Review: Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords

puzzle_quest_PS2.JPGPlatform: PlayStation 2
Publisher: D3Publisher of America
Developer: 1st Playable
Release Date: 11/13/07
Genre: Puzzle/RPG
Players: 1-2

The Puzzle Quest phenomenon keeps on rolling along as the game finally hits the PlayStation 2 and Wii, so if you’re still playing games on a standard definition TV you’ll definitely want to boogie on down to your nearest game shop with twenty bucks in hand. Despite the lower resolution graphics, tiny text and lack of online play, the game retains the same supremely addictive gameplay and surprisingly well-written storyline found in the other versions. When you find yourself up at 3am level grinding your way through just one more board, you’ll be grinning through bleary eyes as your brain tries to keep up with the colored gems on screen.

If you haven’t played the game previously, the mixture of console RPG, strategy and puzzle game elements might be an eyebrow raiser, but everything gels perfectly and just gets better over time. As soon as the game begins and you select Quest Mode, you’re prompted to create a character from three classes (Wizard, Fighter and Rogue in male or female forms) and name them before tackling a practice dummy that shows you the basics. In a great touch, you can quit the main game at any time and take on a live or CPU player, adding whatever extra wins and loot gained to your total for the main game. The object of the game is to defeat your opponent by matching up three or more skulls to cause damage while collecting gems, coins and experience points. Gems allow you to use a wide assortment of magic spells, coins let you buy new gear and experience helps you level up, of course. What’s amazing is how well it all flows together – even if you hate either genre, spend five minutes playing and you’ll be converted.

You’ll also get your mind sharpened to a fine point. Initially, you’ll most likely be making simple three gem connections with an occasional four or five of a kind chance here and there. Meanwhile, the CPU will seemingly bust out something like six or so killer moves in a row, making you think the game is cheating royally. However, play long enough and you’ll start to see that you can control the board for as long as you like by carefully watching pieces in play and making the proper moves. There’s a bit of luck involved when moving pieces as well, but on rare occasions does blindly matching work out well. In fact, as you play the game, you’ll find out that everything from creating new items to capturing and training mounts is done with puzzles.

These mini-games will have you tackling a stack of gems in an attempt to clear a board in order to capture an enemy. If you’ve built the proper structures in your city, you can learn spells from captured enemies or upgrade a mounted unit to ride into battle. If you’re feeling truly adventurous, you can even capture cities you visit, adding them to your territory and getting extra gold in the process. However, captured cities will often revolt, forcing you to drop what you’re doing and fight it out to recapture them. I finished the game at the level cap of 50 without taking an extra city, but feel free to experiment at your leisure, as there’s a good 40+ hours or more of gameplay packed on the disc. You’ll eventually meet up with a number of NPC companions that join your cause and help deal out or block damage from certain enemies, so it’s definitely a good thing to make friends where necessary.

As mentioned above, the writing is also worth noting, as the game uses liberal doses of humor to balance out its dramatic elements. Your companions range from an annoying bride-to-be princess to a wizened Minotaur to an elf with a particular dislike for anything undead. Other than a couple of exposition scenes, character dialog is generally rapid fire stuff and each character’s personality manages to shine through whenever they get a few lines in. One of the more unusual allies is an ogre that eats anything, which leads to some oddball side quests and a hilarious post battle exchange where the punchline is “it tastes like chicken… hard chicken.” That one had me nearly fall off the couch when it popped up. In terms of those side quests, there are literally dozens of them and while they don’t all need to be completed to finish the game, it’s nearly impossible to pass up exploring a new region’s far corners as the rewards are worth the trip.

While everything on the anime-style graphics, sound, gameplay, and control fronts are about the same as other versions, for some reason, the game uses a much smaller typeface than it should. Coupled with the lower resolution, trying to play this on a HD setup is a tough go. I have a 36″ Toshiba HDTV that’s awesome for anything 360 and PS3, but I’m smart enough to have kept my old 27″ standard definition TV for PS2 and Wii games because frankly, these games look awful in higher resolutions. Unlike the 360 version, the text here is scaled down to be barely readable unless you’re wearing glasses, but even then, you’ll find it tricky to follow the story or read some of the menu screens. Additionally, this version of the game loses the helpful arrows that point out potential moves on the board, meaning newbies will be smoked by the CPU until they figure things out.

While there’s no online play (not a big deal, unless D3 is keeping it out of the PS3 version), getting a friend to come over and play a few matches is good for some fun times. If you’re a nice guy or gal, you’ll want to let them have a few tries at the game beforehand so you don’t blow them out completely. From my experience, some people pick up on the gameplay right away, while others need a few tips because they’re thinking they’re playing Bejeweled or some other shape-dropping varaint. One friend that played the DS and 360 versions not only missed the arrows, he had the brilliant idea that the developer should place arrows in future versions (or any sequels) that pointed in the directions of different moves. For less competent players, this would allow them to see what sort of options they have available, particularly in timed games.

Complaints and constructive criticism aside, Puzzle Quest still succeeds as a superior genre entry thanks to the deep gameplay and excellently paced plotline. You’re actually getting more bang for your buck here than in games costing three times more with the ability to go back and play a new character with different skills a big draw. While I have no idea if a sequel is in the works, it would be extremely cool to see one show up and do even better than the original. If you’re still in the market for PS2 games (and yup, have a regular ol’ TV set), absolutely snap this one up. It’s one of the best of its kind and something you find truly hard to put down.

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Pros:
+ The same addictive gaming bliss found on other systems
+ RPG and puzzle elements meld amazingly well
+ Surprisingly funny writing lifts the genre conventions above the usual stuff
+ Under 20 bucks for 60+ hours of gameplay? Awesome!

Cons:
– Low-resolution visuals look awful in HD (hope you kept that old TV set!)
– Super small text can be hard to read even on a standard def TV
– What happened to the helpful arrows showing potential moves?

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