Version tested Xbox 360
Wine in a box, eBay, shower radios, Worcester sauce crisps. We can all think of at least one thing we wish we'd thought up first. Puzzle Quest is another one. Take the puzzle mechanic of Bejeweled and make it the basis of a turn-based RPG. Genius.
It works like this: when you go into battle, you and your enemy take turns to try and make lines of three or more gems, coins, stars or skulls by selecting and swapping adjacent tiles. These then disappear in time-honoured fashion so that the gems, coins, stars or skulls above them can slide down to fill the gaps.
Gems come in four colours, which correspond to a particular type of elemental magic - earth, fire, etc. - and making lines of these puts magic in the bank for use later in the fight. Making lines of coins gives you cash to spend at shops, and stars give you experience points. Creating lines of skulls inflicts damage on your opponent.
The idea is to drain your opponent's health points by doing lines of skulls, or using some of the magic spells that you can put into play when you have collected enough gems. You also have defensive spells, spells that force your enemy to miss a go, and so on. You can also make sure you get two turns in a row by creating lines of four or five tiles.
It's all very simple, and the winner is usually the person who makes the most forward-thinking moves: obviously you don't want to leave semi-complete lines of skulls on the board, because your opponent will go straight for them, but if you're clever you can complete the skull line indirectly by tactfully moving something lower down, banking some gems at the same time as giving the other guy a slap.
Taken in isolation, this idea would be as exciting for the Bejeweled "genre" as Super Puzzle Fighter was for falling blocks, but developer Infinite Interactive has gone further - Puzzle Quest is a proper RPG, where you journey between castles, forts and towns doing missions for queens, dwarves, minotaurs and all sorts, most of which involve having a fight.
As you go, you also have the option of investing your hard-earned loot in a fort. This allows you to forge items, and capture enemies to use as mounts or research their spells, among other things. Since it's an RPG, you're also constantly levelling up as you accumulate experience, which improves your attributes (like the amount of damage your basic hits do, or the likelihood of having the first turn in a fight), and there's also a wide range of equipment to collect or forge, which usually has a similar buffing effect.
These are just a few of the things you can do in Puzzle Quest. There are countless side quests too, like beating up rune guardians so you can take their goodies back to base and forge ever more elaborate items. Since everyone likes Bejeweled, and Puzzle Quest's is a brilliant new application of that compulsive standard, you make it your business to do everything on the map.
The story isn't particularly exciting - it starts off rambly and likable, like a Fire Emblem game, with some lovely 2D artwork to stare at while you skip through the speech bubbles, but it quickly becomes rather boring. But you won't mind, because everything else is so ingenious.
Having come out on the DS and PSP some time ago, today's Xbox Live Arcade user also gets the benefit of a refined version of the original. Certain spells, like "Stun", were deemed a bit too effective, so they now take a couple of turns to recharge before you can use them again, while an annoying bug that stopped your companions (yet more attribute modifiers, basically) having any effect in the PSP version has also been quashed.
They've also added a narrator to some of the pivotal story bits, which is worth it if only to hear what a cross between Brian Blessed and Stephen Hawking sounds like.
Perhaps best of all, we also now have online multiplayer, which allows you to battle against real people in ranked and unranked matches, with leaderboards to go alongside them. Infinite has also included an offline multiplayer mode, so you can still play against your flatmate, wife or cat.
There is still one problem with it, which has always been the case, and isn't really solvable. Basically, you'll get cross with it for "cheating". It's most noticeable when your AI enemy takes you out by pulling off moves that rely on skulls coming in from the top of the screen, which he or she has no right to know about. This is the game's simulation of luck, which is fair enough, but doesn't feel like it. Perhaps mindful of how off-putting this can be, they have at least made some of the early fights a bit easier.
You definitely need to play it in any case. Graphically it's not come on much, but then it didn't need to - it looked gorgeous on the PSP, and still does - and while the music's the same, Infinite's splendid collection of Lord of the Rings-ish melodies sounds so much nicer coming out of a proper sound system.
Of course, 1200 Microsoft points sounds like a lot, and certainly feels like a lot if the reaction to Lumines Live was anything to go by. But this is a game that boasts dozens of hours of gameplay offline, and quite a few more with friends. Having gotten about two-thirds through on DS, beaten the PSP version and made it to level 30 on Xbox Live Arcade, it already accounts for more of my gaming time this year than the rest of Xbox Live Arcade put together. Amazingly, I'm still not bored of it.
Spruced up from the PSP and offered for 10 quid, it's probably the best release on Microsoft's clever little service all year. Buy it, and wish you had thought of it first. And wish for another one where they come up with even more brilliant ideas.
9 / 10