Surprises. Everyone loves surprises. Even people that say they hate surprises secretly love them. Personally, I love surprises so when I started up my review copy of Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords, I was floored from “Total Shock & Surprise” (also known as “T.S.S.”)*. Read on to find out more.
I have to preface this review by saying that this game’s surprise factor is not reliant on its incredible adhesion to the “match 3” formula so prevalent on Live Arcade. There are wholesomely wonderful additions to the formula that add to the dynamic of the game and make it worth those extra 400MSP. Trust me on this; I’ll tell you why. For starters, what other “match 3” games are there on XBLA? There’s Bejeweled 2, Jewel Quest, AstroPop (kinda), Hexic HD, Hexic 2, Luxor 2, Zuma, Super Puzzle Fighter HD (I’m stretching, I know), and soon to be Poker Smash. I realize I’m being fairly liberal with my classifying of games, but I want to prove a point: there is no lack of puzzle games on Live Arcade. So what sets Puzzle Quest apart from this sea of $10 games? “Match 3” letters: RPG.
I’ll be the first to admit that I hate RPG games. The last RPG I played through was Final Fantasy VII on PS2 (back when it was *ahem* OK to put games on multiple discs). I’ve honestly tried to give them a chance, but I can’t warm up to them. I feel dirty when I play them, like I’m cheating my brain out of mindless action when I’m doing all that… reading. And I like reading! But Puzzle Quest is different. It’s sneaky, like a mongoose killing a cobra (or a Mongoose running over Master Chief for you Halotians out there). Puzzle Quest presents you with the promise of another simple puzzle game only to slap you in the face with a reason for destroying all those pretty coins. Here’s the skinny…
Gameplay: First, it’s not enough for you to just make combos of 3, 4, or 5 coins. That’s not the point of the game. Your mission is to kill your opponent with powerful spells that can only be launched after you’ve earned enough mana from matching Earth, Air, Fire and Water coins. When you actually decide what type of mana you wish collect, you can then look for combos which will keep your turn in play. What’s that? The game is turn-based?!? Yes, it’s turn-based and the initial thought of this made my stomach wretch. I actually have to WAIT my turn in a slow-ass puzzle game? Lame! But much to my surprise, it turns out that this is the very opposite of lame. It is the pinnacle of antilame (your free made up word of the day). The strategy involved with choosing a combo that benefits you and doesn’t help your opponent on their next turn is what separates this game from the rest. You actually have to think about the repercussions of your combo making. Yes, it’s that deep. I’ll sum this up for you below.
1. Match 3 or more coins to collect 4 types of mana.
2. Match 3 or more skulls to instantly attack your opponent.
3. Collect gold and experience to buy new spells and objects to attack or defend your character.
4. Make sure your combos don’t give your opponent an advantage on their turn.
5. Launch magical attacks against your opponent (or heal yourself) using combos of the mana you collected.
6. Kill everyone in the game this way while enjoying the pretty art.
Sounds pretty deep to me. But wait “there’s more!” While you’re not killing ogres, the undead, wolves, and other nasty things, you are following a story line that asks you to extort neighboring cities, perform side quests, pay for spell research, forge new weapons, build a citadel, and do the dirty work of your overly-grateful queen. It’s downright impressive that Infinite Interactive managed to squeeze all this into 80Mb. This game is the total package. My only complaint about the gameplay is that the AI is apparently psychic. The computer opponents have the unique ability to forgo the obvious good move and opt for a random match which leads to a cascading death strike of epic proportions. Their turns typically last 2 or 3 moves and it annoys the heck out of me. I like the challenge of beating the AI, but they could dumb down the precognition just a bit to a level of fairness. I could go on and on about the gameplay (easily the best aspect of Puzzle Quest), but I have other stuff to do.
