I dig puzzle games. Hell, I'm a gamer, I like all games. But puzzle games are in my heart of hearts.
My first ever handheld video game system was the original Game Boy. It was released eight months after I was born, and I first owned one when I was six. It was second hand (from my cousins), and the battery cover was missing. I had only two games: Alien III and Tetris.
Considerably too young to fully understand Alien and the stellar graphics it provided, I played Tetris exclusively. I loved me some Tetris. On long car rides, I'd hog our precious Game Boy, leaving my older sister crying because I beat her high score for the ninth time in a row. I used up batteries like there was no tomorrow.
Of course, over the years, my puzzle tastes have matured and I find myself yearning for the perfect puzzle game. Something that piques my interest, but isn't so repetitive as to become predictable. Plot is optional, but if well done, bonus. Music must not grate on the nerves after hours of play, and if I have to use twelve buttons and a stylus, you'd better have a damned good reason for it. It's a hard balance to maintain, and I've got high standards. While Puzzle Quest: Galactrix tries hard, comes close, but ultimately it's far from perfect.
Though it seems almost an afterthought in some places, the plot isn't half bad. After a giant war, Earth is destroyed and four mega-corporations survive to rule the remainder of mankind. Taking its first steps into the universe, humans realize that they aren't alone. We make a name for ourselves and end up being generally well thought of. The game itself takes place a few hundred years after this expansion into space, when one of the mega-corporations has been conducting scary experiments that could kill mankind. Your goal is to unravel this mystery using these archaic leapgates to jump from system to system. More on these later.
While that isn't exactly Earth-shattering (get it? Oh nevermind), you don't have to sit through cutscenes and heavy plot lines. It's pretty simple: You've got some human factions, some alien factions and some enemy ones. Some of the humans hate the aliens, some of the aliens hate the humans and generally, the enemies are hated by all. If you happen to become too friendly with one, you'll become the enemy of another.
You start the game by choosing either a male or a female character. In Challenge of the Warlords (the original Puzzle Quest game), players had the ability to choose a class based on what spells they wanted to cast. Not so much this time around. While it was a bit of a letdown, it wasn't a game spoiler for me. What really threw me off is that they named the female character Foropina. Foropina? Seriously? I know it isn't something that should bug me, but it left me staring at my DS for a few minutes wondering who the bright person was to come up with such an original name. At least it can be changed.
In many ways, Galactrix is similar to Warlords. Instead of being a magic user on one planet and using roads to do quests, you're a space academy graduate going from world to world through this immense galaxy. Instead of buying equipment, spells and gaining mana, you can buy weapons, repair bots, and acquire otherwise kick ass technology with which you can upgrade your spaceship to defeat enemies with greater ease.
What complicates things and truly brings the game to life is the actual gameplay. It is still your typical match-three-tiles style of game, but now the board is round instead of square, and the tiles on said board are hexagonal. Also, the Galactrix gameplay takes place in space. There is no gravity in space. The board refills with tiles in the direction from which they left, meaning that there is an added level of difficulty in planning your moves ahead of time. It becomes much, much more difficult to predict how the tiles will come onto the board, and you could end up giving your enemy an easy win.
To attack your opponent, use one of your equipped weapons, or match three attack tiles. These tiles bear a number between one and 10 and the product of your three tiles is the amount of damage you deal. Simple math will tell you that matching three tiles worth one point each is not nearly as effective as matching three at 10 points. Your health is measured in your hull integrity with a shield for a bit of extra protection.
When using the weapons or other technology that you've equipped, you must often "charge" them first by making matches with the corresponding gem colors (red, yellow, green). I never discovered what the colors meant, other than blue regenerates your shield and red means boom. Red means laser guns. Boom boom.
And boy, can you get some boom. You can own up to three ships, equip them as you will, you can build ships with minerals found by mining asteroids (another mini game), all in an effort to be the biggest space badass and fight your way to success.
You don't do too much fighting, however. A majority of the game is spent navigating leapgates. Oh, the leapgates. Oh, oh the leapgates. All the leapgates are broken and infected with a bug! You must hack your way through every single leapgates, sometimes the same ones! After half an hour of playing, you could slog your way through six, seven, maybe even eight of the same bloody mini game. I get it, it's a puzzle game and there's only so much you can do with the same puzzle concept, but for the love of all that is Tetris, must you force me to endure a relentless barrage of repetitive mini games for the sake of a longer game time? I'm failing miserably at putting into words just how incredibly frustrating this part of the game was.
If there is another downfall to this game, I'd have to point to the load times. When played on the DS, nearly every action initiates a lengthy loading screen. You begin doing the play and wait, play and wait dance.
Visually, the game is a bit of a letdown too. Simple animations flounder when they work at all, and objects (like the tiles) tend to jerk around instead of moving smoothly. Though everything is colourful and rendered in great detail, it's hard to enjoy something that jolts around the screen. Thankfully, the game is easier on the ears. You can play for a few hours at a time without the music and sound effects grating on you.
A quick note: At first I though it was my DS (I'm still using the original phat model), but I tried it on a friend's Lite and found that often, your ship wouldn't move exactly where you touched but would instead go flying off in another direction. When tapping on a leapgate, I'd suddenly veer off in a circle, and have to tap on the leapgate a second time to get there. I wouldn't mind so much if this only happened a few times, but it happened frequently enough that I was beginning to wonder if both DS systems I was using were failing (they aren't).
All in all, I give Puzzle Quest Galactrix a serious pat on the back for effort. There is a of content in that little cartridge, and a good portion of it is seriously addictive. I am a big fan of the quickplay mode, and the local multiplayer mode served me well during the long hours stuck at an airport with a friend. It's great to pick up and play but I don't think I'll ever be able to play through story mode again, and to me, that isn't a pass.