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If you asked me what was the one game Nintendo DS owners should buy I would reply without hesitation "Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords". If you asked whether you should also buy the sequel, Puzzle Quest Galactrix, you'd get a resounding "maybe."
Challenge of the Warlords was everything a computer game should be - nice to look at, packed with simple but fiendishly addictive game play and a great story that hooked you in to the game's universe from the start. As a sequel, Puzzle Quest Galactrix takes the same basic idea, but adds a few tweaks which are not always to the benefit of the game.
Galactrix mixes Bejewelled with a sci-fi adventure. You play a space cadet undertaking a variety of different quests. The more you complete, the more powerful you become. Along the way, you can trade goods to raise money, which in turn will allow you to buy more powerful ships and weapons. Instead of a points-based fighting system, you have to defeat enemies in a game of Bejewelled.
It sounds crazy, but it works really well. When you fight an enemy, you get a grid, full of different coloured gems. You take it in turns to move one gem a single space to create a line of at least 3 identical gems. Occasionally, mines appear instead of jewels. Match three of these and your enemy suffers damage. The game ends when either you or your enemy have no energy left.
Here's where the first of those game play tweaks comes in. In Challenge, the game grid was rectangular and gems could only be matched in vertical or horizontal lines. Once they disappeared, the remaining ones dropped from top to bottom. This made it very easy to pick up the basics of the game quickly, whilst more experienced players could easily calculate the effect of their move. In Galactrix, the play area is hexagonal and matching lines can be made diagonally, horizontally or vertically. This makes it trickier to spot potential moves and the game requires considerably more practice to master, making it less immediately accessible.
The movement of jewels is also trickier to work out. Rather than jewels always dropping down, in Galactrix it depends on the move you made. If, for example, you move a jewel diagonally right, the remaining jewels will also shift diagonally right; move one left to right, the remaining jewels will shift left to right and so on. True, this adds an extra element of depth and strategy, as you need to evaluate each move carefully. Again, though, it makes game play more complex and less instantly accessible.
There's a further unnecessary tweak to the combat. In Warlords, both you and your enemy had a limited health bar. When that was zero, you were defeated and had to try again. In Galactrix, in addition to your health bar, your spaceship has a shield. This can be replenished by matching blue jewels, making individual battles more drawn out and frustrating: you're just on the point of victory when your enemy replenishes his shield, artificially prolonging the battle.
In truth, it's hard to justify these changes; the game play in Challenge was perfect. All the sequel needed was a new story based around the same game engine and Galactrix would have been another winner. The changes make Galactrix a frustrating experience for newcomers who just want more of the same and may put off newcomers with its unnecessarily complex combat system.
Perhaps as a result of these frustrations, the story also seems less immersive. It mainly involves flying between planets completing different tasks. Here, the problem is that universe is very sprawled out and can't be viewed on one screen. It's too easy to spend a great deal of time flying around lost, having forgotten both your destination and your mission. Sure you can check your objectives at any time, but even then it can be tricky to locate the planet you need. The loss of Challenge's single screen scrollable map is keenly felt and in the initial stages at least, leads to much random flying around.
Finally on the negative side, there are some serious loading time issues. Virtually every action your perform prompts the message "Accessing data" or "Saving data", followed by a 5-10 second delay. This becomes wearing and puts you off playing the game for extended periods. It also stops you from becoming immersed in the story, since it acts as a constant reminder that you are just playing a game.
Persevere, though, and there is still a fun and addictive game. As you get better, it becomes increasingly easy to spot the right move; whilst the ability to purchase new ships and weapons helps you defeat some of the game's tougher opponents. A number of sub-games offer some variety from the standard battle mode to prolong interest and break up the potential monotony of doing the same thing over and over.
A number of different game modes also add longevity. Quest mode is the full game, or you can choose to fight a specific opponent in a single match or play against other human players. These mean that you can sit down and have a quick game any time you like, without having to do the full game. It's a shame that Challenge's one big omission - a "score attack" mode, where you just try and destroy as many jewels as possible - has still not been remedied.
Graphics-wise, things look pretty good, if fairly basic. The map for the RPG element is sufficiently detailed, if nothing spectacular. There are some Japanese style cut-scenes showing dialogue between various characters which suit the game well. These are accompanied by some pretty cheesy dialogue, which actually adds to the sense of fun.
Sound-wise, there are a number of atmospheric tunes which perfectly complement the space setting. The tunes are suitably Star Wars-like and bombastic (although I confess they do get on my nerves after a while and I tend to play with the sound off). In-game sound effects, whilst fairly minimal, are also suitable to the game and sound pretty good.
If you can get past the frustrations caused by unnecessary game play changes, Galactrix remains a fun game and a good challenge. Its initially high difficulty curve does mean you will have to persevere to get anything out of it, but that perseverance will bring rewards.
Since it is less highly regarded, you can actually buy Galactrix new for about £10, cheaper than a second hand copy of Challenge. If you're a huge fan of the first game, it's worth buying, as long as you don't expect it to be as good. If you're new to the series it's worth spending a little bit extra and going for the far superior Challenge of the Warlords instead.
© Copyright SWSt 2010