Could it be the most addictive game ever?
Since buying Puzzle Quest for a plane ride over two weeks ago, I have not played –or done– much else. In fact, I must admit that I am now forcing myself to write this review in part to help break my addiction to this game. Not only does it haunt my mind's eye like Tetris and Minesweeper have done so many times, but the RPG elements make this puzzle game even more compelling, and the gargantuan amount of content means you can play forever without seeming to make a dent in all the missions and side-quests being offered. In short: this is a very dangerous game, and I mean that as a high compliment.
Puzzle Quest is blatantly based on the popular online puzzle game, Bejeweled. I had not actually played Bejeweled before this game, so I tried it out after investing many hours into Puzzle Quest. What I found was a mediocre and overly simple puzzle game with no personality and nothing to keep me playing for more than a few minutes. Puzzle Quest excels by solving both of those problems; the story is well written and multi-faceted, while the RPG-style character building gives you incentive to keep playing, hour after hour. But the true genius of Puzzle Quest is that it turns Bejeweled into a competitive strategy game. Every "battle" takes place against an opponent, so rather than struggle against the layout of the puzzle pieces, you are matching wits with an AI character (or another human, in multiplayer) who is manipulating the same board as you. Matching certain pieces will send attack damage to the opponent, while others build up mana reserves and still others add to your experience and coinage. You can't easily set up multi-turn combos because your opponent will take advantage of them before you can. Since there are usually several possible moves available on the board, you must learn to assign priority to certain types of matches and certain regions of the playing field. In short, Puzzle Quest transforms Bejeweled from a middling puzzle game into a brilliant strategy game.
Adding another layer of complexity is the magic system. Once you have matched enough mana gems, you have the option of casting a spell instead of making another move on the board. There are several ways to learn spells, and you'll quickly learn more than you can hold at one time, so spell acquisition and selection become important. The spells at your disposal can deal direct damage, create defensive barriers, or change gems on the board into other gem types. Over time, you'll learn that the spells you have selected will subtly change your playing style and your strategies in matching pieces. There are also dozens of items that can be equipped for stat bonuses and other effects. If you take Puzzle Quest to be a true RPG, and I can't see why not, an argument could be made that it has one of the deepest and most satisfying battle systems (the puzzles themselves) in the genre's history.
The impressive level of depth extends beyond the battle system, though. You can capture some creatures and ride them as mounts, allowing you the use of an extra spell and the ability to avoid some "random" encounters. These mounts can also be trained and leveled up for greater benefits. It is possible to capture other enemies and research their spells for your own use, although the process for doing so involves solving some extremely long and difficult puzzles. Cities throughout the enormous overworld can be conquered, after which they will pay you tribute money and offer convenient access to certain services. There are seemingly infinite side-quests, usually half a dozen or more at each location on the map, which reward you with rare items. Often you will be given a choice to keep an artifact obtained through battle or to return it to the rightful owner for experience and gold. Other sets of side-quests will result in a companion joining your party, which means stat boosts or extra damage against certain enemy types.
The number of features and distractions in the main quest is astounding, and sometimes it can feel like there is too much to do, even though the vast majority of this content is optional. For those times when you feel overwhelmed, Puzzle Quest offers "Instant Action", which throws you into a random battle without having to worry about navigating the map or anything else. The cool part is that even these battles initiated via menu will add to your experience and gold, so your character is always growing stronger. By the way, there are four character classes available at the start of the game, and the differences between their stats and spells are quite significant. It is feasible that you could be compelled to play through the game more than once to try different character types… right now, I shudder at the thought. As much as I love this game, I don't want to still be playing it in twenty years, even though I probably could be without any redundancy.
The presentation of Puzzle Quest is crude enough that it may not win over traditional RPG fans who expect heavy exploration elements and extensive storytelling. However, if there is even a tiny part of you that giggles with delight when dragons or minotaurs show up, the fantasy trappings will definitely keep your interest, even without taking themselves too seriously. Puzzle game fans should be pleasantly surprised at how the simplistic Bejeweled gameplay is twisted and enhanced to keep engaging your brain. Above all, strategy fans should particularly enjoy the many ways that Puzzle Quest makes you think about the complex interactions among your character, the opponent, and the puzzle board. Ironically, the only audience who may be lost in this adventure is the casual sector, i.e. the very people who turn off their brains for hours to play the original Bejeweled. For anyone else, I can't recommend Puzzle Quest highly enough. It's a refreshing blend of genres, perfectly suited for handheld play, and almost impossible to put down.