Version tested: Xbox 360
Developers of casual games usually relish the chance to de-nerd the hobby on whose periphery they operate. For example, PopCap litters its titles with unicorns and rainbows without apology. They feature characters and colours which rarely get a look-in when it comes to contemporary gaming's brown, bloom-soaked vistas. It's understandable. If you're going to design a game to appeal to as broad an audience as possible, why dress it up like something that just stepped out of Forbidden Planet?
By contrast, Puzzle Quest developer Infinite Interactive celebrates geekery. The first game may have had a straightforward colour-matching mechanic at its core, but the setting was pure Dungeons and Dragons. All giant clicking spiders and pointy wizard hats, it was as nerdish and traditional a gaming scenario as you could imagine.
Galactrix is just as content to settle into orthodox geek territory, with the sort of sci-fi set-up that's been familiar from Elite right through to Mass Effect. This time, however, it's more difficult to call the underlying game in any way casual.
At its core Galactrix remains a matching game. Sure, you travel an entire galaxy in a hulking space ship, taking on missions (up to four at a time), mining asteroids, trading resources, hacking warp gates and recruiting crew members. However, almost every action has a gem matching minigame at its centre.
The rules are simple: create lines of three or more like-coloured gems to make them disappear. Match red, yellow or green gems to harvest energy to power your ship's equipment; match white gems to earn experience points (‘Intel') to level up your character; match blue gems to add energy to your ship's shield, the buffer that protects your hull; and finally, match mines to inflict damage on your opponent. Reduce your opponent's hull HP to zero and you win the battle. So far, so Bejeweled-in-space.
The game's most obvious innovation is that the board and its pieces are hexagonal. This means pieces so can be swapped in six directions rather than Puzzle Quest's four. Also, as Galactrix is set in space, gravity is non-existent. The direction new gems flow onto the board is based on your last move, rather than the usual top-to-bottom movement. If you slide a gem upwards to complete a set, the gap they leave will be filled by gems flowing up the board, and vice versa.
The thinking behind these innovations is sound. Match-three style games are ubiquitous and, from Zoo Keeper to Bejeweled, the mechanics remain constant. Puzzle Quest may have married them with an RPG framework to add interest, but the core remained straightforward. Galactrix, by contrast, vastly ups the number of statistical possibilities for any given board, increasing the game's bedrock complexity.
Of course, an increase in complexity doesn't always tally with an increase in enjoyment. Galactrix's boards are far less readable than those of its predecessor. Whereas before you could foresee chains two or three steps in advance, this new cat's cradle of possibilities makes earning cascades about blind chance as much as careful planning.
Mistakes are also more common. Gems don't always swap with the neighbour you intended due to the new six way directional options, a problem that is exacerbated as the game progresses and you try to hurry through battles.
The object of your attacks is now the enemy ship hull's HP, which, like yours, is protected by a shield buffer. Attacks will deplete the shield before denting the hull HP and, as shields can be replenished by collecting blue gems, there's a neat risk and reward element to gem collecting.
Mines also come in four different strengths (one, thee, five and ten). The amount of damage dealt to your enemy is the aggregate of the values included in the chain. This is a good decision that helps add nuance to the offensive aspect of the game, although it's also now far easier to go from a win to a loss in moments.
Battles are an important part of gameplay as you fight space pirates and vie for control of a particular area of the solar system. However, a great deal of your time will be spent in other, non-combat minigame scenarios.
The galaxy's legion asteroids can be mined for resources, which can then be sold at space stations around the galaxy. The mining mini-game, like Puzzle Quest's item forge system, requires you to match a quota of specific gems. The solar system boats its own diverse economy so, if you want to get the best prices for your new cargo you'll need you travel to (and haggle with) those space stations that are offering the highest trade prices for a particular resource.
Mined cargo can also be used to build items and entire new ships if you have the relevant team member and plans. This economical underbelly to your quest adds both depth and breadth to the experience.
The character classes of the original Puzzle Quest are gone, replaced by the different ships your character can use. The shift, while at first looking like a simplification, soon reveals itself to be worthwhile. You can have up to three ships in your fleet at any one time, and their design changes the way the game plays out: a fast ship will help you speed past attackers in a hostile part of the galaxy, a slower, larger ship will offer lots of equipment slots for customisation.
Equipment replaces Puzzle Quest's magic system although it works in an identical way, granting various offensive and defensive abilities during battle. For example, the Bola Mines item doubles the number of mines on the board while Shield Matrix adds a +5 to your shield total. Choosing the appropriate ship for a battle is important and adds a decent high-level element of strategy to the game.
Galactrix is a huge game constructed from various discrete areas. On the galaxy map each star system is represented as a node and there are well over 50 of them to explore. They are connected by way of LeapGates, and each contains eight or nine planets and asteroids to explore.
As such, unlocking the full run of the galaxy will take tens of hours. Unfortunately you can only access nodes whose LeapGates you've ‘hacked', another mini-game that requires you to clear a board within a strict time limit. This minigame fast grows tedious and, as a literal barrier to exploration, is one of the game's most enduring irritations.
Whether you feel as though Galactrix is a small step or a giant leap on from Puzzle Quest depends on a vast array of factors: whether you prefer the space setting, the new emphasis on economy, the focus shift away from battles to a more diverse range of non-combative tasks and, of course, the deeper but less accessible core gem-matching game. But for us, the result is a dilution, not a distillation of Puzzle Quest's relentlessly compelling formula. It's a game that drives the franchise too deep into niche territory, where it loses sight of the elegance and simplicity which turned the match-three genre into an everyman phenomenon.
7 / 10
The version reviewed was the XBLA code. PC and DS are available from the 13th of March, with PSN and XBLA to follow.