Developer: Infinite Interactive
Release date: Available now
With the release of 2007′s Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords, developer Infinite Interactive showed that you could successfully mash together two wildly disparate game genres. After stumbling a bit with their first sequel, Puzzle Quest: Galactrix, the Aussie developer has stepped back up to the plate with Puzzle Quest 2, delivering an addictive and surprisingly cerebral game that skirts the boundary between casual and hardcore.
First, you take the standard match-three puzzle game, the kind that PopCap has been cranking out for years. Then you toss in an RPG dungeon crawler, complete with spells, hit points, loot drops, and all the other stuff that genre fanboys expect to find in their Diablo look-alikes. Add a colorful, graphic novel-style visual aesthetic, a dash of bare-bones storytelling (some boilerplate plot about an ancient evil imprisoned in a ice-encrusted castle), shake well, and you get Puzzle Quest 2.
You can play as one of eight pre-made characters (four men, four women) in four classes (assassin, barbarian, sorcerer and templar), and start out at the gates of the town of Verloren. As you move through the town, you pick up quests from various townsfolk with the now-standard exclamation point floating over their heads. Completing quests gains you rewards of gold, items and experience points (XP). When the XP meter fills up, you gain a level, which allows you to add a point to one of your character’s abilities. You also receive a new spell to add to your spell book at some levels.
Your quests eventually take you into the icy ruins of a nearby castle, where most of the action of the game takes place. Battles between you and the rogue’s gallery of baddies are settled on the puzzle grid. Matching three or more of the same colored gems adds points to the corresponding color’s mana. There are also gauntlet icons to match; your character’s primary weapon can’t be wielded until you collect a minimum number of gauntlet points. Matching skulls icons and attacking with your weapons and spells decreases your opponent’s hit points. The idea is to whittle down the bad guy’s hit points before he does the same to you. Each dungeon level has bosses that must be vanquished before you can move deeper into the labyrinth. There is also a collection of minigames that help you to break down doors, pick locks and loot treasure chests.
On the surface, Puzzle Quest 2 seems like a simple gem-matching puzzler. But it’s much deeper and more challenging than that. Instead of matching the first set of gems or items you see, you have to look closely and see what the consequences of your matches are. The game offers a hint system that makes suggestions for your next move, but the hints are just as likely to hurt you as help you, so you still need to think ahead. Early battles move fairly quickly, but it’s not too long before you’re spending 15 minutes or more on the same confrontation, especially against high-level enemies with very high hit points. Spells are very important to your success, so you should choose them wisely (you can only equip five spells at a time). Like the other titles in the series, frustration is an unavoidable part of the game. Early on while your character level is low, the AI frequently manages to get just the right combination of gems to beat you, but clever allocation of attribute points and selection of the correct five spells eventually levels the playing field. There is a mini-map on the HUD, but you can only zoom it while you’re in the dungeon, which is inconvenient considering the size of the town. There are fast-travel portals to help you move quickly from place to place, but you can’t jump from the dungeon directly to the town, forcing you to hoof it all the way back. This is bad, since you have to periodically return to Verloren to upgrade your weapons or buy new ones. On the plus side, at level 20 or so you are given the option to reallocate your attribute points (for a small fee), so if you’re unhappy with your character’s loadout, you can tweak it until it’s more to your liking. The artwork is amazingly detailed, the minigames add a bit of variety to the proceedings, and the game is just addictive enough to keep you going for “just one more battle.”
At first, Puzzle Quest 2 seems just like a peanut-butter cup; two great tastes that go great together. But as you become more invested in the game, it becomes more like a Tootsie Pop; how much you enjoy it depends upon if you’re patient enough to work your way through the hard candy coating to get to the gooey chocolate center. The early stages of the game are a really hard slog, but once you’re sufficiently leveled up and have the right spells and attributes to beat those dungeon bosses, all of the early heartache seems worth the effort. Casual gamers might be put off by the RPG elements, but those who are looking for more than just matching colored gems will be very satisfied.