Traditional puzzle games: Xbox One doesn't have enough of them just yet. Sure, we've got Tetris Ultimate and the excellent Japanese Puyo Puyo Tetris. Action-puzzle fans have Peggle 2 and Sparkle Unleashed. Match-3 enthusiasts have had to make do with the less-than-exceptional Frozen Free Fall, and that's pretty much it as far as pure puzzle games.
Lucky for us, 505 Games, Pipeworks Studio and Infinite Interactive have just released all the puzzle game an Xbox One or PlayStation 4 gamer could need. Gems of War is the spiritual successor to Puzzle Quest –a match-3 puzzle-RPG with endless hours of content and PvP gameplay. It's also the holy grail of free to play games – a free game that never stops being fun even if you don't buy anything. Read our full review to learn why Gems of War might be the best free to play game on Xbox One.
The hallmark of the Puzzle Quest series is its match-3 puzzle battles, and that's just what you get in Gems of War – with a few tweaks here and there. Although not common on Xbox One just yet, match-3 puzzlers are a dime a dozen in the gaming world at large. But what makes these battles so engaging is that they are battles with specific objectives: earn mana for spells, attack your opponent, and collect all the gold you can carry.
Whether engaging in battles against AI opponents or asynchronously against other players, nearly every match consists of two teams of taking turns matching 3 or more gems of the same color in an 8 x 8 field. Gone are the larger fields of Puzzle Quest 2, and with good riddance.
The one big change between Puzzle Quest and Gems of War is that neither opponent fights alone anymore. Both sides can bring up to four characters into battle, all with distinct health, armor, attack, and magic stats. To win the match, you'll need to keep at least one member of your team alive and defeat all four members of the enemy team.
The simplest way of knocking enemies is with physical attacks. Matching three or more skull gems will deliver an attack to the top surviving member of the enemy team. Your top surviving member will deliver the attack – if he or she gets defeated, then the next available teammate will take over on attacks. Damage dealt is of course affected by the attacker's attack stat.
Regular attacks are great, but spells are equally important. Your player character's spell is determined by the weapon he or she has equipped. All other characters have a unique spell that can be strengthened by leveling up, but not changed. Spells come in many varieties: attack, buffs, debuffs, and more.
Unlike attacks, any member of the team can cast a spell during the team's turn. You can't just cast them at any time, though; each one costs a specific amount of colored mana. To get the necessary mana, you'll have to match gems of that color. It's an intuitive and satisfying system.
The other change Gems of War makes to Puzzle Quest's battles is how gold is earned. Rather than matching gold gems on the field, you now simply match four or more gems simultaneously. These 4+ gem matches also give the team an extra turn. It's important that you take advantage of them whenever possible and try to avoid moves that will set them up for your opponent.
After the battle ends, you gain experience for your main character, a sum of gold based on 4+ gem matches and other factors, and a few Souls for leveling up your troops.
Conquering the kingdoms
A world map ties everything together in Gems of War. Players begin with access to a single Kingdom in which to complete quests and challenges, but eventually they'll be able to unlock more than 15 Kingdoms.
The various kingdoms offer several kinds of single-player game types. All of them contain the following:
- Quests: Gems of War's story mode. Select Quests and you'll watch a story sequence and then battle against one or more enemies. As you complete Quests, you'll unlock higher gold payouts from the Kingdom, new Challenges, and eventually an Epic-level card. Each Kingdom's story is self-contained and doesn't affect other Kingdoms' stories, unfortunately.
- Challenges: Every Kingdom offers a total of seven Challenge battles with 5 levels each. These award players with Souls, which are used to level up troops.
You'll have to choose one location as your home Kingdom (you can change it later). Your home Kingdom provides a small elemental mastery bonus and daily gold payout.
Other game types available within certain kingdoms:
- Arena: Choose a party of three troops from a random assortment and then attempt to win 8 increasingly tough battles. Arena awards improve with each consecutive win, but two losses and you have to cash out.
- Treasure Maps: Players can earn Treasure Maps by achieving cascade combos during matches or by completing certain Guild tasks. Maps give you 15 moves to match as many treasures as possible. Each match produces a higher value treasure. Matches of 4 treasures don't deplete turn count, and 5+ matches award an extra turn. Treasure Maps are the only real minigame in Gems of War, and they're really fun. I wish it had more.
Skillful play is only part of the recipe for success in Gems of War. The other part comes from the troops you bring into battle. New troops can be acquired in a few different ways: by completing all of a Kingdom's Quests, or in packs of three random cards paid for with gold or gems.
