The Mushroom Kingdom at its puzzling finest.
Puzzle & Dragons is a game that I rather enjoyed, but never really got into. With a Nintendo 3DS package arriving in May, I got the chance to preview the full game quite extensively and learn what the franchise is all about. The first stop on my journey was Puzzle & Dragons Super Mario Bros. Edition, which should make Nintendo fans quite happy. I certainly had some reservations throughout my playing time, but on the whole, I was honestly quite surprised with how hooked I got.
The story in the Super Mario Bros. Edition is a rather simple one and it is known ground for most at this stage: The evil King Bowser kidnapped Princess Peach and you have to rescue her at all costs. Additionally, orbs have started to appear everywhere and Bowser's minions are abusing them to increase their strength. Mario, Luigi and their friends will have to use this power to get through the various worlds and survive the barrage of surprises on their way to the big clash.
In my time with the game, I got to play through the first three worlds in their entirety. Every world map is set up like a New Super Mario Bros. game, where various levels and hidden paths reign supreme. The first world naturally starts at the grassy environments around Peach's Castle, with the second one going underground and the third land being a desert. While moving across the lands is simple to grasp, the real depth starts kicking in when you choose one of the levels in the game.
You see, every orb in the game represents a type of attack. There are Fire, Water, Grass, Light and Dark attributes in Puzzle & Dragons and the various characters each have their specialities. The Super Mario Bros. Edition doesn't try to over-complicate matters in the beginning and will teach you this at a reasonable pace. In the beginning, you will only have Small Mario or Small Luigi to choose from and this makes it difficult to be effective in every situation. The game will let you pick one leader and another helping hand to aid each other in battle. Along the way, enemies will join your side and these can be assigned in four additional team slots. It will allow you to give each attribute some sort of representation and make the best use of the options at hand. Next to that, various Toads and other Mario characters will join as you progress and this makes the library grow piece by piece.
Creating the perfect team is incredibly important and you have six team slots to manage the situations the game throws at you. During the puzzle gameplay portion, only certain orbs will appear and this will make you switch characters all the time. Your goal is to drain the HP of your opposition and considering the various attributes have a hand in determining your attack power you can't just blindly choose favourites. Your new friends become stronger by levelling up and participating in the battles. While travelling and completing levels, you will receive items that can grant the characters new abilities. You can transform them into new beings with an additional element or increase the quality of their special attack, which you can only use after several turns have passed. All of this should help to make the performance during the levels smoother and it will give you a solid end score too.
As far as the gameplay during the levels is concerned, you will be using your stylus and try to hold one of the orbs on the playing field. Once you start moving, you will have only a few seconds to freely move the Orb and make as many rows as you possibly can. These rows need to be three or greater and the more rows you get together, the bigger your combo will end up being. This simple gameplay setup is easy to grasp and it makes Puzzle & Dragons so incredibly challenging and rewarding. Lengthy combos will not only increase the overall attack power, but it gives you also free chances to earn 1-Ups. The green colored mushrooms are needed to continue if you lose all of your hit points, but by doing so, you will also lose a percentage of your points in the process. Luckily, you can keep yourself in the game by making combos with heart orbs or using certain special attacks of your allies. Personally, I felt more satisfaction by completing levels without dying even once and found myself starting over when it did occur. You barely lose anything if you choose this path, so there isn't really a reason not to do it.
To clear a level, you will need to destroy various waves of enemies along the way and each one is trickier than the last. There will be a thrilling boss battle waiting for you at the end, so you will have to be sharp all the way through. You will take on the various Koopalings and Boom Boom, which makes the Super Mario feeling really hit home. I would say that every stage lasted somewhere between three and five minutes, which seems to make the game perfect for on the go. To keep things from becoming mundane, there are various paths to choose in the stages and you need to complete goals at special item boxes. While the actions you do are similar, the variables keep it engaging and a joy to toy around with.
Personally, I have only major complaint with how the levels work. Once you complete a level and return to it at a later stage in the game, it just becomes a bit too easy. As your characters grow stronger, the previous stages become easier to handle and that makes a bit less fun. You can always start with a new set of allies, but your leaders and helpers would still suffer from that problem. There is no extra save file slot to remedy this and that is actually quite a bummer. On a more positive note, there is a dedicated score attack mode. You have to complete a course here in a few minutes and come out with the best possible end total.
As far as the presentation is concerned, Puzzle & Dragons Super Mario Bros. Edition looks really sharp on the Nintendo 3DS. It won't blow you away, but the game is all nice enough to look at. The thing is colorful, crisp and all the environments really evoke the feeling of a Super Mario game. While you go through a stage, enemies and environments really pop with the 3D effects enabled. The music mostly stems from titles like Super Mario 3D World and the New Super Mario Bros. games. There are some remixes now and again to give them a Puzzle & Dragons flair, but they never really ruin a song. It is mostly known ground, but the music remains just fun to listen to.
Puzzle & Dragons Super Mario Bros. Edition is a bold new way to play the puzzle franchise. With the Mario flair injected into its veins, it is a unique combination that works surprisingly well. The various environments are fun to look at and the gameplay elements are rich and rewarding. There is a fear that you won't have much to do once it all wraps up, but I mostly had fun up until this point. How the rest of the game pans out remains to be seen!
Look at more Puzzle & Dragons goodness in the handy YouTube playlist below!