Hitting the Xbox Live Arcade last week for the sum of 1200 MS Points was the arrival of Puzzle Quest. Already available for the PSP and DS, it was the turn of Xbox fans to get a taste of the action. Being the cheapest version available, it seems 360 owners got the best deal, but is the game actually as good as everyone says it is, or simply another rehashed game for the Arcade?
The game’s story is the usual struggle between good and evil, with the world of Etheria being overrun with various undead creatures. It’s your job to defend the Kingdom of Bartonia from these beings, all the while seeking the source of this evil. Starting out you get to select the class of character you wish to play as, from Druids, Knights, Mages, and Warriors. Each does make a difference both on and off the battlefield. Not only will each variation have different obtainable skills and abilities, but the cost of leveling up for different aspects is vastly different from class to class.
Jumping in, the seemingly small world isn’t yet expanded as it will be later on, so initially there’s not an awful lot to do. Bartonia is your Citadel; your main hub for expansion as the game progresses. Picking up quests for “Your Majesty”, the world slowly begins to open up, and it is with the training that the first experience of the wonderful combat system is greeted to the hero.
Anyone who has played Bejeweled, be it on the XBLA or on the PC will be in luck here. The system is pretty much the same; join up three or more of the same colours on the grid, taking turns to do so. The similarities end there though, since the point of Bejeweled is simply to gain a massive score. Not in Puzzle Quest. Each colour represents a different mana that will be used to cast spells as the battle progresses. Each spell requires a different amount and colour of mana, so it’s up to the wannabe hero to decide what colours should be cleared first, be it red, yellow, green or blue mana. The purple stars, if cleared, are added to Experience Points of the hero, helping on the quest to level up. The money, if cleared, will add to your total gold reserves, and the skulls will deal damage to your opponent if cleared. Massive combos can be gained throughout by clearing more than one at a time, often wiping out the opponent or gaining yourself massive amounts of mana. Line up four and another turn is given; line up five and a wild card will appear, with the extra turn being given again. Don’t make an illegal move though, or five hit points will be done to yourself.
Of course the whole point of the battles is to reduce the opponent’s Hit Points down to nothing. This can be done in a variety of ways, by simply using the skulls on the board or by dipping into mana reserves and using some spells. The spells range from all kinds of different things, be it an attack, a healing move or even reducing mana of opponents. There’s a lot to discover and mess about with, and as the player climbs the rungs of levels, more and more spells become available. It’s not possible to take every spell the hero learns into battle, so it’s up to the player to choose wisely as to which spells will create the best combination. Do you take all attacking moves in, or mix it up a bit and go for a more tactical approach? The choice is entirely up to the player.
For whatever reason, the combat’s very addictive. The formula of Bejeweled has already been proven as insanely popular thanks to the ridiculous sales the game has produced, and is responsible for the huge boom in the casual gaming market. Puzzle Quest remains just as addictive; possibly more so as there is more depth to the colour-clearing mechanic. The story will eventually fade into the background for most, as it is probably just too much text for an Arcade game. However the story isn’t needed to enjoy the game. As the quest gets deeper, the world expands, with other Citadels being revealed, bringing their own side quests to further distract the player from the main quest. Again players will simply use these quests as an excuse to simply battle more, rather than care about the story involved.
The story, despite being pretty monotonous, does have tangents that will require the hero to think for a moment. Should you return the Princess to whence she came, or take her to her future husband as the King ordered, despite the fact the Princess clearly doesn’t want to go? Returning her nets you a small extra prize, but taking her earns you the respect of the King. It’s not Final Fantasy story tangents, but it’s nice to have something to think about. The music throughout is excellent too, particularly in battles. If either your or your opponent’s health drops below a certain level, the once-relaxing music shifts focus and becomes rather more intense, making the player realise something has changed. It’s an excellent idea and one that works very well.
