Review: The closest thing you'll get to electronic crack.
Hi, my name is Troy and I'm a Puzzle Questaholic.
I'm here because I can't stop playing this game!
We love you, Troy!
I'm also here to warn you not to download this sucker ? don't even try the demo because you'll be hooked like a cat in a catnip factory. That's how they do it, you know ? those evil developers Infinite Interactive give you a little taste for free and the next thing you know, you've plunked down your 1200 Marketplace Points and are playing until the sun comes up. You'll quickly ignore everything else. Friends and family? Eh, who needs them. Your job? Sucks away too much playing time. Going to the bathroom? Well, that's why you've got a wireless controller.
Oh yes, folks, it's that good.
At first, I really didn't know what all the fuss was about; after all, it just sounds weird. Combining a Bejeweled-like puzzle game with a traditional 2D RPG? Kind of makes you wonder what those evil Aussies at Infinite Interactive were smoking when they came up with this idea. But once you get past the oddity of the concept and actually try the game, you'll see what a stroke of genius it actually is.
You start the game by selecting one of four classes for your character, Druid, Knight, Warrior or Wizard, each of which has unique characteristics, attributes and spells. Druids, for example, are defensive in nature while Warriors rely more on offense.
The traditional sword-and-sorcery story unfolds through 2D non-animated ?cutscenes? with your character ?speaking? to another through text bubbles. Unlike the original DS and PSP versions, the XBLA version adds a few voiceovers, but mainly the story unfolds in silence. It may seem lame but the old school look and feel actually adds to the game's charm. While the 2D graphics won't blow you away, the anime-inspired characters look nicely heroic (or evil, as the case may be) and the beautifully painted background scenes are quite impressive.
The real twist comes during combat. Instead of traditional turn-based battles, you instead fight enemies on an 8x8 puzzle board filled with colored gems (each representing earth, air, fire or water mana), purple stars (experience, or EXP), gold (money), and skulls (used to attack your opponent). You match three or more of the same item a la
Bejeweled to gain the benefits of those items. For example, matching green gems gives you earth mana, while matching stars gives you EXP. Skulls are the most important since matching these will damage your opponent. The battle ends once one person's life points are reduced to zero.
Unlike Bejeweled, you can cast spells which are fuelled by certain types of mana. The strategic use of spells can really turn the tide of battle; some can stun enemies and give you an extra turn, while others have the ability to poison, cure, regain life points, or do massive damage. Instead of just simple color matching, games turn into a chess match where you need to carefully plan out your moves; do you grab that mana you need for a spell or take the mana your opponent needs instead? Do you use your spell now or wait for a better opportunity? As a result, battles become surprisingly deep and strategic. Combine that with the naturally addictive Bejeweled-style gameplay and you've got something that you simply cannot put down.
You might be wondering, ?But I already have Bejeweled so why would I want this?? As fun as Bejeweled is, all you're really doing is getting from one level to the next. In Puzzle Quest, your motivation is much more meaningful as you fight zombies, ogres, imps, minotaurs, giant bats and other creepy crawlies to earn EXP to level up your character, gold to buy new weapons, armor and equipment, and to advance through the story. It's these meaningful motivational factors that really suck you in like a super-charged Hoover.
Adding to the fun, addictive gameplay is the fact that you aren't penalized for losing a battle. A loss only means you don't gain victory bonuses; you still get to keep all of the EXP and gold earned during the battle. You can fight your opponent as many times as you want, and even delay battles until after you level up (which is a good strategy for the tough bosses). This non-punitive gameplay means you're always moving forward and avoid the frustration of some hardcore RPGs.
What is frustrating at times, however, is the computer AI. You would be forgiven for thinking that the computer cheats by peaking at the hidden gems waiting to drop into the playing field, thanks to its uncanny ability to pull off ridiculously massive combos, cascades and attacks that can knock off huge chunks of your health. You will constantly feel that the computer is playing unfairly, especially as you fight higher level enemies; on the other hand, the randomness of the drops often works in your favor as well, so it does balance out somewhat.
Despite swearing at your TV and cursing the AI, you will still find yourself coming back for more. This is thanks to the game's ability to satisfy both the casual player and the hardcore RPG junkie. The game is as deep as you want it to be; you can simply play it as a Bejeweled clone or spend hours micromanaging your character. As you level up, you earn points to increase seven attributes. You can also spend gold to buy new equipment, acquire companions, capture enemies and mounts (creatures you can ride, like a Griffon or a giant rat), learn enemy spells, build your citadel, forge new items, and siege castles. All of these features provide bonuses and modifiers that can make a huge difference in battle. Many features, like capturing enemies, learning spells and forging items require you to play a mini-game where you have to clear the puzzle board or destroy a number of special gems. Some of these mini-games are tough but if you fail, you can simply try again.
Depending on how deep you go, the game can easily eat 20-30 hours of your life, a remarkable figure for a XBLA title. This also makes the $15 price tag seem like a steal, especially considering the DS and PSP versions cost twice as much and don't include Achievements.
The big difference between the XBLA version and the DS/PSP versions is online multiplayer battles. You can only play against one other player but it's still ridiculously fun. Playing against another person is always more fun than against the AI, and you get the added benefit of seeing different strategies and tactics.
The only downside to multiplayer is the horrible lobby system ? or should I say lack thereof since both players are booted to the main menu when the round is over. This means if you want to keep playing with a buddy, you will have to continuously restart a brand new game from scratch and re-invite your friend after every single round. It's annoying and cumbersome, as is the surprising lack of in-game voice chat; this means the only way you can talk to your opponent is through the 360's dashboard chat feature.
The music can get a little annoying as well. It's not that the music is bad; on the contrary, it's appropriately heroic with a nice medieval fantasy hook to it. The problem is that it loops continuously so it gets old rather quickly; thankfully, however, you can adjust the volume down to a more tolerable level.
Overall, though, the game is just too fun and addicting to let these flaws ruin it. This is by far the best XBLA title yet, and despite the relatively high price tag, it actually offers incredible bang for the buck.