Graphics: Discussing graphics on an XBLA title seems like an evil thing to do, but given that this is the 360, I’ll drop some thoughts about it’s HD-era prettiness. The game art is really pretty good. I know that a lot of compression had to go into squeezing dozens of screens, miles of dialog, and all those sound effects into a downloadable package. And for that reason, I’m very forgiving of some of the quirks. First the good: the actual battles require very little art. It always looks good and never suffers. Everything is easily viewed and well organized. Outside of the battles, the storyline screens are pretty heavily compressed and not in true HD. But that’s OK because the art is pretty good in a watercolor meets flash animation way. On the world map, where you do your traveling, memories of Legend of Zelda well up inside. This isn’t a bad thing. It’s all perfectly displayed and laid out.
Sound: This is where the game kind of suffers. Honestly, I can almost see the conference room where decisions had to be made about what got cut and what got compressed for the game. Sound got the short end of the stick. The battle sounds are what you expect from a puzzle game, no surprises there. But the voice acting is awful. I think that they should have just gone whole hog and trimmed the voice overs all together so they could boost the art content/animation. Every time the mysterious guide voice says “That was a HEE-ROIC EFFORT!” I cringe. I was fine with the words splashing up and the explosive percussion rocking my controller; I really didn’t need her shouting it at me in mangled Olde English. As for the soundtrack, I am in love. It’s a wonderful score that mixes the best parts of the Lord of the Rings soundtracks and your favorite Michael Bay film. The music is brooding and highly appropriate for the setting. I really hope D3 puts the tracks on their website so I can download them. Brilliant work, much applause.
Replay value: Even though Puzzle Quest is an Arcade title, I have spent the better part of a week playing it. I’ve logged about 12 hours on it so far and I’m only half way through. The game never gets stale and you always want to play one more battle. Puzzle Quest brings with it an addiction quality that can be seen in the greatest retail games. Fans of Halo, Oblivion, Gears of War, Legend of Zelda and Guitar Hero know this trait well. Puzzle Quest may not be as deep (80 hours?!?) as Oblivion in the story department, but it really could have stood on its own as the first $20 XBLA game. I’m so glad they opted for the 1200 MSP mark; it makes it that much more worth it. Especially when you throw in the multiplayer aspect. Once you level up your character, you can take him or her online and battle other people. It takes the RPG element out of the “loner” genre and and throws in some social love. It really is fun.
Achievements: It’s Score-Whore time, kids! Puzzle Quest‘s 12 achievements are very run of the mill. You can get 11 of them just by beating the game. The 12th comes from beating someone online. Again, very basic. It’s not a given that you will get them all by playing through the single player mode, mostly because they have performing tasks on the side, but it’s fairly easy to rack them up. I was hoping for some more challenging achievements like Catan‘s “1000 Ranked Victory Points” achievement, but I’ll take what they give me and just enjoy the game. Verdict: No surprises.
Conclusion: I would be lying to you if I said that this game is for everyone. So, I have to rephrase it; this game is for everyone that either likes puzzle games, RPG’s, strategy, or Super Puzzle Fighter. I fall into three of those categories (if you guessed all but RPG’s, you get a gold star for paying attention!) so I can safely admit that I loved this game. I will probably continue to play it long after I finish the single player campaign because there are half a dozen other classes with which to play the game. If you do decided to spring the 1200 MSP ($15 USD) on this title, send me an invite to play online. You may be hard-pressed to find someone else playing it online. It’s a shame that this game didn’t get more limelight. I think with the right advertising, people would have more quickly picked up this title much like they did with Lumines Live. Here’s to hoping D3 reaps much success with Puzzle Quest and that we see more of this caliber game surprise the masses soon.
Special thanks to D3 for providing us with a review copy of this amazing game.
*T.S.S. actually stands for “Toxic Shock Syndrome” which occurs when you leave your tampon in too long. Since this is an Xbox site, err on the side of common sense and realize that we are not talking about tampons… unless you are playing Army of Two. Then by all means, stay in the proper frame of reference.
David “Whet Wurm” Wetty