When D3 and Infinite Interactive released Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords two years ago on the PSP and DS, its appropriation of RPG and puzzle game conventions seemed kind of ingenious. On their own, the elements that comprised Puzzle Quest weren't particularly great. The fantasy RPG elements were boilerplate, and the puzzle action was just Bejeweled, but they complimented each other to make for something far more interesting and addictive. Depending on your perspective, it was either an RPG with a unique combat system, or a puzzle game with some unique context.
After subsequently bringing Puzzle Quest to every platform in the known universe, Infinite Interactive returns with Puzzle Quest: Galactrix, which takes the same basic RPG-plus-puzzle formula, swaps out medieval fantasy for a space-faring, far-flung futuristic setting, and replaces the four-way puzzle with a six-way variant. In theory, it should be just as satisfying as its predecessor, but the returns on the formula have already diminished noticeably. The combination of RPG and puzzle doesn't seem quite as novel, and choices have been made that create an experience that's more complicated without being more fun.
The story of Galactrix opens with a grim prologue recounting man's brutal conquest of the stars and its interactions with alien races that basically boils down to “Man is awesome, but he's also his own worst enemy. Oh, and megacorporations.” You're then dropped into the shoes of a star pilot fresh from the academy who starts off chasing pirates but eventually gets tangled up in the unethical and dangerous machinations of one of Earth's megacorps. It's all Self-Serious Sci-Fi 101, and other the the weird intonations of the voice actor who reads the prologue, it's not delivered with much flair.
You'll name your pilot and choose his or her appearance from a handful of oddly angular portraits, then head off into the galaxy to take on quests, mine asteroids, hunt down pirates, hack into “leapgates,” and build new ships and parts, all activities which end up boiling down to playing variants of a gem-swapping puzzle game. The RPG elements in Galactrix are just palette-swaps for the original PQ, with the same basic effects. Instead of a quest party, you get a ship crew that confers bonuses during puzzle combat; instead of weapons for yourself, you get upgrades for your ship that give you new and more powerful puzzle attacks; and so on. Other than the sci-fi setting, the biggest difference between Puzzle Quest and Galactrix is the way the puzzle action itself handles.
Part of the joy of Puzzle Quest was how self-apparent the puzzle gameplay was. It cribbed shamelessly from a well-established, very popular puzzle game, so even if it took you a while to wrap your head around the RPG parts, if you knew how to play Bejeweled, you could get by until the rest came into focus. Galactrix tries something a little more unique, creating a style of puzzle action that fuses Bejeweled with Hexic. I suppose Infinite Interactive should get credit for trying something new, but it handicaps the accessibility. You're still swapping gems around, trying to line up three or more like-colored gems in a row to clear them out. But now the gems themselves are six-sided, making it possible to line them up vertically or diagonally, and instead of having new gems always drop into the field from above, they'll often come in from whichever direction you moved the gems in.
There are more gem colors to contend with now, though it's less the number and more the way they're implemented that gums up the works. In addition to the mine gems, which throw damage at your enemy, red, yellow, and green gems fill up the power gauges you'll need to perform any special abilities you have equipped; blue gems fill up your shield, which prevents your enemy from draining your hit points directly; gray gems increase the amount of XP you earn from winning a fight; and purple gems add to your “psi power,” which you can use to avoid random enemy encounters. With so many variables, the learning curve is longer, and the puzzle action feels far more chaotic. One of the complaints about Puzzle Quest was the perception that your AI opponents cheated, and while developer Infinite Interactive has sworn up and down that there was no programming in Puzzle Quest that should give the AI any kind of foresight beyond what's on the table, Galactrix isn't going to do anything to quell those complaints.
Outside of the puzzle action there are even more systems to contend with, such as a faction system that impacts who will attack you and who you can trade with, and a byzantine leapgate map system. Infinite Interactive seems to have lost sight of the approachability that made Puzzle Quest endearing, and Galactrix is simply more demanding than it should be. The first Puzzle Quest was a revelation; Galactrix is just a complication.