8.0

Puzzle Quest Challenge of the Warlords review
Taking Up The Challenge

Summary:

Match 3 objects of a kind and *poof* they disappear, causing those above to fall down and potentially create further chains. Whether said objects are gems, minerals or animals the core concept remains steadfast throughout countless variants of this genre, but various tweaks come about to provide each game with its own unique experience. So what can Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords do to stand out from the very busy crowd?

First, for the newcomers to this style of games, here's the general gist of it. You have a large grid of various objects, which in this game's case consists of gems, money and skulls. You then switch the positions of adjacent objects one at a time, but only switches that result in a line of 3 of a kind are allowed. Objects disappear, points scored.

But Puzzle Quest differs from the norm by adding in many aspects not normally found within this genre. The most glaring one being the integration of RPG elements into things, which sounds like a rather ill suited combination but works surprisingly well.

The main thing to understand with this setup is that every grid is actually a versus battle. You and an opponent takes turns in switching objects to cause chains, with the ultimate goal being to drain your opponent’s HP to zero and win the “battle”. This is definitely an interesting twist from the more usual goal of basic point scoring or clearing the field.

There are a few ways to inflict HP damage. The main method is chaining skulls. There are both normal and special skulls that cause damage to the opponent if cleared from the field and much of each battle revolves around this, requiring a lot of tactical thinking so you don't leave any such openings to the opponent while looking for possible openings yourself.

The second option is the use of spells. When you start the game you're given a choice of classes to make your character, which affects the spells you have available. You begin with one spell and learn more as you level up by winning battles and completing quests. Each spell uses up mana to use, which is where the coloured gems come into play. As well as acting as a legal move, clearing coloured gems will add a set amount of mana to that colour. Each spell will use up set amounts of mana from the four colours and can drastically swing things in your favour.


Spell selection becomes important as you gain more.


The effects differ from one spell to the next. These can range from restoring HP to the caster, delivering direct damage to the enemy without having to chain skulls, gaining extra turns or just plain destroying objects on the field. Since most of these will use up a turn timing can be vital, where bad usage will at best be a useless waste of mana and good usage can provide multiple openings to make some good progress.

One issue some may find a bit frustrating is the inability to see objects off the playable grid. Doesn’t seem like such a problem until you find the computer causing cool damaging chains based on objects nobody could have possibly seen or the player accidentally setting the computer up for an impressive combo because the way unseen items fell. While certainly not a game breaker, it is enough to be a pain at times.

When not fighting battles you’ll be on the world map. At first only a couple of locations are open, but progressing through the game will open it up and enemies will begin to appear. The main goal is to complete various quests that you pick up from the main cities, usually along the lines of go there and win a number of battles. This is one area that, while good, could have been better. There are indeed a lot of quests and you’ll face a lot of enemies as a result. However, the end goal rarely extends beyond “go here, defeat that, claim reward”. The variation relies on the different types of enemies rather than the literal tasks. Though it is fantastic the sheer variety you do get with those enemies. Knights, thieves, wolves, demonic spiders, goddamn bats and so on will generally bring some kind of unique trait, whether it’s pinching your hard earned gold or opting for tactics for restoring health.

One big issue is the random battles aspect. So far in monsters will randomly spawn on the map and you'll have to defeat them to get past. Now add in some quests that require you to travel all over the place several times, bearing in mind how long some battles can last, and you might start figuring out how annoying that can be.


Such a strange method of beating up bad guys.


You can also gain levels and equip items, just like any other RPG. When you level up you gain skill points that can be spent on various things, such as increasing the amount of mana gained from gem clearances to outright causing more damage. The equipment setup also partly relies on level, as many items will require the player to have a certain trait at a specific level to use, but these objects can yield useful bonuses like increasing damage or gaining extra mana when doing certain clearances. Unfortunately, this game does fall into the common trap of making money relatively meaningless.

Other interesting mechanics are in here too. Players have a base city where they can build and establish things such as a tower or stable. These things can greatly influence things, where you can gain extra skill points or obtain spells normally used by monsters if you capture them. It serves as something to blow your cash on and can prove useful. The spell learning setup is interesting as it requires you to play a game where you do have to clear the grid by yourself without leaving any leftover objects. This puzzle twist is a nice thing to have as it presents a different style of challenge from the normal battles.

The main single player story mode is quite long and will keep you going for some time. In addition there is a quick play single player option, in addition to fighting against another player over local or online play. These other modes retain the versus style of the storyline but makes it accessible far faster and easier, which can be good for some quick setups of matches.

The storyline for the game is typical RPG fare, where monsters start roaming the lands and the ever so righteous decide this isn't kosher and send in forces to fight them off. Nice to see the NPCs actually showing something resembling effort when it comes to saving the world, even though most still seem to require some interaction with the player's efforts at some point (though I guess it wouldn't be much of a game if other characters did most of the work).

Some of the sequences can be a little long-winded but ultimately the collection of smaller side-stories weave into a larger tale that does well in giving an interesting excuse to go around matching gems.

The game uses large visuals for its battle layouts, making it very easy to get a feel for the setup of the current grid. Stats for the player and opponent, such as remaining HP and available spells, are arranged on the left and right side respectively. It’s also a very colourful display, thanks largely to the various mana gems that make up any grid, and this contrasts well with the darker backdrop. The special effects are cool here, as objects vanish in sparkles, skulls fire lighting at the target and spells can swirl around the enemy.


During this adventure you'll get VERY well acquainted with the kingdoms.


The dialogue sequences tend to be more hit and miss, but leaning more to the positive. The style is akin to visual novels or conversations that happen in some SRPGs, where character portraits sit around and discussions happen via onscreen text. The art style is pretty impressive, with some very interesting character designs in use. This is especially true in the case of the player character, making the choice of different visual styles for each class hold substance.

The odd thing about these scenes though is the sizing. The portraits really don’t take up that much room but the backdrop fills up the entire screen, resulting in a lot of empty space that looks strange. It looks like the portraits were designed for a lower resolution. Also of note is that the portraits are unchanging, so you don’t really get to “see” the emotion like you would in something like Fire Emblem.

Music is generally of the usual fantasy style and most of it is fairly good if not outstanding. A couple of tracks do stand out well, like the tracks that kick in when either you or the opponent is near defeat that can be pretty catchy. For others they serve as suitable background music for the onscreen events.

Puzzle Quest delivers an interesting experience by mixing excellent elements from both the match 3 and RPG genres to create a rather unique experience. It isn't without its flaws but what it does deliver is an enjoyable adventure with some interesting features to get stuck into.

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