|Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords is a great RPG puzzle game--one that invented or at least reinvented the genre in which puzzling action doesn't get old because you're always doing it *for* some slightly different reason, with slightly different abilities, against a slightly different CPU opponent.|
The follow-up, Galactrix, is not a great game. CotW's lead designer went on to some sort of management position in the developing studio, and the lead designer for Galactrix is someone who did level design on the first game. They seem to have understood enough of what made CotW good to keep the basics: you match gem things in a puzzle game vs different computer-controlled opponents, using special abilities and items that you can improve over time.
Beyond the basics, it's all downhill. The story starts off in promising fashion, throwing you into a tense chase across the galaxy for eh weird aliens or something--see, soon the tension dissolves, and the utterly generic plot is revealed in its horrifying mundanity. The end didn't feel like an end or even a good fight--it was just clear that there was nothing else new to do.
In CotW, there were numerous side-quests you could do for fun and to improve your character, and Galactrix tries to do the same, but many of the side quests feel like complete filler: they often come in packs of four or five, and don't even have an NPC talking to you; instead, plain text in a little box tells you to take item x to planet y--and all of the quests in that series will be just like that. They didn't even bother to throw in an enemy to fight in most of these missions; it's about as minimal an effort as anyone could have put into mission design.
CotW had allies you could team with, but you could only have so many in your party, so you had to swap them in and out, trying for the most effective combination of skills to suit the situation. Galactrix has NPC party members too, but they don't really do anything except serve as excuses for now being able to access some area or other in the story; they don't give you any advantage in puzzle fights, and you can't swap them around--they really might as well not even be there, except I guess they do fill in some of the tedium with mediocre dialogue.
Many of CotW's systems are completely gone. In that game, you could capture cities, build a castle, and capture and train mounts, for instance--all quite optional, but all interesting and worthwhile in their own way. Gone. In Galactrix, you can mine asteroids for resources to use in crafting, but it's very boring, and the crafting management is less than stellar. I usually don't have the patience for crafting anyway, but I did some of it in CotW for things that seemed particularly nifty, and because you didn't have to go very far out of your way to do it; in Galactrix, you generally would have to go out of your way, and there are generally things just as good that you can find in shops, anyway. Stats are way dumbed down in Galactrix, with only four primary stats there to suck up your earned level points--CotW had at least twice that in the form of secondary stats and modifiers.
Galactrix does "add" something to "gameplay," but it's very annoying: warp gate puzzles. Galactic space in Galactrix is separated into two different map areas: the main galaxy map, where you fly along set routes between neighboring star systems, and the star system maps, which you enter from the galaxy map, and have to use to get to the planets, asteroids, or space stations inside that system. This map-inside-a-map system is quite a pain in the rear, especially when you get pulled into a system (ambushed), then can't tell which way to go from inside the system map--you can bring up a tiny galactic map from inside the system, but the systems on it aren't labeled, so if you don't remember the name of the system you were going to, you'll just have to guess. Ugh.
You leave a system map by one of possibly multiple warp gates, which magically transport you to one of the neighboring systems--unless you haven't "hacked" the gate yet, in which case you have to do a gate hack puzzle. These are timed (argh), not fun, always pretty much the same thing, and you get absolutely no experience points, money, or anything else from doing them; they're simply an obstacle, repeated nearly every time you want to go from one system to another. Late in the game, it isn't so bad because you've got most of them hacked (and they *usually* don't re-lock on you...), but early in the game, they're a massive, un-fun chore. One thing that made me hate the warp gate puzzles even more was an example of shoddy coding: if you make a puzzle match of more than the required three gem things in a hack puzzle, the volume of the "match" sound, which they for some reason made a loud and very annoying noise, is correspondingly amplified, and even more annoying. And yeah, matching more than three or getting a combo chain in hack gate puzzles usually does absolutely nothing worthwhile; in fact, combo chains are bad, because they just waste time--the timer keeps going as the combos slowly complete, doing nothing for you.
Timing of events during gameplay is something of a bugaboo in Galactrix in general; the coding or design is so poor throughout that the game doesn't seem to have a proper, basic order of operations worked out, and if two things happen simultaneously, like a combo activating something, or your ship entering a system and triggering something, the game will try to play the multiple results simultaneously: voice clips will overlap, "saving" and "loading" will appear on screen at the same time, and the game will crash with alarming frequency.
In fact, I was getting multiple crashes--or system freezes, rather--per hour, until I realized that the game was so poorly put together that it couldn't handle me trying to play it as quickly as the UI allowed; so I slowed down, and was careful to wait for a second or two after doing anything, particularly flying around the galactic map. This spared me from most of the crashing. Yay...
Well, in between all those fun things, you will sometimes engage in actual puzzle battles. Should be the main fun thing to do in this RPG puzzle game, right? Okay, so they are, but unfortunately, that isn't saying much.
