Marvel's superheroes have faced many seemingly insurmountable challenges over the years: the world-devouring Galactus, the fiendish schemes of Doctor Doom, the mad titan Thanos. But can they survive - deep breath - the horrors of Free To Play?
Actually, spoiler alert, yes they can. Marvel Puzzle Quest includes many of freemium gaming's most odious mechanisms, including cooldown timers, multiple depleting micro-payment currencies and an omnipresent store that offers powerful boosts for those who toss a few coins to the ferryman, but none of them are ever quite enough to derail the experience. Indeed, the game is often quite generous, welcoming you back with big chunks of bonus currency or handing out a free character just to celebrate some online event or other.
It helps that the Puzzle Quest at the heart of the game is much the same addictive time-sink that it's always been. The series has been MIA since Puzzle Quest 2 back in 2010, and the familiar match-three core and light RPG trimmings remain intact. You have a team of Marvel characters, the roster of which can expanded by earning or buying comic book covers, and you pit them in gem-swapping combat against a variety of foes, ranging from basic grunts from canon-approved bad guy outfits like Hammer Industries, A.I.M and the Maggia, all the way up to heavy hitters such as Venom, Juggernaut and Doctor Doom.
Matching three gems of the same colour deals damage to the enemy, but there are multiple strategies to consider on top of this basic system. Each gem also bears the symbol of one of your heroes - whichever you match first, that's the hero who will remain in the firing line for any retaliatory hits next turn. Every gem destroyed also adds Action Points of the relevant colour to your bank - every character has special moves that can be triggered when enough AP has been saved up. Collect 14 Action Points from red gems, for example, and you can unleash Wolverine's Adamantium Slash, good for a few hundred points of an enemy health bar.
Of course, enemy characters can do the same, placing countdown gems on the board which trigger powerful attacks if you don't clear them, or saving up their own AP for devastating special moves.
There are a lot of layers of strategy to consider here - sometimes too many, as it's frequently impossible to protect yourself from all possible hazards at once. The game has also inherited some of Puzzle Quest's more irritatingly persistent issues. Enemies often seem to get suspiciously convenient cascades of tiles, triggering attack after attack, and some of the boss encounters seem designed to crudely shove you back towards previously beaten encounters to work your characters up a few levels. This irritating push and pull between forced grinding and suspicious difficulty spikes has always been an issue with Puzzle Quest, and it remains the case, even with original developer Infinite Interactive no longer involved.
That a game with such enduring balance issues has managed to transition to F2P without feeling like it's gouging you for coins every hour is quietly remarkable in itself.
There's a limit to what can be done visually within the confines of match-three, and this Marvel iteration both succeeds and fails on this front. At a gameplay level, the experience lacks heft - shattered tiles tinkle rather than crunch, and there's a thin, weightless feel to the movement of the board. On the other hand, the special moves are deeply satisfying, allowing the characters to fill the screen with crowd-pleasing animations.
There's also a healthy investment in multiplayer, with an ongoing series of themed tournaments based around specific characters, and each so far has dished out worthy prizes of both in-game currency and bonus items even for those who only play a few matches. For those willing to put in the hours and really climb the leaderboards, there's a lot on offer.
Marvel Puzzle Quest certainly piles a lot on top of the series' reliable old shell, and in that regard, for the investment of zero pence, it's hard to criticise too harshly. Fans of the previous games and lovers of Marvel's dynamic universe will find plenty to enjoy without having to spend anything. Puzzle Quest itself, however, remains a good idea still in need of that extra polish, that extra tweak, to make it one of the puzzle game greats. There's an addictive heart beating here that suggests that greatness could still be tapped - for now, business as usual will have to do.
7 / 10