Puzzle Quest
Nintendo DS
Reviewed: 05/08/2007

Seemingly out of nowhere, Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords was released this March across two portable platforms. Sporting some obvious differences from the PSP version, the DS version attempts to use its touchscreen interface to create an interesting hybrid of the puzzle game Bejeweled and a traditional fantasy RPG. Unfortunately, while it puts a new RPG twist on a classic game, its innovative system eventually falls prey to itself and causes the player more grief than enjoyment.

For being released on two portable systems, Puzzle Quest does a great job of making itself effectively portable. The game loads quickly, and once a save file is selected, players can dive into the Quest mode and start playing and potentially battling in a matter of seconds. If one doesn’t don’t feel like starting up the main quest, s/he can select “Choose Opponent” to battle and gain experience and gold, and be battling in a matter of seconds, or they can select “Instant Action” and be thrown up against a random opponent immediately. After every battle, the player’s file autosaves itself, so the game can be turned off and on with no fuss about finding save points or losing progress, lending itself perfect for bus rides or waits in doctor’s offices.

A game is begun with the player picking a name, class, and gender for their character. There is a large pool of random fantasy-sounding names that can be generated, or a name may be entered manually. There are four classes, and two portraits per gender per class, so something cool looking can probably be found to suit most tastes. The four classes (Druid, Knight, Warrior, and Sorcerer) have varied skill sets, mastery of skills, and different centralized themes for battle. At level ups, characters gain new spells from their skill sets, and receive points to distribute into their stats to improve their damage and health and so forth, and additionally to increase the chance of extra turns when matching tiles on the game board. Classes less proficient in skills will require more points to increase them.

Puzzle Quest’s gameplay is broken down into two parts: battles and character building Bejeweled and Bejeweled. Any player who was the kid in his or her high school computer class who finished early and played flash games has seen this game before. The RPG overtones put an interesting skin on the proceedings, however: instead of matching jewels, players will match three-of-a-kind between four different colors of mana orbs, stacks of gold, purple experience stars and skulls (of both the regular and exploding variety). Wildcards also appear that can substitute for any of the mana colors. Four-of-a-kinds and five-of-a-kinds gain the player who made them an extra turn. Four equipment slots on the character hold items that add various benefits and advantages to matching certain pieces, or blocking/adding damage and so forth. In battling another opponent, the two face off against each other, taking turns to match pieces on the board–matching mana adds to a character’s magic reserves which are then used to cast spells, gold can be used to shop outside of battle, and experience contributes to levels up–but ultimately, all these things are negligible in the face of matching skulls, which damage opponents. If no moves are left on the board, the entire board is reset with new tiles and both sides’ mana is reduced to 0.

Screen Shot
Attack his weak point for massive damage! 7 is massive, right?

In towns allied with the player, a citadel can be accessed allowing for character improvement: spells can be researched from captured foes, gold can be paid to increase skills, mounts can be trained, and items can be forged. All of these things involve another trip to the puzzle board to either battle an opponent in a standard battle, or to play solo to try to break special tiles without using up all the moves and resetting the board. Outside of customization, quests are readily available with gold, experience, and item rewards as the story mode progresses and new locations on the world map open up. All quests are very brief, but the ones important to the story are identified so players can find their ways through the story quickly.

All of this sounds complicated, but is relatively simple. Unfortunately, the appearance of customization is perfunctory at best as a chain of events renders each character-building aspect slowly obsolete. The single best weapon in the game appears within the first ten sidequests, eventually allowing for up to 10 additional damage to be dealt whenever the player does damage in battle. In a game where nine damage for a basic attack is described as “massive damage,” this makes the game very easy. No other piece of equipment, even the “Godlike” items forged from runes, can compare. This means the player will hardly touch even the best equipment in shops, leading to a large excess of gold which has no other place to be used, except at the temples to pump base stats up to obscene levels. Combined with character awards and other stat bonuses, and the fact that level ups occur every few battles, this means that the player outstrips the opponents quickly in strength, even if foes are scaled to character level.

