Never heard of Neopets? Then you're probably not among the more than 11 million unique visitors to Neopets.com each month. It's a Nickelodeon-owned online community of people caring for and raising virtual pets. What might prick up your ears, though, is that Capcom has secured the licence and set Puzzle Quest developer Infinite Interactive to work on a videogame version for Wii, PC and DS, due out this Christmas. The result is Puzzle Quest with cute animals and Reversi/Othello instead of Bejeweled as its puzzle component.
Othello is a tile-based game, played on an 10x10 grid, which involves laying counters to annex those of your opponent. If he or she has a line of red counters on-screen with one of your blues at the end of it, placing a blue at the other end will flip all of those in-between to your colour. But in placing the blue counter, you may open yourself up to have some of your own counters flipped from another angle. Keeping a watchful eye on the whole board to avoid being caught out horizontally, vertically or diagonally, and then making the correct placement choices, is what demands skill - and taking advantage of your opponent's mistakes is what generates satisfaction.
Like Puzzle Quest, the basic gameplay is supplemented by a range of offensive and defensive attacks and spells that you can use to beat your opponent. Unlike regular Othello, the board has a handful of coloured gems on it, and taking control of the tiles they sit upon banks those gems in the same way that Puzzle Quest allowed you to build up mana by collecting its own different coloured gems (the version we saw at Captivate 08 in Las Vegas had three types of gems to collect). When you want to cast a spell, you click on it on the left side of the screen. The examples we saw would force an opponent to place a counter on a tile of your choice, or absorb some of their points total based on the number of gems you had collected.
The winning conditions for each round are based on those points, which are built up by successfully annexing more and more counter spaces as well as by casting spells, and you can also win by clearing the board completely of your opponent's counters. That won't be easy, though, because he or she can use spells against you, too, and you both have access to basic offensive and defensive attacks that allow you to flip a counter of your choice anywhere on the board; this doesn't automatically annex everything adjacent to it in the regular way, but does allow you to stick another counter on the other end of a line in a subsequent turn to do so. And the other reason it won't be easy to win is because, in much the same way Puzzle Quest demanded a core level of competency in its Bejeweled gameplay, Neopets requires basic and latterly advanced Othello skills to succeed.
Also like Puzzle Quest, outside the games of Othello there's a world map that your customised Neopet has to explore, taking on quests for residents and advancing the story. Unlike Puzzle Quest, though, there are multiple world maps - deserts, prehistoric realms, oriental environments - that tie in with the fiction. There are three "Lands of Neopia" in total, and more than 150 quests in the single-player game. Everything is colourfully designed to match the existing Neopets art style, giving the game a cutesy, almost Japanese appearance.
More like Puzzle Quest, though, Neopets uses mini-games and derivatives of the core Othello gameplay to take care of secondary elements. For example, you can collect up to 150 Petpets - pets owned by Neopets - and by training these you can reduce the cool-down time for spells that prevents you using them again for a few turns (a bit like Puzzle Quest's mounts). These mini-games include competitive, memory-based card flipping and matching, or Othello games where the shape of the board is altered to force you into new approaches and condensed tactics. On top of that, you can round up food and collect recipes to generate items (also via mini-games) that can be used to pep you up in Othello battles.
As with Puzzle Quest (notice a theme developing?), single-player storytelling will be handled via dialogue boxes on still backgrounds, and Infinite Interactive's CEO Steve Fawkner informed us at Captivate that the music is being composed by the same chap who handled Puzzle Quest's. There will also be multiplayer, separate access to the mini-games and an "Instant Action" element.
Gamers who like continuity, then, certainly won't be startled by the approach Infinite Interactive has taken, and it will be up to them whether Puzzle Quest with its core elements switched out for equivalents is enough to tempt them back. Wii owners who were disappointed by Puzzle Quest's control system will have more to shout about, however, as Fawkner told us that the team is implementing several control schemes that allow players to use the Wiimote or Classic Controller depending on their preference - with Infinite keen to avoid another lukewarm response to its attempts at Wii control systems.
And of course Infinite and Capcom are keen to make sure Neopets.com users get some added value. As well as working closely with the web-game's owners and incorporating a lot of elements that its followers expect, the videogame will generate codes that can be redeemed for unique items on the website.
What we don't know at the moment is exactly when it will be out ("Holiday 2008" is Capcom's guidance), and whether the team will extend the experience to other platforms. Capcom was certainly keen not to rule it out, telling us that it will be "working with Nickelodeon to see what works", and that this could mean PSP, Xbox Live Arcade or PlayStation Network in future. To begin with, it's Wii, PC and DS, and given that Puzzle Quest's profile grew largely from a free PC demo distributed on Infinite's website, and the developer's observation that the best way to sell that game was simply to get people to play it, the publisher says we're "definitely likely to see some demos in the future".
From our experience of playing it, it shares the same intoxicating puzzle/strategy qualities as its videogame predecessor, and although the devs admit that it still has an enormous amount of balancing to go through (last-minute reversals via spells are very common at the moment, and the AI struggles in places), we're quietly excited. When we saw "Neopets" on the Captivate 08 schedule, we didn't expect to have time to write about it what with Street Fighter IV, Resident Evil 5, Bionic Commando and Dark Void competing for our attention. We made time. If Infinite can find the same subtle balance of compelling elements that it achieved with Puzzle Quest, we imagine you will too.
Neopets Puzzle Adventure is due out on Wii, PC and DS this holiday season.