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.