Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords (PSP, DS) – Review

Puzzle Quest - Cover (PSP)“Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords” produced by Vicious Cycle Software and Infinite Interaction and distributed by D3 Publisher for both the Sony PSP and the Nintendo DS, is a simple Bejeweled clone at it’s core, but offers a lot of RPG and collectable card game-type components that readily mixes up the basic formula to produce a game that’s fun to play in short bursts or long sessions.

The version reviewed here is the PSP version. While there are noted differences in graphics and presentation of the DS and PSP version, the core game is basically the same.

Story: B

In the Quest mode of Puzzle Quest, you’ll find a standard “Dungeons & Dragons” type plot. In the kingdom of Aragia, hordes of undead and other foes start to wreck havoc, and it’s up to you, the player, to take on quests and explore the world in order to find out the source of the evil. There’s nothing fantastically new about the story or it’s approach, but it does help to support the core of the rest of the game.

Gameplay: A

Puzzle Quest - Gameplay Shot (PSP)At it’s base, Puzzle Quest is a Bejeweled clone. The battlefield between you and a foe is a 8×8 grid of colored tiles, and you attempt to clear out 3 to 5 tiles in a row or column by swapping the position of two adjancent tiles; matched tiles are removed with new tiles appearing to replace them from the top. Unlike some puzzle/fighting games like Super Puzzle Fighter, you and your opponent take turns making and match and earning the rewards based on the tiles that you matched. There are 4 basic tiles types: colored tiles that give you mana of that color (like in Magic the Gathering), gold, experience points, and Death Skulls. Matching Skulls will inflict damange on your opponent, and there are some Skulls which have a further bonus to battle damage. If you match 4 tiles in a row, you get to take an extra turn, and 5 tiles in a row creates a wildcard tile that can be used to match the mana tiles and increase the amount you get from them. You can also create chain reactions of cleared tiles, with very long chains rewarded to you as extra experience points. Because of the turn-based gameplay, there is definitely a bit of strategy right off the bat to make that you don’t clear tiles only to leave a nice damaging row of Skulls for your opponent to take advantage of. If no legal move is possible, then both players suffer complete loss of mana, and a new board is presented to the current player. Once a player is down to zero hit points, the match is over, though even in failure, you’ll gain some experience and money, and can go back to challenge the character again.

As noted, besides direct damage, you also gain mana as you play, and this adds another layer of complexity to the game. As you level up and perform other tasks, you’ll gain spells. You’re able to bring 6 spells into the game with you, with a 7th one provided by a mount if you should have one. Instead of swapping tiles on your turn, you can use a spell but only if you have enough mana of the right colors to cast it. There’s a wide range of spells in the game. A fair number do direct damage to the other player as well as impart the loss of turns, poison and other status effects, and drain their mana reserves. There’s also defensive spells to reduce damage and turn back damage onto your foe. However, there’s also a number of spells that affect the game board directly, such as spells that remove one or more tiles, turn one type of tile into another, and so forth. Many of the magic spells also have additional bonuses for casting the spell while having an excessive amount of mana of one type. Your opponent will also have spells at his or her disposal, and some of the higher spells can quickly turn the tide of the match when used correctly. This addition of spells makes the game extremely strategic, almost like Magic the Gathering in that you have to decide between many possible actions at each point of the game.

Puzzle Quest - World Map (PSP)The main quest mode basically has you travelling on a map along fixed routes between various cities, towns, and sites where monsters have been spots. Monsters will randomly appear on some paths and you’ll need to defeat them before you can progress along that path. You’ll get quests, both part of the main storyline as well as side quests to complete, at specific cities. Quests generally have you going to a site, finishing off one or more foes, and then returning to earn your reward. Experience you gain will raise your level, allowing you to increase your statisticis in several areas; by increasing these stats, you can gain more benefit from matched tiles in the game as well as a possible extra turn when matching certain tile types, among other effects. You’ll also gain access to more advanced spells as you gain levels. Gold can be used to buy equipment at town stores; these give always-on effects in the game, such as having a chance of blocking a point of damage should you get hit, increasing resistance to spells of certain types, or further increasing the benefits of matching specific tile types. As you proceed, you’ll also gain Companions that will impart a benefit at the start of battle for you (* Note however that there is a significant bug that prevents this from happening in the PSP version.)

