I don’t know about you guys, you’re probably much more hardcore at gaming than I am, but sometimes I turn into a filthy casual gamer and get really really excited about games like Bejewelled. I think the lure of casual games like Bejewelled and Candy Crush and all those games in that genre of match 3 jewels/candies/tiles etc. can be horrifically addictive. Not addictive in the Skyrim sense where you’re fully immersed in a game and forget how many hours have gone past. Addictive in the sense that you play so much of it and then hate yourself afterwards. Did I really just spend 3 hours matching jewels on my iPhone screen? Well, don’t you worry, because there is a game called Puzzle Quest which takes the best elements of that addictiveness but assuages that feeling of guilt because what it does is give you a sense of progression and accomplishment. At its core, it is another match 3 game, but I don’t feel so bad playing it because it’s more strategic, it’s story-driven and most of all, it doesn’t look like a dumb glossy casual game.
So, the original Puzzle Quest I would say is mainly an RPG. You play as a hero, you do quests, you travel the kingdom and you level up your character. The story is typical high fantasy fare, as you are a knight of the realm and tasked by your queen to go do various stuff in order to save the kingdom from impending doom. Very standard stuff. The game is played in a top-down view interspersed with 2D cutscenes. You travel an overview of the map (like in the old Final Fantasies and in Dragon Quest) to get from town to town, and you can also see monsters along the way. In the towns, there are inns where you can find new quests and valuable information. There are also town-specific buildings like shops and interesting NPCs (who may give you more quests). Veterans of the RPG genre will find it refreshingly old school and will undoubtedly be familiar with all of this. Even if you are a complete RPG noob though and just enjoy casual games, you might still find this game compelling because it is very basic and simple, and the main focus on the game is battling.
You see, where Puzzle Quest differs from your typical RPG, however, is in its combat system. Battles against monsters are done in a competitive match-3 style, essentially you play a 2-player version of Bejewelled or Candy Crush. How does that work? Well, you have health points and you have abilities. Matching 3 skulls on the board does direct damage to your opponent. Matching 3 of one colour adds that colour to your mana pool and to use certain abilities, you must use up different coloured mana. For example, one attack might cost 4 red mana to use, so once you’ve matched enough red tiles on the board, you can unleash your attack. Your abilities largely depend on which class you picked at the beginning of the game. Furthermore, your opponents operate on exactly the same basis. They play on the same board as you, you take turns, and the winner is whoever can reduce their opponent’s health down to 0. As well as coloured tiles and skulls on the board, there are also purple stars which give you exp and also gold coins which, unsurprisingly, give you gold. Like I said, this is an RPG and one part of the game is levelling up your character with exp gained from battles and when you level up, you can put points into your attack (more damage with skulls) or defence (less damage taken) etc. As you level up, you also learn new abilities.
Now, as you can tell, the scope for strategy in a game like this is much higher than in Bejewelled. You have to take into account how your match will affect the board and what that means your opponent can accomplish in his turn. For example, you might see your opponent is about to unleash a super devasting ability and he only needs 3 more red mana. It’s your turn and you notice there is only one possible 3 mana combination that can be done, and hopefully, by using it up, your opponent’s tactics are delayed. On the other hand, you might want to match that 4 blue mana in the corner which gives you another turn (matching 4 or more gives you an extra turn) and lets you unleash an ability of your own. So whilst this game is clearly of the same nature as games like Bejewelled, this extra element of competitiveness makes the game far more cerebral and strategic. That’s not to say it’s difficult or anything, it’s just a bit more an intellectual commitment sometimes. But I like to think that’s why I find the game so good; unlike casual games, I feel less embarrassed to be playing a game like Puzzle Quest. I love RPGs, and I love Bejewelled, and although the combination is odd, it actually works very well.
