first game, yet it manages to carve out a completely fresh niche for itself.

Upon starting the game, you’re given the option of choosing to play as either a male or female character. Unlike CotW, there is no class system here, but the simplification works fine within the confines of Galactrix’ story. You’re an MRI (Multinational Resource and Investment) graduate – top of your class – and you’ve been sent out to the Erebus system to investigate pirate activity. Though the characters are somewhat generic, the story in Galactrix is moody and much more interesting than that of its predecessor.

Galactrix doesn’t quite hold your hand, either, and unlike the last game, you’ll have to figure certain elements of the gameplay out for yourself. The basic structure, however, has you moving from one star system to the next via Leap Gates. You’ll have to first hack these gates in order to pass through them, and doing so entails matching a certain number of colored gems within an allotted time. Battles will mostly occur within the context of main events and side quests, though patrolling ships, too, will occasionally target you for combat.

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The game has a system of factions, and though it’s pretty basic in its design, it’s still a fun addition to Galactrix. You’ll find that the battles within the main quests can be quite tough (Galactrix does not offer multiple difficulty settings like the last game), so you’ll be forced to pick fights with less powerful ships in order to build up your stats before pushing further into the main story.

Inevitably, you’ll make enemies with the peoples of various star systems, and choosing which factions to align yourself with often comes down to who you can afford not to fight with. Conversely, you can build up your relationships with certain peoples by taking on various side quests. However, once you’ve trespassed upon those of a particular star system, patrolling ships will engage you for battle anytime you re-enter their space.

And there are many star systems in Galactrix, offering plenty of things for you to get sidetracked with. You can mine asteroids for ore that can be used either to create new ship parts, or you can sell the ore for credits to buy items from emporiums located in various star systems.

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However, the main attraction in Galactrix, of course, is the gem-swapping, puzzle gameplay. Whether you’re hacking Leap Gates, creating new items, mining ore or combating enemy ships, it’s all played out by way of match-three puzzles. The most obvious change here over CotW is the play grid, which is hexagonal. Since the story takes place in space, the lack of gravity has an interesting effect on gameplay.

In CotW, all displaced gems were filled in from the top down. In Galactrix, however, gems are filled in from whichever direction you begin a swap. For instance, if you are swapping a particular gem with one below it, the gems will fill in from the top; if you swap the same two gems but begin the swap with the bottom gem, new gems will fill in from the bottom. Likewise, gems can also fill in from the sides, directly or diagonally. Ultimately, this new approach offers a ton more strategy, and it makes the gameplay in Galactrix feel very fresh.

That said, there’s still plenty of luck involved. As with the last game, you’ll often sit in horror as your A.I. opponent proceeds to get match after match, lining up a ridiculous chain of combos. In one particular battle (true story), we lost to the enemy in a single round of combat. We took our turn; then the enemy took their turn and proceeded to wipe us out in one shot, as they lined up a chain of almost 20 consecutive gem matches. Still, we don’t necessarily count this as a flaw, since the luck factor is undeniably part of what makes Puzzle Quest so entertaining and addictive.

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Unfortunately, Galactrix does have some issues that do affect gameplay in a most serious way. Sure, there are load times, and they can be annoying, but the screen sensitivity is far and away the game’s greatest shortcoming. When tapping on planets, Leap Gates, etc. and attempting to select a command from the pop-up menu, you’ll often find yourself either flying back off into space or into another star system (if you’re out in the galaxy map). But this is only a tiny issue compared to the havoc poor command input wreaks when actually matching gems.

All too often, gems you don’t mean to swap out will get inadvertently swapped, or you’ll have to pound the screen to get a gem to highlight. We lost quite a few battles due to this issue. The situation is much worse, however, when you’re trying to hack a Leap Gate and time is ticking away. You cannot progress further into the game without access past Leap Gates, so having to contend with terrible input recognition during these gameplay segments becomes a regular source of contention.

On the production front, Galactrix offers an attractive presentation, but here, too, poor optimization plagues the overall experience. Like CotW, most of the visuals here are fairly basic – still images during conversations and simple space maps when navigating the universe – but everything comes together nicely to make for a cohesive setting. Constant load screens, however, bog down the journey significantly.

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The one thing that really stands out, though, with Galactrix’ presentation – in a positive way – is the music. The soundtrack is leaps and bounds above what CotW had to offer, and the music here really helps add to the game’s overall eerie mood. Sound effects, too, are subtle and weird and work particularly well with the game’s space theme.

Puzzle Quest: Galactrix for DS has all the makings of a great new entry into this now hugely popular adventure series. The story is compelling and well paced, the presentation is strong, and most importantly, the gameplay here trumps its predecessor in just about every way. But the basic foundation of the game – touching – is almost broken. Galactrix is still playable and still very addictive, but endless flubs on the game’s part will inevitably cause your blood to boil. It’s made all the more frustrating because the game itself is otherwise so well conceived.

7 out of 10

The author of this fine article

is a Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in August 2008.

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