You can also use gold to build up your citadel, which eventually serves a number of useful functions, most based on the same Bejeweled like gameplay above. Adding a dungeon allows you to attempt to capture a monster that you’ve defeated 3 times already; to attempt a capture, you must clear a fixed board of tiles by yourself without leaving any tiles behind (e.g this is like a puzzle version of Bejeweled); once you capture a monster, you can then either use it as a mount (gaining a 7th spell in combat and some addition bonuses) or research new spells that that monster has as to use them yourself. Should you have a mount, you can train it in levels by competing in a standard match against that foe save with the addition of time limitations on turns; additional mount levels increase the benefit that the mount gives to you in battle. Researching a spell requires you to match a large number of colored gems as well as special tiles creates by 4 or 5-tile matches without hitting a dead end in game play. You can build a Seige factory, which then allows you to challenge large cities just as you would other foes in the game beyond the fact they generally have a huge amount of hit points and impressive damage resistance. Once you bring the town into your fold, you can then collect more gold from it though you will have to watch for rebelion from the city. You can buy a facility that allows you to spend gold to boost your stats outside of normal level advancement. A final ability of your citadel is a workshop where you can combine three differen Runes to make a new piece of equipment with properties of the three runes; the minigame works similar to spell research except that “anvil and hammer” pieces are randomly created and can only be removed by being in the same row or column as a 4 or 5-tile match. Like with regular combat, there is no “game over” should you fail any of these tasks; you can try again right there, or work on other quests to build up your experience.

Despite the fact that every aspect of this game uses the basic Bejeweled setup, this game stays pretty fresh, due to the large number of extra benefits that spells, equipment, and other features that make this more than just a puzzle game. There’s actually a good learning curve in the game, as you start with foes with limited magic skills that let you play a little sloppily on your grid, then starting to work up through those with direct damage, then those that use the board to their advance, and beyond. As you progress, you start to learn to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the creatures you’re fighting, and adjust your play to meet their weaknesses head on. For example, an early creature I (and many others, as I’ve read) is a Vampire Bat that has a couple nasty spells to slow you down. However, instead of trying to beat it quickly, I found it was easier to deny it the mana it needed to cast those spells first, only playing to damage it if it wasn’t able to get the mana it needed otherwise. Similarly, as you play against creatures, you’ll see their spells (with helpful text on what spells and equipment do and provide if you need to review it), and realize that you could work those spells with your to make some potentially nasty offensive attacks; in my case, I had “fireball” that clears a 3×3 area, and saw a spell that converted green tiles to Skulls, and blue tiles to red from a foe I had faced. I was able to capture the foe, learn that spell, and then kept my eyes open to when the conversion spell would create at least one extra turn, which I would then follow up by using a fireball on an area with a lot of Skulls to do a lot of damage at once to my enemies. These simple combos definitely remind me of trying to make good decks in Magic the Gathering, and I’m sure that every player will figure out what not to do quickly and to adapt a style of play to fit their character. What is somewhat of a shame in the game is that you have to pick a class out of 4 at the start of quest mode which sets your character’s strength and weakenesses throughout the rest of the game right there, along with what spells they learn as they progress down the game. The first time through, you likely will know too little of the game of which one is the best class for your style of play, so you’ll either be stuck with a character you have trouble playing with, or restarting the game anew after sinking some hours of play into the game once you know which is the right class to work from.

Value/Replayability: A+

I’ve already put in 25 hrs into the game and have yet to see what may be the light at the end, based on the size of the world map and the fraction of it that I’ve been able to explore. I see that now that I’ve got over the initial learning curve of all the general game mechanics, this is definitely a puzzle game that keeps prodding you forward, that you can pick up and play for 5 minutes or 5 hours at a stretch, as there’s always a goal for the puzzle, as opposed to puzzle games like Lumines or even Bejeweled itself where all you can do is try to beat your high score. The RPG elements may not be terribly deep, but they do help to give the game some life as well. Furthermore, you can choose a difficulty level when you start the start. I’ve been playing on normal and have found the computer opponent to be rather good, usually taking any opportunity on the board but maybe not relying on magic as much; I would expect to see the computer opponent even harder at the higher difficulty levels.

Beyond Quest mode, you can also do a quick single match against any opponent in the game using your characters’ current abilities outside of any quests or the storyline. It is also possible to play against a second player with the game, piting their current character against yours, using the PSP ad hoc wireless mode (as well as on the DS game).

Graphics: B+
Audio: B+

On the PSP, the graphics are very nice and clear during gameplay. The world map could have used a zoom feature, but it’s quite usable otherwise. There’s nothing special either to say about the sound beyond that it does a good job of making a game of Bejeweled sound like a heated battle of might and magic.

Overall: A-

Puzzle Quest is definitely a quiet hit; I only heard about it through word of mouth as it lacked any sort of press that I saw. It’s hard for me to imagine that I would have sunk so much time into a Bejeweled clone, but all the variations that the game offers, from core strategy to what feels like have more power as you increase in experience levels, make Puzzle Quest much more than just Bejeweled. It would maybe have been even more of a success if the story was much more unique and epic, but as it is, it’s enough that makes me at least keep coming back to try more with the game.

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