"Winning and losing should be based on skill and strategy, not a roll of the dice. Although itís their first venture into the RPG genre, 1st Playable Productions found an intriguing way around this problem, through puzzles and a rich character building system."
Tell me if this sounds familiar.
Itís a classic battle between good and evil. Weak and battered, the hero stands firm, determined to fight through his last breath. In this desperate moment, he bows his head in concentration. A blue mist envelops his body, the ground shakes and crumbles at his feet, flames erupt from the cracks, and a guttural roar pounds the air. A winged minion, god-like in stature, spirals from the chaos. Without hesitation, the creature dives upon the enemy with devastating force. The hero collapses to one knee, relishing his victory. Then he hears the footsteps. The creature missed.
More than clichť storylines, more than overzealous cutscenes, or angst-ridden heroes, the one thing that bothers me about most RPGs is the lack of control. You spend countless hours leveling pre-built characters, tirelessly working towards that epic battle, only to lay it all on the line and see that dreaded word Ė miss. Frustrating doesnít even begin to describe it. Winning and losing should be based on skill and strategy, not a roll of the dice. Although itís their first venture into the RPG genre, 1st Playable Productions found an intriguing way around this problem, through puzzles and a rich character building system.
No matter how large or small, every conflict is resolved through Bejeweled-style puzzles with the goal of depleting your opponentsí life points. The battlefield is a gem-filled grid on which you and your opponent take turns shifting gems to match three or more together. Get a match, those gems disappear, and more fall in from above. Sure, thereís a story thrown in. Something about the evil Lord Bane raising the dead, but itís little more than a device to move you along from battle to battle. First and foremost, this is a puzzle game. If not for the deep wealth of options for character customization, I wouldnít even call Puzzle Quest an RPG.
There are four character classes to choose from Ė Druid, Knight, Warrior, and Wizard. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses, but you will rarely be forced to play in one particular style. After accumulating experience and gaining a few levels, each class offers a diverse array of spells and attacks. Some do damage and some heal, while others affect your opponent or alter the battlefield. You will have to strategize though, because your enemy gives as good as it gets, and you both draw the mana for these abilities from the puzzle.
Each of the four gem colors corresponds to an elemental mana pool. You can also match up stars for experience, coins for money, and skulls for direct damage, but the gems are top priority. Itís important to plan your spells in advance, but it is equally important to keep an eye on the colors your opponent needs. This is especially true when facing one of the many enemies with mana-stealing abilities. As if that werenít enough to think about, matching four or five-of-a-kind gives you an extra turn. The one aspect I could do without though is the Mana Drain. When there are no possible matches, the grid is reset, and your mana pool with it. Thereís nothing like battling for 75 rounds straight and finally gaining an edge, only to have it all stripped away.
There is so much more to do in Puzzle Quest than battle monsters though. You can lay siege to any of the major cities. These are epic struggles to be sure, fending off guard towers, catapults, and boiling oil as you chip away at a seemingly endless supply of health. As the victor, you are not only rewarded with a regular flow of money, but the ability to build a Citadel as well. By purchasing new structures for your Citadel you can craft new equipment, train mounts with battle-enhancing powers, improve skills, and research new spells. There are plenty more surprises that Iíll let you discover for yourself, but the most important feature by far is capturing monsters. Cue Pokemon theme song.
After defeating a particular type of enemy three times, you have the option to capture it by completing, as you may have guessed, another puzzle. Then you can return to your Citadel and research the enemy to gather additional spells. Character customization doesnít end there. You get to choose how skill points are dispersed after leveling up, giving you more mana from certain gems, more damage from skulls, or more life points. Donít forget about equipment. Dig out your wallet and hit the stores where, depending on your skills, you can get outfitted with all sorts of weapons, armor, and trinkets with unique abilities. Puzzle Quest has so many ways to personalize your character, it feels less like a SquareEnix game and more like a miniature addition to The Elder Scrolls.
90% of the time, winning and losing is all on your shoulders. As for the other 10%, chalk it up to a cheating A.I. It has the obvious privilege of knowing what is going to drop. Itís all too common to see the A.I. pass up a four-gem match in favor of a seemingly useless three-gem match. Just when you think lady-luck is lifting you up, the A.I. turns that three-gem match into a five round combo with gems that were previously off-screen, and a quarter of your life is gone. Wait ten seconds on your turn and the A.I. even offers friendly suggestions. Do not take them. More than likely, you will only be screwing yourself over.
In the larger scheme of things, these are only minor annoyances. Itís aggravating when it happens, but if you take a few moments to strategize, you can usually dig yourself out of the deepest of holes. Even when you do lose a battle, itís just another opportunity to step back and fine-tune your character further. Puzzle Quest doesnít have the richest of storylines, but it is far more rewarding to walk away from a battle and truly exclaim, ďI did it!Ē No roll of the dice. Just you and the puzzle.
Staff review by Brian Rowe (June 20, 2007)
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