In CotW battles, you had to decide in each turn which type of gem to match, and this would vary based on what abilities (which require/drain different gem types) you wanted to be able to use, or what you wanted to keep away from your opponent. The opponent would also go for different types depending on what *they* wanted to do, and there was much strategy and variety involved in this interplay.
Not so in Galactrix. You pretty much want to go for red, because that powers almost all of the weapons. Before that, you may want to go for blue, shields, because that in effect adds health. The CPU is utterly predictable in following this system of priorities: if there's a blue match, he'll go for it; if there's no blue, but there is red, he'll go for that.
That isn't really the CPU being dumb: the game's resource strategy just has almost zero variety. The CPU really is dumb, though: it will often make matches that give it less than it could have got through a different match; worse, it will fall into set-up traps, ie take a move that will give you an obvious and highly damaging counter-move. The CPU in CotW NEVER did that, and one of the best parts of the battle of wits you had with it was when each of you was trying to force the other into a trap move--Galactrix ALWAYS falls for them, and never sets them.
Galactrix' CPU also doesn't know how to use its ships' systems: it will take shield matches when it has full shields, or has a drain that prevents it from gaining shield energy; it will take other resources when full on them, too, and will not go after particular resources it needs in a consistent manner. If it has one singularly overpowered weapon (too many of them do, like the very common ships that have a weapon that goes right through your shield and cuts your hull points (health) in half in a single shot), it won't really try to use it; in general, it seems to use its abilities more or less randomly.
The CPU is so cripplingly stupid that it isn't very fun to play. It doesn't help that you can get your own very unbalanced items, like the device preventing opponent shield recharge that I got early in the game, which makes the CPU waste turns trying to charge its shield because it doesn't realize it can't, or the item that wipes out all of the enemy's resources, or the one that wipes out their shield, or the one that freezes them for three or four turns and can be used nearly consecutively. Item balance is way, way off in Galactrix, and while an overpowered item can be fun in some games--you've been knocking me around for the past ten levels, huh computer? Now it's payback time!--in Galactrix, they're just sad.
Opponent scaling is off, too. After following the beginning of the story for maybe an hour or so, I suddenly found that to continue along the main storyline, I had to face a ship about four times my level. So I had to spend ages flying around, unlocking those damn warp gates to access side quests and level up that way, instead of the side quests being fun optional things that I could do or not. Later on I would routinely be pitted against a ship ten levels above me--I could swear there was just a formula saying "player level plus ten" but eventually that ceased to matter anyway, because I realized that the unbalanced items allowed me to destroy an enemy of any level.
Usually: the difference was random chance in match combination chains. In Galactrix, when you match three or more gems of the same color by swapping two adjacent gems, new gems fall in to replace them from the direction away from which you swapped the gems--this is called "gravity." Galactrix uses a map composed of hexagons, so this could be one of six directions. There are some problems with this.
First of all, you can move to two left or two right hexes from any point (except up against the side of the puzzle board, obviously): this complicates basic navigation of the board, because instead of just pushing right to move your selector right, pushing it right may move it up-right, or down-right, depending on which unlabeled column of the board you are in--so usually you just push the side direction you want, and 50% of the time, you have to correct and make another up/down press to get to the hex to which you actually wanted to move. Wow guys, great interface.
A consequence is that swapping is greatly complicated, too: while in CotW, you simply clicked on the gem you wanted to swap, then pressed a direction in which to swap it, in CotW you have to click the gem to swap, click the gem to swap it with, then press a direction; sounds minor, but it really makes the control more of a pain.
Another unfortunate result of the hex grid and multidirectional "gravity" is that your ability to set up intentional combos is significantly hampered: whereas in CotW, you could match up, down, left, or right to match gems so gems to replace the matched ones would trigger a combo match with their neighbors, in Galactrix, because whichever of the six directions in which you match BECOMES down, you can really only set up combos in that single direction.
Eventually I stopped bothering to look for even those combo opportunities, because chance combos in Galactrix are way too common: if you lose a puzzle battle, it won't be because the CPU was better than you or had more health (assuming you had the slightest clue of how to play), but because the CPU inadvertently triggered some massive cascade of mine-gem combination matches that wiped out most of your health in a single random move. Not only are damage gems much more commonplace in Galactrix than they were in CotW, they--and the other gem types--can match in six directions vs CotW's four, so random combos are nearly unavoidable.
I could go on and on, but this is already far too long as it is. Galactrix is a poorly designed game. I did play through it to the end, because it retains just enough of a vestige of the original's situational puzzle variety to leave you the possibility that the next thing you'll have to do will be just slightly different enough from the things you've been doing repeatedly so far; it fulfills this promise rarely. What you could say Galactrix has going for it is the assurance that your brain won't be strained by any difficulty in puzzle challenges; going back to CotW was a shock: you actually have to think in that game! No thinking required in Galactrix, and while that can be restful from time to time, it is not a recipe for a good puzzle game.