Now, I do have some problems with the game. The main issue is that the AI is a complete bastard. They cheat so hard. They kind of have to, otherwise the game would be too easy. But the AI must have knowledge of how the new tiles are going to fall, because they seem to be able to set up the most monstrous combos and cascades and eliminate you incredibly quickly. You might think, “But why is that AI matching those 3 yellow tiles when it could match 3 skulls and do damage?” and then you see the huge cascade that is set off and you end up instantly losing all your health. The game, in this regard, can seem unfair and based more on luck than strategy. Unfortunately, this does mean you might get stuck fighting the same ogre over and over until you grind enough exp to be able to withstand its luck.
My second problem is just the sheer abundance of monsters. To get from any point to another, you will most definitely have to fight a monster of some sort. It just takes so long to do these competitive match-3 battles that it can feel a bit too much at times. Especially when monsters start getting tougher and have so much HP, that even though you’re clearly stronger, it just takes a while to be able to bring it down.
Lastly, because the game is very old school in its approach to RPGs, the quests can feel incredibly boring. Like, MMO levels of boring. A lot of quests are just “kill this monster and get its loot, come back to me and you’ll get gold as a reward”. And of course, invariably, you’ll have to fight three of its little minions before you get to the main monster boss and it takes you three hours just to do this one fetch quest. The story too, is very standard fantasy fare. I haven’t quite finished the game but I’ve seen enough of the story to know that it isn’t particularly original. It can be engaging in times, and some of the characters you meet along the way are interesting in their own right, but overall, it’s not something which stands out.
All that being said, the game does have some innovative aspects. I’ve already commented on the unique combat system, but some of the stuff outside of combat is cool too. You can have companions and recruiting them requires some more convoluted questing, but the rewards are substantial. Companions might do stuff like do extra damage against monsters at the start of your battle, or they might be good at taking on undead creatures and therefore buff you when you fight a skeleton. The other cool thing is the ability to capture towns. You can basically get into a battle with a town, and the battle is long and arduous (towns have a lot of HP, as you’d expect) but in return, sacking a town will mean that every time you pass through it, you’ll get a small sum of gold. Given how much travelling you have to do, it’s well worth the investment. Having more gold is just so useful, as you can spend it on weapons/armour, or even on improvements to your home town which unlock things like a training area where you can pay gold to increase your stats.
What’s really amazing about this game is the way it integrates everything with each other. The list of features and mechanics of the game may seem very random and not commonly put together, but Puzzle Quest manages to weave all these disparate gaming mechanics into one complete package. Because of this, the game will appeal to both casual gamers and more hardcore gamers. But don’t be fooled by its match 3 gameplay, this game isn’t just something you can pick up for a short amount of time whilst you wait for a bus. Battles can stretch up to 10 minutes sometimes, so it’s best as a time waster when you’re not in any particular hurry.
So whilst I played Puzzle Quest on the PC, it’s available on a variety of platforms: Nintendo DS, PSP, XBLA, Wii, PS3 etc. I don’t know which platform is the best, but I suspect given its game play mechanics, the control scheme doesn’t matter at all so just choose a platform that you prefer. The portable platforms are probably a good shout, because I do think it’s the kind of game which you could happily fit in on a 30 minute train journey or something like that. Also, it’s a very low-spec game, which means that it ran very happily on my little crappy netbook and gave me a decent game to play whilst I was on holiday (I believe I took it to Venice with me).
A small note before I finish: I’ve only played the original but I hear there is a sequel to this game out on XBLA, iOS, DS and PSP, which has largely the same kind of gameplay. So if you like the sound of this review, then maybe check out its sequel as well because I suspect it’s more polished than the original and adds more features for a richer RPG experience.
In conclusion then, Puzzle Quest offers an in-depth puzzle game that suits both casual and hardcore gamers. It’s a lot of fun, very addictive, and just contains a huge amount of content which even after playing for 8+ hours, I haven’t managed to fully explore everything the game has to offer (which is fantastic value for money, considering it’s super cheap). It has immense replay value too, as you can always try a new class for your RPG hero or experiment with different abilities. This is definitely a game you should keep an eye out for if there are any Steam sales or things like that. Or if you have money to spare, just outright buy it because it’s only £5.99 on Steam and that is an absolute bargain.