As the game progresses and the hero gains more gold, it’s possible to expand the Kingdom of Bartonia. The game allows players to build a variety of different things that will all change aspects in Etheria. Build a dungeon and it becomes possible to capture opponents that you have beaten three times previously, which then allows the hero to learn one of their abilities by meeting required targets in a slightly altered battle environment. Other expansions allow the capturing of other Citadels further into the game which will increase the cash flow. Training also becomes an option, but that will cost a fair bit of money in the long run for anyone who wants to improve at a quicker rate, instead of just through leveling up. There’s a lot to look at and a lot to improve; there’s even a shop to buy new equipment for the combat, most of which will directly affect the swing of the battles. Buying a ring that restores Hit Points every turn can prove invaluable as the battles get harder against higher-leveled opponents. Even if the hero is felled despite being fully kitted out, it won’t matter as it is possible to simply restart the battle without losing any EXP or gold. This might not sound appealing to everyone, but when a battle can last anywhere between five and fifteen minutes, it is punishment enough knowing you’ll have to slog it out again.
The hero won’t be on his or her own the whole time either. Along the way, new Companions will be met who join the party for a while. They will deal damage to opponents in battle, or provide extra bonuses in attributes. Some Companions are compulsory and are part of the main quest; others can be hired and dumped as you see fit. Companions will open up other sub quests for more battling fun and once again dragging out the length of the game.
There’s more to the game than just the main single player campaign though. Should the need arise for just a quick battle, there’s an Instant Action option, as well as the chance to select the opponent you wish to face. This is OK for a quick hit, as gold and EXP earned still carry over into the main game. That’s as far as the single player goes, and multiplayer offers little extra.
Everyone got excited at the chance of playing Puzzle Quest over Xbox Live, yet it’s nigh on impossible to get a game. No-one really plays the game online, whether it’s because they are too busy with the single player or because the game has local multiplayer. There’s the option of Ranked or Player Match, with few customisation choices other than Round Time and Handicap. There’s no lag when a game does commence over Live, although had there of been, it would have been an outrage. Again, any gold and EXP gained is kept for your character, so it’s possible to continue to level up outside of the single player game. Local multiplayer is the same as online; one off battles against two heros, with all the stats being maintained. There’s no co-op functionality, although that might make the game too easy. Two on two multiplayer would have been nice though.
The game has few faults in the single player, but the few it does have are rather annoying. The graphics aren’t great; it’s obvious this has been ported, and although the graphics have been spruced up, it’s still not beautiful in High Definition unlike some other Arcade games. The battle system is almost flawless, however the AI definitely seems to have an advantage. It knows all the best moves to make the best combos, often doing so much damage from just one small swap of colours it will reduce the hero’s hit points to less than ten, despite five seconds previously being on fifty. Throughout battles there are also random “Extra Turn” colours hidden away that will come as a surprise, as they occur even if only three colours have been combined. The AI knows exactly where they all are, and heads for them rather than the more obvious four sitting somewhere else. It’s highly irritating, as again it can lead to massive combos that seemed otherwise impossible. Away from the single player, multiplayer is very limited and won’t encourage many to bother playing this over Live. If you have a friend or sibling also into the game though, local multiplayer is great and a lot of fun, since taunting is always a lot easier with someone else in the room.
The blend of puzzle and RPG has really been thought about, and it works very well in this instance. Despite the storyline being slightly lacklustre, the other RPG elements such as the expansion possibilities and the leveling up all make up for it. The puzzling is hard to fault; it’s a tried and tested format that has been proven to work countless times before. By adding their own unique twist, developers Infinite Interactive have done enough to make it different and more involving. It makes for a game that not only proves fun, but also very addictive and fresh. Unusually for an Arcade title, this will last a hell of a long time thanks to the game including over one hundred and fifty different quests. The multiplayer aspect is fine and does the job, but there’s nothing spectacular. However when the single player is as engrossing as it is here, there’s no need for an amazing multiplayer; everything you could ever want is done just fine for the lone gamer. The AI may annoy at times, but the fun factor definitely overshadows it.
Final Score: 9 out of 10 - Very Good (How do we rate games?)