After a bit of research and tinkering with the demo for the PC version of the game, I went ahead and purchased Puzzle Quest Galactrix for the DS. It’s suffered a bit from mixed reviews, but I find it to be a great game, a worthy sister title to Puzzle Quest Challenge of the Warlords.
That’s not to say that it’s perfect. It’s just considerably better than the detractors would have you believe, and I heartily recommend it to anyone with any interest in puzzle games. The RPG elements aren’t anything huge to write home about, but the core gameplay and Privateer flavor add up to a great way to spend some time.
*This clocks in at over 3500 words, perhaps because I’ve written it over several days, so I’m using the More tag here to hide the wall of text*
The DS version especially suffers from a bit of, shall we say, visual degradation. That’s to be expected considering the platform, though, so it’s not really something I’m inclined to fuss about. The visuals that are there are nice and atmospheric, and combat graphics are clean and effective. They have made great use of the very limited pixel count. The sound is mostly just functional beeps, bloops and booms, so nothing spectacular, but nothing wrong either. The background music plays one a relatively short loop, but shifts between a handful of pieces. It nails the same sort of etherial mood that Privateer, Freelancer and Master of Orion did, though, so it makes me pretty happy, as I’m a big fan of those games.
The heart of a game like this is the gameplay, though. (As it really should be.) The inevitable comparisons to Warlords actually wind up doing this game a disservice, as it really needs to be taken on its own terms. It’s not a direct sequel, just like Final Fantasy X isn’t a sequel to FFIX. They share some family pedigree, certainly, but those who come to Galactrix expecting Warlords on a hex grid will naturally be put off (not necessarily disappointed, but it’s certainly different).
Warlords is at heart a match 3 game. The draw of Warlords is the combat-based two player match 3 gameplay. It’s considerably more strategic than merely gunning for high Bejeweled scores. Skills and magic spells fueled by mana garnered from matching gems can also alter the game, clearing gems or altering the board or combatands in a wide variety of ways. The mesh of RPG elements and match 3 gaming is like PB and chocolate; yummy gaming goodness. A variety of minigames round out the puzzling suite, making for a great package that I spent many happy hours fiddling with.
Galactrix maintains the match 3 gameplay, as well as the two player combat aspect. It even has a handful of minigames. In that sense, it’s definitely a Puzzle Quest game. There are some important diversions from the formula, though. Some fare better than others, but taken as a suite, the game compares favorably to its predecessor.
The biggest, and most obvious change is the new hex board. Warlords uses a fixed-gravity square grid, Galactrix uses a variable gravity hex board. “Gravity” functions in the direction of the moved tile. This relatively simple pair of changes makes for a profound shift in the game. First, the hexagonal board means that matches can be made in more directions than before. (Along three axes, rather than two.) In a game that is inherently partially luck-based (incoming pieces are randomly generated), this does occasionally mean that a series of cascading matches will radically change the board and affect the combat. The same thing will happen in Warlords, but it’s a bit more frequent in Galactrix. This sort of cascade is usually welcome if you get it, and unwelcome when the computer gets it. As an extended cascade is almost entirely at the whim of the RNG (Random Number Generator), these are extraordinarily luck-based. Since they can often swing a battle or make the difference in minigames, they tend to be among the most memorable moments in the game. That’s unfortunate, since the game is, if anything, more skill-based than Warlords.
There is always a luck factor in a game like this, but the variable gravity and different geometry of the playing field add up to a more strategic game than Warlords. The ability to manipulate the board is valuable in Galactrix, since there are many ways for matches to be made. This was true in Warlords as well, but the greater flexibility of the hex grid means that players need to be even more on their toes. You have more tools to use with the variable gravity, but then, so does the opponent. I like this increased tactical depth, even though it did take a bit of learning to get out of the Warlords mode of thought. (I had played Warlords for a week or so before getting Galactrix, and it really was a shift in approach.) The way the tiles shift after you make a match also mean that you may not necessarily “shear” off a match that you had hoped to deny the opponent.
