Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Puzzle Quest: Galactrix Impressions (PC)

"How's it going in there?" Gloria asked as I emerged from my study.

"Well, I'd give up every laser I have for a Keck Shell," I said. "But even without it, the Quesadan Lightship is more powerful than you'd think."

"You love doing that, don't you?" she asked.

"I do," I said.

Here's your tiny review: well, it's great.

I posted last week that I didn't like one of the game's puzzles (the leap gate) because I thought it was unfair in its design. I still think that, but I've only found two leap gates with such low time limits, and I eventually opened them both. Plus, there's already a mod available for the PC version (thanks Evil Timmy) that fixes my specific complaint (although I haven't installed it yet).

So why is it great?

Why? Because it's not a puzzle game with a sci-fi theme. Instead, it's a sci-fi game that uses puzzles as a basic mechanic. That's a huge difference, and because of it, I think of games like Master of Orion or Starflight when I'm playing PQ:G, not Bejeweled or Bookworm Adventures.

I'm not implying that the game is as good (or as complex) as Starflight or MOO, just that it evokes some of the same feelings at times, and that the space setting feels familiar--in a good way.

Here's a basic overview of how the game works. There's a "space map" that shows you all galaxies (79, according to 1UP) and the travel routes connecting them (which are all activated by hacking leap gates). Inside each galaxy, there are planets and a space station. In addition, on some planets there are asteroids that can be mined and shipyards to buy parts or craft items.

You have a relationship with every faction in the galaxy, and each galaxy is controlled by a faction. If you go to combat with a ship, your relationship with that faction is going to suffer, and if you have a hostile relationship with a faction, you'll be attacked as soon as you enter a galaxy that they control. You can improve your standing with a faction, though, by completing missions for them or selling goods to one of their space stations.

All the "action moments" happen with puzzles, and all take place on a hexagonal grid, but the puzzles vary by activity. Mining is an additive puzzle (reaching a total for each of three kinds of matches), but haggling with a merchant is subtractive (remove as many units as possible--no new units will drop after matches). Hacking leap gates is additive, but a specific sequence of matches must be followed, and this is the only puzzle that's timed. The combat puzzle takes place versus a CPU opponent, and this is the only puzzle where you're allowed to use the items you've outfitted your ship with (which have a huge effect on how combat plays out).

It's a clever series of variations, but what every puzzle does is leverage the strengths of the hexagonal grid and the drop patterns. When you move a piece to make a match, pieces drop in the same direction that you moved a piece, so if you move a piece down to make a match, new pieces are going to drop down as well. That may sound simple, but it's far more complex in actual play, to the point that you'll be selecting matches in certain parts of the grid based on how much exposure you can afford from newly dropping pieces (which sometimes cascade in spectacular fashion).

If you played Puzzle Quest: Warlords, and you want to understand why this game is better, I think there are three primary reasons:
--a much stronger sense of theme
--improved puzzle mechanics
--a larger and more open-ended world

To begin with, I think the science fiction theme is reinforced more often and more clearly. The look and feel of the game is very evocative of 2D science fiction classics, and the sound is an absolutely huge improvement over the first game. The music is terrific, and there's even one song that mimics Vangelis in all the best ways. The voices are excellent as well.

The puzzle mechanics are totally new, essentially, with the use of a hexagonal playing field. If you've played PQ:W, you know about the ability modifiers while in combat, but the drops in a hexagonal arrangement, and your ability to control the direction of those drops, makes this new mechanic much more complex and much more satisfying. Yes, there's a ton of randomness in any single battle because of the unpredictability of the drops, but there's also no question in my mind that someone who understands the board and plays the fundamentals properly will win far more often than someone who doesn't.

Plus, the fundamentals change radically depending on your ship. I've got a ship now with very limited offensive capabilities, but terrific shields. I lose far fewer battles, but they take quite a bit longer to resolve now, because it's more attrition-based. Previously, I had a very offensive ship with more vulnerable shields, and battles tended to resolve explosively and quickly.

When I say that this game is more open-ended than PQ:W, I'm not being entirely accurate. The developers do a convincing job of making you feel that it's more open-ended, and activities like mining become sidelights that can be pursued indefinitely, but the plot (as far as I can tell after about 15 hours) seems to be quite linear--even if you pursue different missions, the overarching plot is the same. But it feels so much more expansive, and the universe seems so much fuller, that it's more fun to play.

Negatives? Well, the writing is weak. There's plenty of dialogue, and it tells a decent story, but it's not written very well. There are also quite a few places in the game where you have to win a battle to progress, or have to accomplish something else (like hack a leap gate) to continue. If the story was more dynamic, it would be even better.

Seriously, though, I've never played a puzzle game where the possibility of a dynamic story even entered my head. This game is so good, though, that it makes you think about where it could go from here.

Please note that I have the PC version (downloaded from Impulse--SSD FTW), so I can't offer any comments on the quality of the DS version. But the PC version is absolutely aces, and I recommend it highly.

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