Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords Reader Review
A casual game gone RPG
It seems like a casual gamer�s dream, doesn�t it? Puzzle Quest. A puzzle game (very similar to Bejeweled of PopCap fame) with an RPG system. Puzzles that give you experience points. A game that never has to get boring. But when you sit down to think about it you have to ask yourself: Can this really work?
Indeed it can.
Being a huge fan of casual games, yours truly considered this game a shining beacon of light in a sea of ideas that have been beaten to death repeatedly over the years. When the game flopped down in the mailbox it was swiftly dragged out of there, unwrapped and jammed into the trusty ol� PSP. What awaited the player now had to be hours upon hours of unmatched delight. Right?
It turns out that the delight was indeed there, but it was not unmatched, and it could, in general, have been done a bit better.
It�s an RPG, and thus we need a story. So sayeth the Lord. Enter our hapless twenty-something hero/heroine that we create ourselves, choosing from a few classes that determine base starting stats and then picking a picture that determines our gender. Then we enter our name, and away we go. Having only played the Knight class so far yours truly can only know what happens in that direction, but the other ones are probably very similar. In the Knight campain at least, you are the son of a king and you are in training. Then you are sent all over the fantasy world with messages to people. Somewhere in there is a much-less-than-stellar plot concering the return of undead creatures, but that whole malarkey is easily skipped. In truth it feels slightly unnecessary, but then again it does add to the RPG feel.
Gameplay I - The Beginning
Once the story is over and done with, we can run around on the world map and concern ourselves with the game�s focal point: Its fascinating mix of gem-swapping and level building. Each battle in the game is played like a Bejeweled match against the AI (which is often brutally unforgiving and way too lucky, but more about that later on). You swap differently coloured jewels with other differently coloured jewels to form columns of three or more. Those colums are then deleted, and more jewels fall down. If you clear a row of skull jewels you do direct damage to your opponent. Purple stars give you extra experience, gold coins give you money, and the differently coloured jewels add to your mana.
Mana is the base of spell casting in the game, and it comes in four colours: Red, yellow, green and blue. For example, for one spell, you may need 6 blue mana and 6 red mana. After you have cleared enough jewels of these colours you are allowed to cast the spell. The same, of course, goes for your opponent, which means that you can play to his weakness and "deny" him the colour he needs to cast his spells. This tactic is extremely useful and downright necessary in more difficult fights.
One you have lowered your opponent�s HP to 0 through spells and skull clearing the battle is over. Should your HP be reduced to 0 you will not see a "Game Over" screen - rather, you are sent back a step on the map and chastised by the game. Regardless, if you have gathered enough experience you level up, allowing you to spend 4 skill points on improving various stats. For instance, "Fire mastery" gives you additional red mana and stronger tolerance to attacks of that nature, and "Morale" increases your hit points. Increasing stats will also have two extra benefits: Strong fire mastery, for example, may lead to extra turns when clearing red crystals and the occasional "wildcard" crystal, which can be any colour you want it to be.
Gameplay II - More Puzzles
Fighting monsters isn�t the only thing you can do by puzzling, however. You start out with a citadel of your own, which you can improve by buying various upgrades. Once you have a dungeon built in the citadel you can capture enemies (the only prerequisite being that you have defeated that type of enemy at least thrice first). The capture of these enemies has you solving a kind of tricky puzzle; you need to clear the board of all jewels. This can be difficult, but it feels extremely rewarding once you figure it out.
Once your enemy has been captured you can either learn spells from it or use it as a mount. If you do the latter, you have the option of riding it on the world map which, among other things, enables you to skip some of the encounters you face. You can also train your mount, and you do this by battling it in a timed fight. Basically you only have a few seconds to do something when it�s your turn, and the time limit decreases as you level up the mount (and at the same time, its level increases). Learning spells has you clearing special scroll crystals that only appear on the board if you clear four or more crystals at a time. In your citadel you can also build new weapons (assuming you have a forge) by using runes you find in villages. Your goal then is to clear hammer and anvil crystals.
There are many other things that the puzzle element is used for, and it all works great. If you grow tired of battling enemies in the normal way you can always head back to your citadel to train your mount, or even go to another city and do battle against it so that you can lay siege to it. Great fun.
Gameplay III - Revenge of the AI
When you battle enemies you do so on uneven turf.
Yes, I know, it sounds like a complaint that is based on lack of skill. Rest assured that this is not the case; yours truly kicks quite a lot of medieval butt when it comes to Puzzle Quest, being such a nerd concering anything casual game-related. No, the uneven turf comes from the fact that the AI in the game can be horribly cruel and slightly too lucky.
One gameplay mechanic that has yet to be mentioned is the fact that if you manage to clear more than three crystals in a row you get an extra turn immediately (a chain of at least five clearings results in a "Heroic Effort", which nets you 100 extra experience, but that is beside the point). Now, you can�t really tell where the crystals will fall once you clear something, which means you will likely try to destroy skulls quickly to damage your enemy. He/she, however, has a trick up his/her sleeve. With prodigious skill, the computer has a nack of clearing just the right combination of crystals, resulting in a devastating combo that can often leave you gaping at the screen. Enemies can easily kick your butt, and even though you can outlevel them if you play a lot, you will often need to think a lot more about the spells you bring into battle and how much mana you are allowing them to suck up. Tactics is the name of the game here.
However, as stated before, it is sometimes up to sheer dumb luck. Sure, you can turn the odds in your favour, but sometimes the enemy simply cheats your sorry behind back to Podunk.
A game like Puzzle Quest doesn�t really need fancy graphics. Still, it manages to pull of a very nice presentation that is quite charming and very effective. Not having played the DS version of the game yours truly cannot talk about its appearance, but rumour has it that the PSP version is far superior to it in almost every way.
The world map looks a lot like the one in Final Fantasy Tactics; you walk around by selecting a destination and watching your cute little pixelated hero jog there (or, as mine currently does, stampede there on top of a huge, poisonous spider). The puzzle board is bright and colourful, with nice graphical effects and an easy-to-read heads-up display. The text that shows money and experience in battle can be a tad on the small side but as it is not strictly necessary to see it all the time that is a minor issue.
Music wise, Puzzle Quest is a mixed bag. The little music there is can be described as extremely majestic, almost to the point of being slightly ridiculous. You have choirs chanting at you, massive brass sections blaring when you win and, oddly enough, a tinny bassoon playing what passes for a main theme. The music is repetitive, however, and even though it is nice at first you may well find yourself muting the volume after a while. Thankfully there exists an option to remove the music and keep the sound effects, which are excellent and very satisfying to listen to.
The final word
Puzzle Quest is a great game that mixes fabulous gameplay with slightly bulky but still very good RPG mechanics. The graphics and sound leave something to be desired, as does the very translucent storyline, but if you are looking for a puzzle game with depth and a big fun factor then look no further.
8 / 10