Space ... it is very big and very easy to fall back on as a setting when making a game. There’s nothing cooler than aliens, spaceships, black holes and blasting things with space lasers. Yes, everything is better when you do it in the uncharted cosmos that is outer space. Well, except for tedious repetitive tasks. Unfortunately, there are plenty of those to be found in Puzzle Quest: Galactrix.
Puzzle Quest: Galactrix attempts to join the strange bedfellows that are puzzle games and role-playing games into one harmonious trek through the stars. I must say, it has definitely the most intricate backstory to matching colored gems that I have ever seen. The basic premise that makes Puzzle Quest: Galactrix a game and not a fancy storybook is the extensively matching of colored gems. This concept has been done many, many times before, but it gets a little deeper here.
The gems in question come in multiple colors, and each one benefits you in a different way. Red, yellow and green gems are used to power the various gadgets that are on your ship. Blue gems heal your shields, which will undoubtedly be damaged at some point. Accumulated purple gems are used outside of battle to use Psi powers. Finally, white gems get added to your Intel (known as experience points in more conventional RPGs). Mixed into the rainbow are black gems with numbers on them (mines) that hurt your opponent’s shields and hit points. Simply put, the gameplay consists of taking turns matching gems and mines until somebody loses all of their hit points.
Puzzle Quest: Galactrix breaks out of the puzzle game mold by including an actual story to go along with the matching. You play as one of the four available avatars that all have the same pre-scripted dialogue regardless of your choice. Your chosen hero, named Jar Jar T. Kirk in my case, follows a story involving betrayal, clones and space hamsters. The story isn’t all that deep and follows a predictable “join a faction that eventually betrays you and then join another one” formula.
However, all the alien races are thought out well and get a surprising amount of backstory given that you mostly ever see them as ships and an AI matching gems. The alien races show up as factions and shift toward friendly or hostile depending on whether or not your chosen quest involves killing them. Performing quests for one race will usually make another hate you, which quickly becomes annoying. Touching a ship that belongs to a faction that hates you will result in forced gem matching unless you use Psi powers to fool them. Having multiple factions mad at you wouldn’t be so bad if you didn’t have to go through their turf constantly in order to advance the story. Unfortunately, this never proves to be the case.
The Galaxy Map that you will be traversing, using whatever cool ship you have tricked out, resembles a game of Connect the Dots. Each dot represents a galaxy that belongs to some faction or another. A faction will usually have all their galaxies close together to ensure maximum aggravation if they don’t like you and you need to pass through their section of space. To move from one galaxy to another, you have to perform a task that may be the most mundane activity ever to be included in a video game.
Leapgates prevent access between galaxies, and it is up to you to hack them to gain access to another galaxy. Hacking leapgates is done by matching gems in a certain time limit. A specific color must be matched each turn with the number of turns needed to complete the hack varying in difficulty. Annoying music and sound effects accompanies this entire process. Now, this probably wouldn’t be that bad if you had to do it say five or six times. However, there are about 70 galaxies with a leapgate blocking every single one. Finally, the leapgates also can randomly turn off, requiring you to hack them again. If there is a gaming hell, hacking leapgates is perhaps the closest I have ever come to it. It is entirely possible that you may spend more time hacking than fighting enemy ships. The other variants on gem matching that appear may not be as diabolical, but they never quite approach “fun” either.
Fighting enemy ships proves to be the high point in this gem-matching journey through space. There is the potential to have a hair-raising game of strategy and weaponry. However, the AI is cheap and can (and usually will) get 10 chain combos and even kill you in one turn. The difficulty skyrockets after the tutorial, and you’ll find yourself fighting warships in a trainee cruiser. Although this sounds bad (and it is), you can eventually break the game with the right gadgets. You see, there are certain gadgets that skip the enemy’s turn. By equipping two or three of these at once you can essentially create an endless loop in which the enemy never gets a turn or you get eight for every one of theirs. All strategy basically goes out the window as I’m pretty sure a chimp could beat a chess playing computer if he got eight times as many turns. Puzzle Quest: Galactrix also has a competitive online mode, but the Endless Loop Strategy is very popular and whoever goes first will probably win.
It really is quite a shame. The elements are all here for a great story driven puzzle game. Some of the alien races are pretty interesting, and the characters are actually fleshed out in detail. However, the actual gameplay ranges from excruciating at worst to mediocre at best and never quite finds the fun. As a book, I would probably pick this one up. As a game, the phasers are set to Bland.