Each troops starts at level 1 and can be leveled up to 15 by spending souls earned from Challenges and winning battles. Leveling up the troop increases his or her health, armor, attack, and magic. Finding troops you like and then buffing up their stats is quite fun.
PvP and Guilds
Although Gems of War offers a vast quantity of single-player content, the real fun comes from its asynchronous multiplayer battles. Just choose to Invade and the game will match you against another player's team. You can spend a little gold to look for a different opponent.
Once you find one who looks beatable, you'll pay some gold to initiate the fight and then take on the enemy team. If you win the fight, you'll gain double the entry cost in gold. This makes Invasions the most reliable source of gold in the game. Plus you earn a trophy for your guild.
Guilds are the big social component of Gems of War. Members of a guild are expected to donate gold to research tasks. Completing these tasks will get everyone items like keys to unlock troops, treasure maps, souls, and free premium currency. It also helps unlock elemental mastery bonuses for everyone in the guild.
Joining a guild filled with active members and then actively donating gold yourself is a huge part of long-term success in Gems. If you'd like to join the Windows Central Guild and you're willing to donate daily, send a message with your character name and level to EastX on Xbox Live. We'll get you in!
Although important, the Guild system has a couple of major flaws that need to be addressed by the developer. Neither the Guild leader nor anyone else can see the actual Gamertags of anyone in the Guild. The game only displays everyone's in-game usernames. This is bad because nobody can message each other, so you can't coordinate or remind people to donate or play.
Forgoing the console's built-in friends system in favor of created usernames makes no sense at all and limits the fun factor that Guilds can potentially reach. The one communication tool given to Guild officers, the "Guild message," only shows up if members seek it out on the Activity page. It should show up every time members play! And currently, text entry is bugged so that you can't input spaces in the Guild message.
The Puzzle Quest series has an uneven track record with character art. The first game's artwork was fantastic all around, but the second game shifted to a much more budget, Deviant Art style. Unfortunately, Gems of War leans more towards the latter than the former.
At the beginning of the game, players have to customize a character, choosing a gender and race. The art for these characters is the worst I've seen in a game all year. How did it get approved, and why lead with your worst art?
Most of the monsters and troops found in the game actually look quite a bit better – see the Stone Giant or Luther, for example. Clearly multiple artists worked on Gems, but again, the main character art should have gone to the more talented artist(s). The uneven artwork doesn't ruin the game, but it's an area in which the developer definitely needs to exercise more quality control.
Gems of War has 18 Achievements worth a total of 1,000 Gamerscore. None are particularly difficult – you won't have to match a row of seven gems or anything unlikely such as that. Finishing the game will require a significant time investment though, as the level-based Achievements are quite grindy. The most time-consuming Achievement involves reaching level 100, which could take somewhere around 80 hours.
The one mistake the developers made is not giving Gems enough Achievements. After players get the level 50 Achievement, they won't see any others for 30+ hours of gameplay. They really should've included Achievements for completing each kingdom's Quests and Challenges; then we'd have lots of fun smaller goals to knock out while working towards level 100.
Our detailed Achievement Guide will help you get all of Gems' Achievements as efficiently as possible!
A free to play game worth playing
The big question with any free to play title is: Is it fairly monetized, or does it constantly reach for your wallet? I'm glad to say that Gems of War is very fairly monetized. If you spend money on this game, it'll be because you appreciate it so much, not because the game pushed you into it.
Every battle, whether PvE or PvP, costs gold – the same currency you'll spend to unlock troops and donate to your Guild. But as long as you Invade other players and maintain a cache of gold for battles, you'll never run out. And even if you play poorly enough to run out, you'll still get more from your Kingdoms and the Daily Bonus before long.
The Xbox One version of Gems includes a few exclusive armors that provide substantial bonuses to gold, Souls and experience acquisition. These are included in premium bundles that start at $5. Even the cheapest bundle will speed up your path towards level 100, plus it shows the developers and 505 Games that you appreciate quality titles like Gems.
Gems of War is one of the most surprising games I've played this year. It practically came out of nowhere, with little hype or fanfare. And yet it has become one of my very favorite Xbox One games. Match-3 games on their own might get boring, but throw in some RPG elements and you have an engaging experience.
The new PvP and Guild mechanics make Gems of War even better than the Puzzle Quest series that inspired it. Give Gems of War a try, and be sure to join our Guild if the game hooks you!