Why would a player take a strategy to make the game unbelievably easy? Because it cuts down on the game’s horrendous tedium. Even doing “massive” damage, it can take at least ten turns to kill easy enemies, and that assumes that skulls can be matched every turn. Doing less damage only adds to the time spent in battles, which already overwhelm the game. Monsters appear on roads quickly and leave rarely, so ten battles might be required to even reach the next quest destination, much less actually completing that quest. Strategies rarely, if ever, vary from battle to battle. The touch interface with the DS stylus helps to speed battles along, but they are still far too frequent and far too long, eventually choking all enjoyment out of returning to that puzzle grid. In the end, Puzzle Quest does nothing to help the player avoid battles or effectively alter battles to make them more interesting. Every single battle must be fought.

Screen Shot
This girl was trying to bribe me, but I wasn’t buying it, so I sold her as a bride to some barbarians instead. I guess I never saw this screen.

Aurally and visually, Puzzle Quest leaves a lot to be desired, and is riddled with glitches on top of its lost potential. Graphics are merely neat and tidy in most cases, but some attack animations are unpleasantly pixilated. The backgrounds and portraits for cutscenes are nice looking, but disappointingly stationary. What is truly unfortunate is not that the graphics could have been nicer (sloppy animations aside), but that they could have been better employed. Ninety-eight percent of the game will involve staring at the same tiles on the same grey game board, with no variation even in a background. Finally, in addition to the freezing glitches, graphical glitches are common when selecting gems or making combos. Musically, Puzzle Quest has very few tunes of mediocre quality, but the music is as unvaried as the gameplay graphics. When battles take several minutes each, battles are where the player spends by far the largest portion of their time, and there are only three short and repetitive battle tunes, they had better be good. Sadly, they aren’t. Furthermore, sound effects feel dull and unsatisfying, some of the battle music feels highly inappropriate–flutes and harps will be trilling in the background as players battle giants, ogres and a fierce undead god–and the final boss doesn’t even have his own music. To top it all off, the cartridge is very loud, and though the option is available to change music and sound effect volume (moving the music from “Normal” to “Very Quiet” is necessary) and save it, a bug prevents the settings from being saved in anything but name, reverting the sound to blaringly loud each time the game starts up. Altogether, the sound is one of the most irritating aspects of Puzzle Quest.

Speaking of glitches, every single time the player starts up the game, the first battle screen will always be the same. It’s a confusing glitch when every single other board is random. Also, the game crashes sometimes. Since when do games do that anymore?

Screen Shot
This place looks it’s still under construction. Oddly, that’s how a lot of the game feels.

Puzzle Quest has a pretty classical story, where the character plays a knight helping to defend their kingdom. While cliché, it initially seems to have been pulled off well, with a world showing evidence of some thought and lore put into it. Unfortunately, the story falls flat on its face by the ridiculously written dialogues, often between the hero and their companions. Your noble knight will often utter remarks such as “Ummmmmm…yeah, okay, whatever,” and it takes some serious work to make dragons sound silly, but the writers have done it. Some scenes between characters are downright goofy. But the largest story disappointment comes from its world map. An expansive world map is laid out, and the game ends with less than half of it explored. It almost feels like an unnecessary letdown.

With four classes to choose from, Puzzle Quest at least offers players the ability to play it again a little differently if they so desire. A few quest choices in game can also lead to varied companions and new quests or items. However, the dialogue is exactly the same on each playthrough.

All games are going to have repetition in them. A good game is one that can divert the effects of its repetition and give players a way to minimize the time they spend repeating the same motions. In the end, Puzzle Quest is crushed by its own tedium and repetition. While it has a fun system and passable story, it also has irritating glitches and poor or incomplete elements that make this game feel like an unfinished product. It’s an interesting cross-genre experiment, and can be addictive and fun, but fails to live up to the great potential that it has.

-Janelle Hindman

Score Breakdown
Below Average
Out of 10
See our Review Criteria
Gameplay Good
Story Below Average
Graphics Below Average
Sound/Music Horrible
Replay Value Bad
The Verdict: 4