Over the years, most video games have been divided fairly neatly into genres. RPG, FPS, puzzle, rhythm, racing, sports… A few games, though, have tried to break that mold and combine genres. Some have been successful, others haven’t. Puzzle Quest is the newest mold-breaker with an unlikely combination of puzzle and RPG elements, and I think it falls pretty firmly into the “successful” category.
Puzzle Quest’s basic gameplay will be familiar to anyone who has played Bejeweled or any of its clones over the past several years. You are given a grid of pieces in about a half a dozen colors and challenged to line up three or more matching pieces. However, there are several ways that it differs from other similar games. The most obvious difference is the fact that Puzzle Quest is turn-based and competitive. This alone sets a whole new spin on how you play the game, as you not only have to worry about making moves yourself, but also about what you leave behind for your opponent. The difference relevant to us, though, is the fact that it’s an RPG. Like most RPGs (and unlike most puzzle games), you have hit points, mana pools, and special abilities, all of which drive your strategy and make the difference between success and defeat.
When you begin Puzzle Quest, you choose between four character classes, all of which have different strengths and weaknesses. The warrior, for example, has special abilities that are focused on directly damaging the opponent, while the druid’s abilities lie more along the lines of defense, healing, and putting damaging statuses on the opponent. Once you’ve chosen a class, you can get into battle, where you’ll match colored pieces to gain the mana you need to use your abilities, gold pieces to earn money you can use to buy equipment, purple stars to gain experience to level up, skulls to damage your opponent, and green clovers to try to catch that dang leprechaun (OK, I made that last one up). Match four or five in a row, and you get an extra turn.
The game has two single-player modes: Quest and (confusingly) Single Player. In Quest mode, you play through the main storyline, taking optional quests as desired. Puzzle Quest’s story is fairly simple and linear, and although you will have the opportunity to make choices here and there that will affect the story later on, the difference between taking the “good” path and the “evil” path is not that significant. In Single Player mode, you use your Quest mode character to battle any NPC you choose, earning money and experience that carries over when you go back into Quest mode.
If you’ve beaten an enemy at least three times and then encounter them once more in Quest mode, you can attempt to capture them. Some captured enemies can be used as mounts, and you can learn spells from the rest. Having a mount allows you to move more quickly from town to town and to use one of the mount’s skills in battle. Playing Single Player mode can help you ensure that you’ve beaten everyone three times so that you’re ready for the capture as you run into them in Quest mode. It can also help you formulate better strategies against enemies that are giving you trouble, and since you gain some money and experience whether you win or lose, no battle is ever a complete waste of time.
Capturing an enemy is very different from normal battles, and you’ll either love that or hate it. To capture a monster, you are given a game board with a set number of pieces, and you must clear it entirely. This can be a fun challenge, but if it’s not your cup of tea or if you just get stuck, there are plenty of resources available online where you can find the solutions. Puzzle Quest features several other side activities like capturing cities, learning spells, and crafting items, each of which is accomplished through its own variant of the basic gameplay. They are all optional, but they’re all fun, they all use the same simple controls, and with the possible exception of item crafting, they’re all very useful to your quest, so you’ll probably find yourself playing them all at one point or another.
You can also play local multiplayer games, but there’s no online play available. A multiplayer game proceeds just like a normal battle, so if you want to try your skills against a friend who also has Puzzle Quest, you can. Given the age of this game, you might not find yourself playing multiplayer very much. However, if do you play, and your friend’s character is very far from your character’s level, you will find it very nice that a checkbox is included that lets you handicap the game and even the odds.
Of course, as important as gameplay is, there is more to a game than just that. Admittedly, in Puzzle Quest’s case, there’s not much more. The graphics are clean and easy to read, but given the nature of the game, you wouldn’t expect to see fancy 3D animations or incredible effects, and you don’t. The same goes for the sound. Some basic music plays as you battle, and matching pieces or casting spells all make the requisite noises, but if you play with the game on mute, you won’t be missing out on anything. Unfortunately, even though the sound is nothing special, the game frequently freezes up for a second or so when it loads a new sound for the first time in a gameplay session. If, like me, you tend to leave your PSP on standby rather than turn it off when you’re not playing, you will rarely run into this problem, but if you prefer to turn it off, you’ll find this to be a bit annoying.
There is one bug worth noting in the PSP version of Puzzle Quest. As you play through the game, various characters will join your party, and the game will tell you that they have certain effects on battle. For example, one character is supposed to do “10 points of damage to any animal at the start of a battle.” Unfortunately, those skills don’t work, which diminishes the importance of getting people into your party. You will gain some side quests and a few amusing interchanges if certain people are in your party, but that’s all. If you take the “evil” path, some of your companions may choose to leave you late in the game, but since the bug ensures that they didn’t help you, you won’t miss them.
After its initial release on the PC, PSP and the Nintendo DS, Puzzle Quest has been released on Mac, Xbox Live Arcade, the PlayStation Network, the Wii, the PS2, and iPhone/iPod Touch, and there are a few differences between the versions in the areas you’d expect. The controls are quite different, for example, when comparing the Wii version to the PSP. The XBLA, PSN, PC, Mac and iPhone/iPod Touch versions all include an expansion pack, Revenge of the Plague Lord, which is unavailable on PSP, DS, Wii, and PS2.
All in all, Puzzle Quest is a surprisingly fun game that I think most people will enjoy. The facts that quick reflexes are not required and that you generally have all the time you want to make each move make it a great choice for travel, although some longer battles may require you to pause and come back later. Its simple graphics and sound may not wow you, but they get the job done, and since the game runs mostly from memory, your PSP’s battery may last longer with Puzzle Quest than it does on any other game you own. Still, between the companion bug and the expansion content available elsewhere, you may prefer to choose a different platform on which to enjoy it.