I’ve seen many people complain about the game being too luck-based. I can only echo a poster on the Infinite Interactive forums: If this game seems too luck based to you, you’re playing it wrong. Galactrix is more complex and demanding than Warlords, but the luck factor is about the same. Learning how to control the board will always be an essential component to this sort of game. Failing to learn the skills to do so doesn’t make the game more luck-based, it just means that you’re not learning the skills to compensate for the luck inherent in the system. (I’ve come to call this reviewer incompetence, which I’ll be writing an article on soonish.)
The combat game has also changed from Warlords, with the addition of Shields. As in Warlords, you have “health” (hull points in Galactrix), but those cannot be regenerated without special abilities. Shields, on the other hand, can be recharged simply by matching blue tiles on the board. This “fudge factor” allows for a bit more give and take in combat, which can benefit a smart strategy, while also being more forgiving. Shields aren’t very big compared to the hull, but they are a nice addition to the formula.
As might be expected, there are a variety of widgets and gadgets to equip your ship with in Galactrix. (And you can have up to three ships in your fleet, all tuned with different gear for different encounters or different purposes.) These gadgets directly translate to combat effects. They are all activated abilities, powered by colored energy derived from matching tiles on the board. (You may start with a bit of colored energy, depending on how you develop your character, and this can make a difference early in the fight. A first turn Bola Mines activation is often devastating, for example.) There are a lot of these thingamabobs, and the interplay between them and your preferred playstyle can really make for a highly customized game. I much prefer this to the class system in Warlords. That game was still fairly variable with gear and adoptable enemy abilities, but the core abilities that defined a character class were a bit limiting, and if you wanted to see what every class had to offer, you would have to wind up deleting two characters (four classes, two save slots). The open classless system in Galactrix is much easier to try out new “builds” and experiment.
Character advancement is fairly paltry by comparison. Your character adds hull points to whatever ship they pilot, the amount slowly increasing per level. (You gain levels via experience from quests or from matching white tiles on the combat board. It’s a bit of a “choose your own XP reward” for combat, which is interesting.) You also do a bit more damage when matching attack tiles as you grow. You’re also given skill points to dump into one of four gategories, correlating to tile colors. Red is for Gunnery, Green is for Science, Yellow is for Engines, and Blue is for Shields. Red, Green and Yellow are your energy reserves for gadget use in combat. Increasing these skills means you get a bit more out of matches in combat, and start a match with a little of that resource. (Or with shields, a little more than usual.) The effects aren’t terribly strong, but they can mean the difference between an early disruptive stroke or waiting for the opponent to let you build up energy. Apparently, Gunning is overpowered according to some forums I’ve read, but as I’m a generalist, I’ve not explored that route. This is one thing that I think the game fails on… not that the advancement itself is bad (it’s not, it’s just a bit underwhelming), but that you can’t “respec” your character. In the overall classless design, an ability to change your character’s build would have been a perfect fit.
…I’ve been spoiled by Guild Wars, and there’s no going back.
The galaxy is a large place, with several points of interest. That said, most come in only a few types; asteroids to mine, planets (woefully underused, mostly as quest nodes), trade stations and crafting stations (which also serve as gear and ship shops). It’s a bit bland, with a variety of races that don’t really have all that much character. They intersect the story a bit here and there, but overall, don’t really come into their own as interesting storytelling opportunities. That’s a bit of a shame, but then, I didn’t buy the game expecting grand space opera. It’s just a pretty galaxy with puzzles to play.
I’ve not finished the game, but so far, the story is passable, if nothing spectacular. I like it well enough, but I’ve actually had more fun imagining my own story as I go about mining and beating up pirates. I’m an old fan of Privateer and Freelancer, so I enjoy just puttering about in the galaxy. A brief aside… there’s a minor plot twist reveal partway in, where you learn the true identity of a character, and they play it up a little bit to make a comment about “human” prejudice. Thing is, the game’s omniscient cutscenes play directly into that expectation, so it’s never clear whether or not the writers are trying to poke the player or the avatar, and the moment just sort of falls flat on its face.
