Puzzle Quest Challenge of the Warlords review
The Challenge Is On The Move


If you've been following my reviews (and if not, why?) then you might be aware that I've already played and enjoyed the PC version of this game. So then why get another version of the same game? The simple reason is that it seemed like the perfect kind of game to play on the move and I was hopeful that the excellent gameplay would survive the transition from the more capable PC to the humble DS. As it turns out, it survives the transition mostly intact, delivering that same unusual mix of puzzle and RPG elements that somehow works.

The core gameplay is that of the classic match 3 genre that has had many contenders to its beloved throne. Each turn you can switch two objects sitting in adjacent tiles in the hope of lining up three or more of the same type to make them vanish, which will cause more objects to cascade in from the top of the screen and hopefully making more chances to make them vanish. Rinse and repeat.

Well, except for the part where the game decides it's going to fill the puzzle with a myriad of RPG elements. For one thing, almost every puzzle plays out as a versus challenge against an opponent, where you take turns in playing on the same board. The goal isn't to gain a high score or to clear X number of gems off the field, but instead to reduce your opponent's health to zero. The primary means of doing this is in the form of skulls - special objects that when cleared will inflict damage on the opposing player. Since players take turns, attempting to stack the board in such a way as to not hand skull combos to the other side invokes a fair amount of strategy.

The four coloured gems that also populate the board form the game's magic system. Each gem relates to a specific type of mana that builds as you clear gems, which are used to power your spells that you can use during your turn. You are able to take up to six spells into any given battle, which you gain by levelling up (largely based on which class you picked at the beginning of the game) and can also learn from captured monsters once you have the resources for it. With an ability to change spells at any point outside of battle and a wide selection of powers ranging from inflicting direct damage, applying statistical boosts to yourself or transforming gems on the board you should find plenty of variety to decide how to wage war on the enemy. Stratgetic use of spells is important though and can mean all the difference from turning the tide in a losing battle to effectively throwing mana into the wind and having it smack you back in the face.

The board also brings with it a few other neat tricks to help keep the game interesting. Gold and experience objects also appear and will net you those resources if cleared but otherwise don't really contribute to the current puzzle board. Wildcards can appear from time to time and serve to act as multipliers to the mana gems, in addition to being able to act as any coloured gem. Clearing lines of 4 or 5 items also bestow an extra turn, which can lead to some impressive chain clearances.

One issue with these battles has sadly carried over from the PC game, where you can't see what objects are lined up above the upper edge of the board. This can result in clearing a line that looked completely innocent and ending up with a massive chain combo because offscreen objects just happened to fall in a certain way. This can lead to some irritation when the computer is somehow able to pick away at your health points with combos that use objects that can't be seen until the combo starts.

Thankfully, the game doesn't bother with lives or long distance checkpoints. If you do fail a battle (and chances are you'll fail quite a few due to bad luck) then the only consequence is that you have to try the battle again. The game even hands you a small amount of gold and experience just for trying. This is a sign that the developers actually understand how these kinds of puzzle games can be luck based at times and doesn't seek to penalise the player just because the gems happened to fall one way or another.

Your performance in battles is governed partly by your level and equipment. When you level up you are given a number of skill points and asked to distribute them amongst your stats. Of these you can boost the four mana levels (which affect the rate at which you gain mana from gems), battle (combat damage), vitality (maximum health) and cunning (who goes first). Each stat also possesses a number of other benefits and are balanced in such a manner that you'll find all of them tempting options, making this a nice challenge in itself.

You're also able to equip a number of items which can also bestow boosts such as increasing damage or special effects like gaining green mana everytime you inflict damage. Equipment is largely tied into the level up system, where most items require you to have a certain level in a certain stat before you can use it. With this it adds a lot of depth into customising your character as you decide what to invest in and what is less important.

When not in battle you'll find yourself on the world map, where you obtain quests and can shop for items. Mainly you travel around the region in the form of a world map, where you tap to travel to a different location along preset routes. As you complete storyline quests additional locations appear on the map and the initially small field expands to cover numerous kingdoms, which increases the variety of enemies to fight and the number of cities that can give quests. As well as battles caused by taking on quests you can also end up fighting random enemies that appear on the world map. You can always see them so you'll know if you're heading to a fight and they can serve as nice grinding opportunities should you so wish, but later on in the game when you find yourself moving over longer routes this can become a bit of a bother as the length of these fights can make a journey take much longer than usual.

The sheer amount of quests offered is amazing. As well as a large number of compulsory quests that push the story along you also have a lot of optional sidequests that I find well worth checking out for the challenge and for the rewards you can reap from them. There are also other interesting activities that you can choose to participate in. Establishing a capital city and then building various structures can open these things up, like capturing monsters to learn their spells or a forge where you can use runes to create powerful items to equip. These tasks typically involve a puzzle as well; in most cases these differ from Puzzle Quest's standard versus style such as a more traditional clear X number of each object or ones where you are tasked with clearing all objects with no leftovers. Again, the penalty of failing is simply having to retry so these are kept accessible to anyone.

The story of the game is pretty typical RPG stuff. The undead are rising and it seems a few other monster factions are acting in strange ways, leading the forces of good to try and figure out what is going on and put a stop to it. You'll come across quite a few interesting NPCs that help build a solid picture of the region and its politics, and while some sequences can drag on a bit the overall weaving into a grand tale is well done.

If there is any area where clear sacrifices had to be made from the PC then the visuals is it. For the most part the same kind of details are there to a degree. The board is still filled with various gems, skulls and other things, bringing a cascade of different colours to the field. You still get effects like swirls and explosions darting across the screens during puzzles. However, there are a couple of elements that drag it down.

First, it appears a lot more subdued on the DS. The vibrancy has definitely been taken down a few notches, weakening the flair it had on the PC. This also extends to the special effects which, while it still has some, are notably less flashy and interesting than before. The other bigger problem though is that the action appears to be much more cramped. This is likely an issue of working with less screen space, but even with utilizing both screens to display its content, there isn't a whole lot of breathing room permitted. This also makes navigating the menus a little more tricky, especially when having to use the touchscreen to do so. Certainly not a gamebreaker by any means, but certainly more awkward.

The dialogue sequences suffer fewer problems. The quality obviously isn't the same as on the PC but the fantasy designs are still pretty clear and interesting. Likewise, the ratio means you don't get any real wasted space for these, although the unchanging portraits used for the characters is still a drawback compared to other RPGs on the DS.

Classic fantasy style music is in force for the game and it delivers a likeable selection of tracks. The piece that plays as you near a victory is still inspiring and as great to listen to as it was when I first heard it. For the less memorable music they still serve as a decent backdrop to the onscreen events.

Puzzle Quest: CotW manages the transition to the DS quite well. The visual limitations are quite unfortunate and the randomness enforced by the match 3 genre isn't ideal, but the execution of the hybrid style works to deliver a game experience few can claim and is perfect for gaming on the go.

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