As an owner and frequent user of my Xbox 360 and Nintendo Wii, I'm sympathetic - if not in complete favor - towards the argument the hardcore trot out about casual gamers diluting their pastime. Enough shelf space exists for the Wii Fits and the Gears of Wars of the world, but it's hard not to feel anything beyond crippling depression for a populace that bought over 3 million copies of the aptly named Game Party.
That being said, Puzzle Quest: Galactrix makes no reservations about its allegiances in this debate. As with its predecessor, 2007's Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords, Galactrix mishmashes its casual genre roots into a product that unabashedly caters to the hardcore, for better or worse.
For the uninitiated, Galactrix is essentially a turn-based RPG, complete with requisite stat management, quests and grinding, but gameplay revolves around a Bejeweled¬-styled mechanic. Players have to match up three or more tiles in encounters, but Galactrix switches out the grid of the original for a hexagonal playing field. Additionally, the game's setting gets transferred from high fantasy to outer space, though it's mostly for aesthetic purposes. As with the original, the paper-thin narrative only exists to tie the various encounters together, but the exceptional gameplay more than makes up for it.
As unlikely of a combination as puzzle-RPG sounds, it worked well in the original and the hexagonal grid adds another dimension, as having two extra sides for each tile opens up additional avenues for matches. Galactrix doesn't divert from the original any more than it needs to, though. Like in Warlords, ability tiles need to be matched to use the ship's equipment - the game's equivalent of spells - but tiles are randomly placed on the board. This push-and-pull dynamic, with players having to simultaneously manipulate the board and figure out their best possible options, gives combat plenty of replayability.
Galactrix also manages to fit in an impressive amount of content, as a variety of mini-games round out the game. The commodity system works especially well: players can mine asteroids for supplies in a mini-game to either craft into higher-grade weapons (in another mini-game) or sell them for cash. The ship also limits the available storage for resources - though buying new ships can increase their capacity - and this resource allocation lends the game depth.
They're all basically variations on the main game, but most of the modes are different enough to keep things from feeling too stale. In the crafting mini-game, matching up tiles spawns tokens, which need to be matched up to finish. However, the mining mini-game, where players have to match up tiles to gather resources, is much more deliberately constructed: while tiles still have to matched, it's possible to run out of moves before the asteroid is cleared. The game also gives a bonus for completely mining an asteroid, which makes it worthwhile to try and formulate a strategy to finish the level.
The pacing of the mini-games isn't perfect, though. For example, players need to unlock leapgates in a mini-game to travel from one star system to another. The rules of the mode aren't especially complicated - specific tile colors need to be matched under a time limit - but all of the leapgates are initially locked. With quests often requiring players to travel across several unexplored systems, basic navigation ends up feeling like a grind. The semi-open-world makes up for some of these problems; multiple factions offer side quests, which keeps the game from feeling too linear.
Unfortunately, even with its exceptional genre-hopping gameplay, Galactrix's adherence to staid genre conventions makes it stumble on other levels. Take the open world, for instance: even though the game features a variety of human and alien factions to interact with, the actual missions are essentially glorified fetch quests. The game also touts a diplomacy system, which tracks the player's standing among all the factions, but like with the semi-open-world, it's full of squandered potential.
Taking on missions for one faction against another improves and lowers a player's standing accordingly, but these levels don't make much of an impact in-game, as entering the galaxy of a faction that hates the player only makes them more liable to be attacked immediately. Besides that, the faction will still offer quests and trade with the player - especially with how the game handles trade, it's a prominent oversight. Factions will buy certain resources for more compared to other factions, but even if you've reduced another faction to little more than a smoking pile of shrapnel, they'll still want to buy from you, which makes little sense.
On top of all this, the game's unforgiving difficulty curve borders on the inane. Outside of Mega Man 9, it's hard to think of another recent title that's as opposed to letting the player progress. It's common for the computer to randomly spawn whatever tiles they need to chain together tiles and cause ridiculous amounts of damage; during one battle I played, the computer actually spawned four attack tiles in a row.
Admittedly, picking up the proper equipment can even the playing field - one piece of equipment destroys all the attack tiles on the playing grid - but it only emphasizes the problems the game's artificial intelligence causes. A game only works if the player knows it's possible for them to accomplish whatever task gets throws at them, but the random nature of the game's AI makes this difficult at best.
In spite of this though, this dichotomy underscores the simultaneous strengths and faults of Galactrix. While it carries over the best and worst qualities of its RPG influences, good gameplay forgives a lot and Galactrix has this in spades. Updating the original's puzzle-RPG hybrid gameplay feels sufficiently fresh, and even if Galactrix doesn't fix the banal AI issues that plagued the original, its unabashedly dense gameplay makes the game a rich, albeit frustrating, experience.