There are also a few writing gaffes, like where the Data-like stodgy tech-savvy ambassador tells you something to the effect of “we are not sure how many generations contributed to this effect, but it is a lot.” …”a lot” is a phrase a teenager uses, not a term that elite scientists would typically resort to. It’s accurate enough, but the phraseology should have fit the characterization better. Even using the term “many” would have helped. It just seems like a novice writing mistake, and that sort of thing is just another layer of goofery beyond basic storyline banality. It’s not a big problem, but it does belie a lack of polish that many game devs fall prey to. Then again, I have the proofreading gene, and I love reading and writing, so I may well be oversensitive to this sort of thing.
The suite of alternative minigames based on the new hex board fills the game out nicely.
Haggling starts with a random board and challenges you to clear as many tiles as possible. Tiles cleared are replaced by steel tiles, which may be moved, but do not clear. Working from the outside in is very helpful in this minigame, as you want to keep your tiles together as much as possible. If you clear the board completely, you score a 75% bonus to your next sale or purchase in the shop you Haggled in. My best Haggle scored a 50/55 clear (five tiles left), which only granted a 40% bonus. If you sell something else or buy something else, you can Haggle for the pricing again. It would have been nice if the discount applied to the whole visit, not the next item, but that’s a minor gripe. Strangely, the bonus calculated for selling an item is based on the purchase price, rather than the sell price. Selling prices are naturally 40% of the purchase price.
In other words, the ship that I could buy from the shop at 250,000 would only get me 100,000 if I turned around and sold it back. If I Haggle and score a 40% bonus, the new resell price of the ship isn’t the 140,000 that I’d have expected, but rather, 200,000. (The 100,000 boost is based on the original shop price.) It feels a bit like cheating, but it’s nice for selling big ticket items. It’s also a reminder to designers and engineers to make sure your percentages are being based off of the right baselines. (And this may actually be behaving as intended, it just seems a bit strange.)
Mining asks you to clear a certain number of tiles of specific types. There are four types of tiles on the board; three “mining product” tiles, and the steel tiles. Cleared tiles are replaced with a random assortment of the four. The proportion between these varies by asteroid (you’re always mining asteroids), as do the quotas. Interestingly, the higher quota mining sessions can be easier to complete, since there are fewer steel tiles. This minigame encourages a different sort of board control, as you need to be able to make matches to keep the mining going. If you don’t fill the quota, you still claim what resources you’ve matched, so there’s nothing lost, but if you fill the quota, you wind up with four times the total resources thanks to a bonus multiplier. Early on, you probably won’t have enough cargo space to really take advantage of that sort of multiplier, but later on (when you have a cargo ship or two) it’s a very nice boost to your mining efforts.
Crafting allows you to create gear or ships from materials you mine. Getting crafting patterns seems to be pretty random, and there’s no way to purchase patterns, so far as I can tell. This is a bit unfortunate, as an early crafted Bola Mines or Dagari Marketship can imbalance the game a bit, but the crafting game itself is a lot of fun. You play with red, green and yellow tiles, non-clearing steel tiles, and occasionally radioactive tiles that pop in from the sides after a clear. There is a second “tier” of tiles that are created by matching the base colored tiles. (One red Craft tile is created my matching three red base tiles, two Craft tiles for matching four, and three for matching five.) These are actually the tiles that must be cleared to “craft” the item in question, and can be cleared like base tiles. You can clear any Craft tiles regardless of color, though. Their color is just an indicator for the quota. (You’ll need several of each color.)
Warlords had a similar game in Spell Research. Galactrix takes it a step further, though, since the radioactive tiles are non-swappable. As a result, Galactrix’s crafting is a bit more elaborate and tricky. These radioactive tiles will clear like colored tiles, and “fall” with gravity (in the direction indicated by a swap), you just can’t affect them directly. You must juggle the other tiles to line up these radioactive tiles to get them out of your way, since you will run out of room otherwise. It’s a great exercise for learning how to manipulate the board through indirect mechanisms. Also, a five in a row match of the base tiles will clear all radioactive tiles, so if you have one pending, it’s useful to work around it until you need to pop it.
When Crafting, the game won’t generate any new steel tiles (unlike Mining). I’ve found great success with the more lengthy Crafting recipes by shuffling all of the steel tiles to one side of the board, and carefully choosing the “gravity” direction to keep them there. That means that any newly generated tiles, whether base colored or radioactive, will generate next to tiles that can actually use them, rather than be hidden behind the steel tiles. Again, it’s a great exercise in board manipulation for long term goals.
