"Though at some level the creatures you fight in Puzzle Quest are just there as window dressing, they actually do bring a lot to the table. When you are traveling from one city to another and a sand worm attacks, you'll react differently than you might if battling a wyvern in the mountains. The result is that even though you're for the most part playing the same puzzle game for hours on end, it doesn't get as redundant as you might imagine."
Something is seriously wrong in the borderlands. Peasants are being carried off by orcs, the undead are prowling the streets and the minotaurs in the highlands are looking pensive (as well as bullish). Clearly, something must be done. The problem is that no one's quite sure what's happening. Solving the mystery will take time and patience. Most of all, it will take someone willing to play a puzzle game for hours upon hours.
Puzzle Quest, the latest Xbox Live Arcade title from D3 Publisher, is equal parts puzzle game and RPG. At first, it may remind you of games like Final Fantasy Tactics. You'll wander around a world map, visiting new locations to unlock more of the story. You can buy items, accept quests, upgrade their citadel or even stop in the local tavern for some rumor hunting. It's a familiar, simple interface and it works well. The overworld map is beautifully illustrated, so that you'll feel like you've really been dropped into a fantasy world teetering on the brink of destruction.
When you start traveling between towns, though (or when you accept certain quests), the Final Fantasy Tactics comparisons go right out the window and suddenly you're in the middle of a puzzle game. Here, the basic goal is to line up three icons of the same sort to make them disappear. If you've ever played Bejeweled or one of its many clones, imagine something like that. The important difference is that here, you're really battling someone.
As a battle begins, you'll notice that you have meters of four colors. Usually, they're empty as a match commences (until later in the game, after you've buffed up your chosen hero). You also will have a list of available spells, each with a cost to cast. That cost is associated with the afore-mentioned meters, which gradually fill as you clear the limitless supply of icons from a box at the center of the screen. Every set of three you destroy might give you anywhere from three to six points toward the corresponding meter.
When it's your turn to play, you can start looking for good moves. Typically, you have all the time in the world (unless you've chosen to play one of the timed matches to improve your character's mount) to make your decision. You can try to set up combinations, since clearing four icons at once allows you to take another turn and basically own your hapless opponent. You also will spend a lot of your time finding ways to match up three skull icons, since those damage your rival. The winner is the first one to completely decimate his opponent's HP, like pretty much any RPG you might care to name.
Puzzle Quest works mostly because the process I outlined above isn't half as dull as perhaps I've made it sound. The basic rules can make for some really tense matches, even before you start looking at the nature of the various spells in the game. The attacks your rival could choose to call into play really affect how you have to formulate your strategies. For example, one opponent might drain your meter periodically, so you have to work to quickly cast your spells while you still have enough SP to do so. Alternately, you could preemptively drain your adversary's power before he has the chance to take yours. There are numerous possibilities. As you work through the game, you'll have to pick and choose which unique powers you find most useful, and you'll have to adjust on the fly as you face a variety of monsters, warriors and mythological beasts.
Though at some level the creatures you fight in Puzzle Quest are just there as window dressing, they actually do bring a lot to the table. When you are traveling from one city to another and a sand worm attacks, you'll react differently than you might if battling a wyvern in the mountains. The result is that even though you're for the most part playing the same puzzle game for hours on end, it doesn't get as redundant as you might imagine. Not only that, but the plot keeps things going along nicely. It's as generic as can be, with the expected assortment of elves, goblins, skeletons and dragons, yet somehow it's easy to get caught up in the story as you meet a variety of companions that both progress the narrative and lend their skills in battle. The characters you meet can sometimes be really funny, as with the overly talkative dwarf or the ogre that likes to eat too much.
Customization provides another reason to keep battling, even when you're not interested in the narrative. Once you've conquered the same monster a few times, you can capture one to join your army. Some can then be used as mounts that you can ride to avoid some overworld monsters, while others are useful because they can teach you new spells to use in future encounters. Then there are the various cities, which can be captured so that they pay tribute to you. Almost everything you might do in the game leads to a round of puzzle action. At first that might seem odd, but you'll get used to it in no time.
Really, the game's only weak point is the amount of luck that is sometimes involved in battle. As you clear out icons, more topple down from the top of the screen. There are times where you'll make what seems like a beautiful move, only to watch as your opponent takes his turn and a bunch of fabulous pieces drop into place so that he is able to chain together six or seven (sometimes more) moves in a row. A round you're winning can quickly go awry and there's no way you can predict it. You simply have to play your best at all times and hope that the computer doesn't decide to screw with you. That's frustrating, to say the least. Sometimes it's enough that you could find yourself howling with frustration. Then you play just one more round, and suddenly you win it effortlessly.
It's easy to imagine Puzzle Quest as a mediocre mess of a game, but that's not how things turned out at all. The two disparate genres are combined to maximum efficiency and cancel out each others' weaknesses admirably. As a result, the game shines in nearly every way. Some might look at the cost to download the title and wonder if it's really worth spending all of those Microsoft points (currently, it'll cost you 1200). I asked myself that question at first, but 20 hours later the only thing I'm wondering is was why it took me so long to give it a try after stumbling across so many glowing recommendations. Don't make the same mistake I did. Play Puzzle Quest now, not later.
Staff review by Jason Venter (November 01, 2007)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
If you enjoyed this Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords review, you're encouraged to discuss it with the author and with other members of the site's community. If you don't already have an HonestGamers account, you can sign up for one in a snap. Thank you for reading!