Puzzle Quest Review
I know that the last video game mashup you're probably looking forward to is Bejeweled and Final Fantasy. Or Bejeweled and any RPG. Or maybe even Bejeweled and anything at all. And I can definitely see why: that stupidly addictive gem game is for "casual" gamers, right? It can't possibly be worked into something that you could sink thirty hours into - or could it?
D3 Publisher and 1st Playable Productions bring us Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords, a new RPG with a unique twist where the combat is actually played out on a board of jewels which you will take turns swapping to damage each other, increase mana to spells, and gain money and experience. And that might still sound like a pretty goofy concept, but it actually works as you'll need to use a bit of strategy in gem swapping to make sure you don't play right into your enemy's hands.
If you're up for it, Puzzle Quest includes a full story mode with quests, a personal castle which allows you to capture enemy abilities and gain various perks, and a level-up system which allows you to do more damage and use mana more efficiently. Quests will often send you into battle with an enemy where a board pops up with all kinds of gems. Some of them give you mana, experience points or gold directly, while the skulls - the most important ones - allow you to inflict damage directly to your enemies. Careful, though, because if you get greedy to pick up that red mana, you might drop the gems in the right place for skulls to become available to your opponent on your next turn. This is the strategy you'll have to use; if you aren't thinking a couple moves ahead, you could find yourself looking at the Defeat screen. Puzzle Quest is not an easy game, but fortunately there's no real penalty for losing. In fact, you'll still gain some gold and experience points, and you'll just have to try again if you want to progress.
Early on, the game is easy enough. You'll start out on a quest as a young knight who has to run a couple of errands for his father and get some training at the castle. Your first fights work well as a tutorial and will teach you about gaining and using mana, what your gold and experience net you, and how to actually beat an opponent. But you'll quickly be swept up into some world-changing events (just like most RPG titles) and must go on a big old quest to.. well, you know what happens. The story's pretty stereotypical, and the cutscenes are mostly hand-drawn in an anime style. The fantasy world depicted here is like Lord of the Rings but everything is done, visually, in an anime style. Don't expect a plot that's as riveting as Final Fantasy or anything, but that's alright because the gameplay is where this one innovates.
As you level up you'll gain new abilities based on the class you chose (there are four to begin with) at the start, plus stat points which can go into your battle abilities directly or into your efficiency with the four colors of mana. You'll find that most classes have a pretty good range of abilities mixed between damaging your opponent or buffing your own stats. The money you gain during and after matches can go towards gear that will help you in fights. Many of these perks and items revolve around different colors of mana, and there's a good bit of strategy here where you will want to play into your strengths. Between creating items, sieging cities, and working on your own keep, there's plenty of RPG-style stuff to do as well, but always remember to work on making yourself a damage-dealing machine when combat starts and the board pops up.
Most of the higher-scoring moves in Bejeweled will give you unique benefits here in Puzzle Quest. Getting four jewels in a row rather than three gives you an extra turn, while getting five gives you a wildcard gem plus the free turn. Combos can be scored as well, which can be really damaging to your opponent if there are a lot of skulls on the board. You'll find that there are some unique challenges here as well, like training a mount or capturing enemies, that will give you a different kind of board to clear. All in all, the game is quite long if you finish all the side quests and participate in all the stuff the single player mode has to offer. Throw in some local wi-fi play and I think you'll find that if you're on board with the idea of a puzzle-based RPG, this one will have plenty of longevity.
The biggest problem I have with Puzzle Quest on the DS is that you're forced to use the stylus. You can sort of drag a piece to move it, or you can tap the first piece and then tap where you want it to go. Either way, the really frustrating part comes if you fumble something and do a move that doesn't actually clear any gems off the board. In most games like Bejeweled, there's no penalty. Here, you actually damage yourself and lose your turn. This is really frustrating if you're in a bumpy car or bus and keep doing illegal moves because the stylus is jumping around all over the place. There's no way to switch to a D-pad and buttons configuration, which is really silly since the PSP version of the game uses one.
Puzzle Quest is a very unique and refreshing take on both puzzle games and RPGs. It successfully fuses the two with plenty of strategic options on both the world map and the combat screen. The story won't win any awards, but you can always skip it and just get right to the meat of the game. The controls in the DS version are frustrating in some situations, but the graphics are plenty good compared to other games on Nintendo's handheld. Wi-fi play is included, but it's only local, which is a bit of a disappointment. Still, with its great puzzle elements, this is one of the most original RPGs to be released on the DS (or on any platform, really) and I can heartily recommend it to fans of both genres.