A series that's been around for quite some time has now moved to space. Puzzle Quest Galactrix combines the RPG with the "match 3" puzzle genre into a wonderful, amazing, fun, enjoyable, and unpleasant mix. It's rare that a game is both an example of a great evolutionary step and something that wears thin all at once, but depending on how you play your games, this may be the best thing since the Gods descended Mount Olympus to hand us Columns.
Puzzle Quest Galactrix
$20 (1,600 MS points)
The story involves some futuristic Earthlings in space where there's a whole bunch of corporations, which, were I to simplify it, I'd say it's like the company from Aliens had a baby with a good chunk of Dune. People are psychic! Girls are mechanics! Aliens look like rodents!
Thankfully there's a demo you can try to get a handle on this, but the gameplay is a mix of puzzles and typical RPG fare. Graphically, it looks just like Hexic, but it plays quite differently. The puzzles are a "match 3" type, with pieces shifting in whichever direction you moved your colored bits in each turn. Variations on this puzzle are used for the player to hack space travel points called Leap Gates in addition to mining asteroids for resources and, in a neat twist, combat. Depending on how good you are at the puzzle, you can lay waste to other enemy ships and over time, upgrade your vessels. You can even take your ships online for head-to-head matches... but more on that later.
When you aren't solving puzzles for minerals, victory, or transportation rights, you've got a little ship you can fly around the galaxy. Like all good RPGs, PQG has you running errands, deliveries, and other little quests to expand the world in which you play and to add character to the various people in your party, which include a giant robot with a personality that's a mix of Marvin the Paranoid Android and a mellower version of Futurama's Bender. Your characters pilot a ship around, which basically acts as an "overworld" or "town" if you want to stick to the RPG metaphors.
A Real Grind
Most puzzle games involve you playing whatever puzzle it is again and again. Sometimes you play against the computer, other times, against other players. The reasons for this are varied, but the whole idea is that a game like Tetris keeps you coming back because it's fun. Puzzle Quest Galactrix keeps you coming back because of all your missions and the story-- you solve the puzzles because you have to find out what's happening next in this unfolding galaxy.
The problem with this is that you have to solve the same kind of puzzles again and again, specifically Leap Gate hacking. Every time you want to go from one star system to another, at least for the first time, you have to hack a Leap Gate. At press time we have not completed the game, but we've already hacked over 50 and we've still got more to explore. In the first two or three hours of the game, you'll get a taste of everything it has to offer. If you like it, there's a lot more where that came from. It's quite enjoyable in spurts, but as I always tend to play RPGs in mega-sized gaming orgies, aspects of the title became grating quickly. If you pick this up, don't play it for hours at a time. You'll enjoy it more.
As you pick up new party members and travel to new worlds, your ship can be upgraded. This means that when you're in a combat puzzle, your weapons do more damage, which can get you through a puzzle much faster. Or in some cases, get through it at all. A lot of the enemies are tough, and they'll chase after you if you're carrying contraband from an asteroid you have mined, or because they're jerks. The upgrades can be used outside the single-player missions, and used in your online combat modes.
While some games have a "Please Wait" message, this one should probably have some variation on "Bend Over." You can bring your powered-up ships online to fight, and when I was online I was outmatched by double-digits in terms of vehicle level. I held my own for quite some time, so it's not all about who has the best gear on their puzzle space ship, but ultimately, if you put the Death Star against a Ford Pinto, who do you think would win? As far as I noticed there was no "basic" battle mode, meaning that to get the most out of the online experience you're going to have to do a lot of grinding in the single-player game. The barrier to entry may be too high for many to enjoy fully.
Graphics & Sound
As a fairly hardcore fan of Star Wars, I found this game's sound to be quite distracting. You can hear some sound effects which seem to be identical to those used in the original film trilogy-- for example, one thing during combat seems to be the sound that the Imperial Probe Droid in The Empire Strikes Back makes as its antenna descend. I don't want to say these were ripped directly from the films, as I'm no professional sound person, but several of the blaster noises and such sound so much like the sound effects in Star Wars that I find it difficult to believe that they're not taken from the Ben Burtt archives. The music-- which isn't at all Star Warsy, sounds great and fits the game's multi-civilization-spanning intergalactic feel. Good choices, there.
Graphically, there's not a lot going on. The characters are static cut-outs which "speak" with text, much like you would have expected in an RPG from a few generations back. Since it's a downloadable game, this is a smart move in that it takes up less space on your hard drive, which is important because this is a really sizable game with a lot of stuff in it. The hi-def graphics look nice, and the designs are pretty good. Nothing stunning, but they do help define the characters quickly.
Is it worth buying?
Maybe. You're not playing this one for the plot. The story was interesting and the puzzles are neat, but there's so much "grinding" involved that you'll likely get your money's worth out of the game if you enjoy how it works. It's strange to play a puzzler that wasn't meant to be played in small doses.
It's difficult to tell if what you're getting here is an incredible puzzle value which will keep you busy for weeks if not longer, or an obtuse puzzler that will collect virtual dust in the heart of your console of choice. Without a doubt, I advise anyone reading this to try it because this is a game that will appeal to a specific kind of gamer, while turning off another. If you try it and love it, $20 is a real bargain, so take advantage of that free demo.
This game is also available for the Nintendo DS and the PC. A Playstation 3 port may be in the works.
May 5, 2009