Version tested: DS
In theory, Capcom owes D3Publisher a pint. What buzz there is for Neopets Puzzle Adventure is largely down to Infinite Interactive's last game, Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords, which brought a merry cast of rigid fantasy characters and RPG elements together with Bejeweled's match-3 puzzle gameplay to great effect. Despite the introduction of the kids-centric Neopets webgame IP, the expectation was that Neopets Puzzle Adventure would recreate, if not improve the experience with different components, most notably by replacing match-3 with the Othello/Reversi boardgame, and that was enough to catch a few people's attention.
The resulting game lives up to part of that - this is more than a rebadged Puzzle Quest - but the debt to Infinite's last game is very much felt in the framework. After creating a Neopet character from a range of species with wacky names (I'm a Kougru called Brrrambles, but you can also be a Mynci, Ruki, Techo or perhaps a Scorchio), players set off into a busily drawn and colourful world inspired by existing Neopet artwork and stories, and are invited to run errands for various characters associated with the Cyodrake's Gaze airship, which usually involve playing a game of Othello against a spitting monster of some sort.
Othello is a simple enough game on paper: you and an opponent take it in turns to place red and blue counters on a grid, and placing counters at both ends of a line of the other player's pieces flips them to your colour. This works horizontally, vertically and diagonally, but counters can only be placed at the end of lines in which you already have a counter present. The winner is the player with the most counters once the board is full or no more moves can be played.
Like Puzzle Quest, Infinite then adapts Othello to advance the notion of tactical combat, introducing collectible petpets, which can be selected before battles and used once per game instead of placing a counter. They serve various purposes: allowing you to place two counters at once, or to place counters anywhere on the board, or to switch the colour of specific counters, or to make certain counters unflippable. Otherwise, placing a counter so that it flips an awful lot of your opponent's sometimes initiates a shockwave, which flips another counter on the board to your colour, allowing the consequences to play out even though you've already had your actual turn.
Also like Puzzle Quest, there are other mini-games that perform acts like forging items, but unlike Puzzle Quest these are more to do with the Neopets subject matter than the core combat. One involves carefully deleting groups of blocks so that you end up with none left over, while another involves drawing shapes on the touch-screen as Neopets dash along the top screen holding triangles, stars, moons and hearts. Control is entirely stylus based throughout, as it is with the main game, and the implementation is confident and unremarkable, in a good way.
Where Neopets diverges from Puzzle Quest elsewhere, however, is also where it falls apart. Othello is ages old, and like chess the masters of the game have spent years devising clever gambits to catch their opponents off-guard. In other words, it's nowhere near as approachable as match-3, which never demands more than simple observation and a bit of good fortune. Puzzle Quest used spells to inject tactics into a basic puzzle, but Infinite's petpet embellishments actually simplify the game, giving struggling players a lifeline to claim corner and edge positions they might have allowed to slip away. Despite good intentions and game-changing implementation, they also have a darker side later on, upsetting the balance of a classic boardgame that didn't really need improving.
Neopets also does without a lot of Puzzle Quest's RPG elements, paying lip service to the levelling system but without any obvious gameplay consequences, and while the artwork is pretty, the story and characters are dully earnest and there's very little for adults to latch onto. Conversely, Othello isn't the sort of game the younger target audience will be able to pick up unless they're smarter than our little nieces and nephews, although those who already play the Neopets webgame will appreciate the unlockable Neopoints and Achievement codes that can be redeemed online. For a game with its roots on the internet, however, it's a shame there's no Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection hookup, with local wireless multiplayer the only option.
There's nothing fundamentally bad about Neopets, mind you, and there are times when it does something smart - the best tweaks to Othello are not the petpets, but the changing board shapes, which introduce more corners and edges. However, while it's a competent integration of popular licence into popular design, the constituent parts don't perform to the best of their ability, and the result is inessential and often bland, even though it's easy to sit and play contentedly for several hours. Fans of Puzzle Quest would do better to wait for Galactrix, and Capcom can probably cancel that drink.
6 / 10