Rumor hunting goes in a slightly different direction, giving you five colors of base tiles, and some dangerous Biohazard tiles. The goal is to survive a set amount of turns (a move is a turn, including all of the possible cascades, so it’s not a set number of matches, it’s a set number of moves) without letting the Biohazard tiles create a line of three or more, clearing them out. It’s almost directly backwards of Crafting, since you cannot directly influence the Biohazard tiles (like the radioactive tiles in Crafting), but will want to manipulate them to prevent them from clearing. This one is a little more frustrating, since an unintended cascade will probably break that Rumor session. Again, it’s a useful skill to learn, since it’s effectively playing defensively, a vital skill in the combat game. Learning how to control cascades is likewise vital. You don’t have control over tiles offscreen, but you can manipulate the board and try to minimize the potential for a disasterous cascade.
Leapgate Hacking is perhaps the most common puzzle… and potentially, the most unsatisfactory. You are asked to match tiles in a predetermined series of colors, within a time limit. You are given six colors of tiles (effectively the Combat board without the mines) to work with, and randomly generated Clock tiles, which add seconds to the timer. You can make clears of other colors between those in the sequence, but you must satisfy the sequence to proceed. (If the sequence is red, green, blue, you can clear yellow, red, green, purple, white and then blue to pass.) Too much interstitial clearing will burn up time, but it may be necessary to manipulate the board to the point where you can make the necessary color clears.
Some have rightfully complained that this mode is far too common, offers no reward beside geographical access, and must sometimes be repeated. Also, since cascades still eat up time on the timer, a badly timed cascade might just cause a failure since you don’t have enough time to do the required clears. Also, this gameplay doesn’t really offer much beyond the simple Hexic parentage, since it’s really very basic, just timed. The heart of Warlords was combat, which was appropriate since it’s the most unique aspect of the Puzzle Quest formula. Leapgate Hacking is too common in Galactrix, and too unsatisfying (and frustrating), which is a bit of a letdown. The timed aspect does offer a new challenge to the expert player, but as such, it should have been an optional minigame, not a gate to content.
There are a few other things I wish they had done.
I wish they would have let gear on cargo ships affect the mining puzzle (and maybe others). That would have been a new class of gear, and a new way to customize the game. Gear only affects the combat minigame, and not extending that to the other minigames seems like a ripe place for more design tinkering.
I wish Haggling were actually solvable. The random nature of the puzzle means that even with high skill, you may be stymied by the random tiles. Warlords had a “capture monster” mechanic that assigned a solvable puzzle for each critter. Teasing out the solution for those preset puzzles was a lot of fun, and rewarding to the player who managed to see how things worked. The lack of that sort of purely solvable puzzle in Galactrix feels like an oversight. Haggle would have been the perfect puzzle to make solvable. It’s not actually a bad minigame as it is, so maybe a perfectly solvable puzzle would be better as something else in addition, but I still miss that mode from Warlords.
I wish the writing were sharper, with a more intriguing storyline. As it is, the story and galaxy-crafting are definitely passable… but not much more than OK. It seems to be a lost opportunity to really hammer home the sense of place and import.
Apparently, after the last story mission, you lose access to the high level (ship) crafting, which is a little odd to me. It’s not a game breaker, but it is a lame game design decision.
The DS version has unfortunate load times and some touch screen wonkiness, which can be annoying, but it’s not a huge deal. It’s odd to have load times on a cart based game, but perhaps they were working with outmoded technology.
Even with the niggling nitpicks, though, I’m still having a lot of fun with the game. It’s just as big of a time sink as Warlords, and in my mind, even more rewarding of skill, which I appreciate.
Overall, I highly recommend Galactrix, especially to anyone who found Warlords enjoyable. They are different animals, and will require different skills, but the interesting blend of puzzles and RPG progression metrics make for a great way to spend time. Learning the skills to adeptly manipulate the hex board can be very satisfying, more so than learning the systems in Warlords.
Then again, I am partial to hexes, so perhaps this should come as no surprise.