Version tested: Xbox 360
Forget being the best: Puzzle Quest is a testament to the fearsome power of clever mediocrity. With the first game in the series, Infinite Interactive took a not-always-convincing coating of RPG ideas, slapped it onto a so-so match-three chassis, and the result still managed to captivate and ultimately consume most of its players. You enjoy Puzzle Quest, perhaps, with the part of your brain that decided that you should really paint the inside of your house magnolia. In fact, playing Puzzle Quest is probably as close as you can get to painting your brain magnolia, too.
So, what's new with the sequel? After Puzzle Quest: Galactrix and its heretical hexes took the franchise on a doomed foray into space, the developer is clearly playing it safe with the first true follow-up.
There are tweaks here and there, but the same back-and-forth structure (I wanted to call it "antiphonal", but the part of my brain that ensures I don't wear turtleneck sweaters outside of the house held me back, thankfully - and I'm also not entirely sure it's the right word) returns: you traipse around a meagrely-imagined fantasy land and then duke it out with monsters in fast-paced gem-offs. If you've worked your way into the simple rhythm of Puzzle Quest and don't wish to shake it, this isn't a game that's going to upset you too much.
It has shifted its focus somewhat, however, pulling the camera in from the lofty heights of an overworld map and turning the game into a close-up dungeon crawl instead. In Puzzle Quest 2, you wander through each mysterious crypt a single room at a time, and explore individual lanes and alleyways of every encampment you come across.
Character models are larger, those sidelining interruptions seem considerably less regular - the first game couldn't wait to mire you in citadel management and mounts - and the story has come to the forefront a little bit, even if it is still the same delightful old nonsense about goblins and curses. These are predominantly aesthetic changes, certainly, but they make the game flow a little easier all the same.
If the questing business has been simplified, there's a bit more variety on the gem-swapping agenda, with mini-games - a lift, I think, from Galactrix - interrupting the beast-pummelling and boss battles every 20 minutes or so. They still play out as match-three standards, but often offer specific twists, giving you a set number of moves to break down a door or loot a treasure chest, say, or forcing you to tackle elemental hazards by clearing the board of certain colours.
On the main battle board itself, the game has had minimal, but welcome, interference. Coloured gems still build up your mana, allowing you to cast a range of class-specific spells, and skulls still deal direct damage against your enemies, but matching new gauntlet gems now lets you charge equipped weapons for heavier attacks.
This new item system - which includes the likes of armour and potions besides clubs and swords - makes your choices run a little deeper than musing over which class to pick, and also gives you a bigger range of offensive options in battles, creating a very light layering of tactics as you learn to approach different enemies differently. Money and experience, meanwhile, have been swept off the table entirely and saved, instead, for rewards at the end of a quest chain. Again, alongside snappier fights and the promise of loot, the end result is a less muddlesome experience.
Most importantly, however, someone's had a word with the game's enemies. Although the question of whether Puzzle Quest's AI ever actually cheated remains a topic of hot debate - certainly down at my local - it no longer feels like it does, which is the important thing.
Foes struggle to run together the ridiculous chains they used to be able to create (this was always particularly galling when most of the gems they fortuitously matched weren't yet on the visible play area) and, if you play on the easier settings, you won't hit the same kind of over-powered roadblocks that could crop up a little too regularly in the first instalment. It's still not the most characterful game of match-three knocking around - and, in terms of mechanics, Gyromancer's elegant strategy of pitting you against your own wasted moves rather than relying on actual enemy AI remains far smarter, fairer, and more satisfying - but the new sound effects and slight visual flourishes make the whole thing a little punchier than it used to be.
Multiplayer rounds things out, both in local and online flavours, including a brand-new tournament mode on Xbox Live which sees you choosing a load-out of four monsters to battle through rounds with.
The real focus of Puzzle Quest 2, however, remains the game's race-tuned mindlessness. With its streamlined missions and ever-prompting map, this is now dangerously, intoxicatingly close to being a game you can play on autopilot: lost in a zone where the battles become a dreamy colour-combining plod, and the quest itself is just a sticky layer of friction you button-bash your way through in between accepting XP, agreeing to move to the next area, and occasionally picking an attribute to improve. It's the gaming equivalent of a coma - albeit one in which you're regularly showered with imaginary trinkets.
It's probably no mean feat to make a game as emptily compulsive as this, and that might go some way to explaining why the likes of Gyromancer - which came, after all, with the backing of both Square Enix and PopCap - and Ubisoft's endlessly charming Clash of Heroes struggled to find the same kind of audience despite being superior games. They both made the crucial mistake, perhaps, of equating entertainment with some kind of thought, while Infinite Interactive is happy to argue that it's often largely a matter of muscle memory.
As with the first Puzzle Quest, then, the concept is what's truly brilliant - the one-more-go aspect of spatial challenges threaded into the reward schedule of an RPG. While the middling implementation's been somewhat improved this time around, the result is still a game that's supremely effective rather than genuinely brilliant. Its fantasy is largely bland, its puzzle mechanics tend towards the flavourless, and yet it remains frighteningly talented when it comes to targeting your compulsions. I still don't love Puzzle Quest - not yet, at least - but I'm not quite ready to stop playing it either. I've seen the future, and it's still magnolia.
7 / 10
Puzzle Quest 2 is available today on Xbox Live Arcade for 1200 Microsoft Points (£10.20 / €14.40). It will be released for DS on 16th July in Europe.