Puzzles games often feature enjoyable gameplay, but they rarely give users a reason to keep on playing beyond chasing high scores (or Achievements). That’s what made the original Puzzle Quest so special. Australian developer Infinite Interactive (later bought out by Firemint) had the revolutionary idea of combining the core gameplay of a puzzle game with a sizable RPG adventure. Naturally a slightly less-inspired sequel followed, this time branching out to even more platforms. Namco handled the Windows Phone port of Puzzle Quest 2, squeezing the lengthy console game into a tiny mobile package.
What sets the Puzzle Quest series apart from other role-playing games is that the battles take place entirely on a match 3 puzzle field. Think Bejeweled, but with two opponents taking turns and attempting to defeat each other. Mixed in with standard colorful gems are skulls that damage the enemy when matched. Once either side runs out of life, the battle ends.
Puzzle Quest’s mana system works differently than a typical RPG, but plays to the puzzle game’s strengths. Matching gems of any color adds to that color’s mana pool. Both player and enemy can bring up to five spells and techniques into battle, each requiring different combinations of colored mana to use. Spell effects vary from destroying all gems of a specific color to healing the caster. Effective spell use becomes an important part of the player’s battle strategy as the game goes on.
The first game’s experience and gold tiles are gone, replaced with gauntlet gems that provide action points when matched. Action points fuel the use of weapons, shields, and potions; these items no longer provide persistent stat bonuses (though other armor pieces do). Basically, sword and the like give players another option for attacking and defending when they can’t find a good move to make on the gem board. The actual buttons for these weapons and such are needlessly tiny in this version, but you get used to it.
PQ2 also mixes things up a bit over its predecessor with playing field variety. In addition to the standard gem field, two zoomed-out views pack a lot more gems onto the screen. The larger fields can make some spells much more effective, but unfortunately both fields are quite uncommon. I would have liked the option to select these as the default playing field since they better fit my spell-oriented playing style.
Speaking of variety, numerous actions initiate their own minigames: bashing doors down, picking lots, searching for and disarming traps, and looting chests for treasure. Each of these cleverly switches up the standard match-3 mechanics to fit the theme. For instance, in the looting minigame your rewards are determined by the types of chests you’re able to match. The annoying capture puzzles from the first game return, but now they’re solely tied to learning spells. You can always look up their solutions or skip them (as I did).
One big dungeon
Now we reach Puzzle Quest 2’s most significant departure from the original: game structure. Part 2 eschews a vast overworld map in favor of up-close-and-personal dungeon exploration. Players travel from screen to screen by tapping on hotspots. On the plus side, this creates a sense of location and exploration that the predecessor lacked. However, PQ 2’s world contains so few distinct locations that it hardly matters. Instead of taking place across an entire kingdom like before, the sequel is confined to a single village and a gigantic multilevel dungeon.
The change in scope applies to the story, too. Puzzle Quest 2’s intro describes an adventurer’s descent into the giant tower, and that’s pretty much the whole setup. Quests, whether of the main or side variety, are relatively few in number for an RPG. As the dungeon is so huge and spread out, I often forgot what I was supposed to be doing other than moving toward the next checkpoint. By the time the last level of the dungeon rolls around, you are finally given a sense of purpose, but it’s too little too late. Don’t get me wrong, Puzzle Quest 2 doesn’t need a clever story to be fun; it just falls a bit short this time.
The longest journey
RPGs tend to be longer than other types of games – usually a good thing. But Puzzle Quest 2 feels too long for a variety of reasons. First off, battle length. About halfway through the game, the battles start to drag on longer than a dragon’s tail. Single fights tend to last 10 minutes or more. The reason: enemies have way too much health. Worse, they frequently block physical attacks, reducing damage taken by half or more. You can’t do much to hasten a high level monster’s demise other than keep pecking away at them.
The overly lengthy battles really cut into the title’s portability. You can save at any time except during battles. Fine. But like all Namco Windows Phone titles, PQ 2 simply lacks the standard tombstoning feature – nor has it been updated to support Fast App Switching. Resuming an interrupted game simply restarts from the initial company logo sequence. That means if you press the Home or Search buttons or need to step away from your phone for any reason during a fight, you lose any progress made in the (lengthy) battle. Since fights comprise 80 or 90 percent of the game, Puzzle Quest 2 can scarcely be played in short spurts or on the go.
Finally, by the end of the game this PQ2 overstays its welcome. Remember, the dungeon is gigantic and the story bare bones. Once I reached the end of the third floor of the dungeon, I was ready for the game to come to a satisfying conclusion. Little did I know the dungeon still had several more levels and 10 hours of the exact same gameplay in store. The developers simply spread the content too thin in favor of creating a lengthy 30+ hour experience.
Low cost artwork
The original Puzzle Quest featured attractive anime-inspired art courtesy of the talented Susan Luo. With the sequel, lead designer and Infinite CEO Steve Fawkner chose a more western-fantasy inspired approach in order to match the dungeon-crawling gameplay. That might not be so bad, but the new character designer Alister Lockhart’s art looks so flat and artificial. As the comparison above reveals, the original characters have much better faces and more realistic proportions. Some of part 2’s monsters look okay, but they all have that low-end fan art quality and poor computer coloring. The view outside of battle fares better, except the sprites don't animate all that well.
Puzzle Quest 2 has the same crappy Achievements as the XBLA version. Several rely on pure luck, like the one for losing during the first turn of a battle. You could play through the whole game and miss it (as I did). The non-random ‘Gate Hacker’ is no better thought out. To earn it, players have to choose the bashing minigame at every single opportunity in the game. If the devs want us to bash everything, why even offer other options of lock-picking, etcetera? Remember, the game takes dozens of hours to complete – one mistake and you’d miss out on the Achievement.
As another strike against portability, PQ 2’s Achievements will only unlock when the phone has a Wi-Fi connection. I met the criteria for one while offline and it actually popped the next time I connected, so it could be worse.
Okay, so Puzzle Quest 2 isn’t quite as stellar as the original. The story, game structure, and art all took a turn for the worse. This version also cries out for tombstoning and Fast App Switching support. And yet, I don’t hesitate to recommend the game to fans of Bejeweled-like puzzlers and fantasy RPGs. It all comes down to the tried-and-true match 3 gameplay. Battle length aside, matching gems to defeat an orc or a werewolf, casting spells and techniques as necessary, is just more compelling than playing for points. Buy into that and you’ll find hours and hours of gameplay here. But considering the high asking price and slightly rough port, you may want to wait till it goes on sale again.
Puzzle Quest 2 costs $6.99 and there is a free trial. Pick it up here from the Store.
Special thanks to Sam Mayo at Firemint and Ben Lichius at Spark Plug Games for providing background details on this awesome series.