Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords revolutionized the match-3 genre. If you don’t believe that, then I don’t believe in you. At all. The game took hold of Bejeweled’s overly simple premise of lining up three or more like-colored gems, and ran with it. It ran fast and far, and the wind that it made as it ran was the very breath of life. Naturally, the game was a runaway success.
No longer was the match-3 relegated to the loathsome existence of a scoreboard-driven, too often copied, two-dimensional puzzle. It became the basis for a vast and epic world, a world of doorways leading to possibilities, and every door hinging upon the outcome of a puzzle. The game brought to the table beloved elements of the role-playing genre: a tale of good versus evil, a hero’s epic journey, memorable characters and monsters galore, character development, skills and magical spells, weapons, armor, citadels, sieges, mounts and more. The matching of gems became the gathering of resources to fuel your hero’s abilities, and the puzzle became a battleground for epic encounters against diverse and formidable foes, demanding that you constantly mix up your strategy. Puzzle Quest offered depth beyond depth, while simultaneously presenting that depth with the accessibility of the match-3 puzzle, a concept so simple it could be grasped by even the most novice of players in a matter of moments.
To state the case very simply, Puzzle Quest is one of the only match-3 games in which matching a set of gems (or not) has positive or negative repercussions. There are consequences and motivations for what you do. And so the game does not reward your matches with points, but with growth, victory or defeat, and provides incentive or consequence for strategic decision making in the heat of puzzle.
It’s a lot for a sequel to live up to. So much, in fact, that the game’s spiritual successor, Galactrix — released for various devices but not for iOS — sallied forth about as well as a derailed train. That is to say it was a disaster.
Thankfully, Puzzle Quest 2 is a proper and admirable sequel.
Players are given the choice of four character classes, and may choose to play either a male or a female in each class. Gender has no impact on game mechanics; only on the character portrait and sprite used to represent your character in the game world. Assassins begin the game relatively weak, but their spells combine to create some of the game’s most lethal damage combos; they are the only class capable of using the most powerful poisons. Barbarians are well-rounded, with good offensive and defensive abilities, and high life points; they are the only class capable of wielding heavy-hitting, two-handed weapons. Sorcerers have low life points, but a diverse array of spells, capable of dealing direct damage or manipulating the board in various ways; they are the only class able to use mana tonics. Templars specialize in defense, and are the only class able to equip plate armor and tower shields; they are relatively weak on offense, but are very difficult to kill.
At this point, anyone familiar with the first game will notice that none of the original classes have returned. This is both a blessing — as each of the four classes will provide a new and unique experience compared to the previous game — and a curse — in that favorite classes and strategies from the first game are nowhere to be found.
Whereas the first game took place on an expansive world map, the adventure in Puzzle Quest 2 more localized, taking place within a small village and a nearby dungeon. Players are much closer to their characters this time around, following them from room-to-room rather than from town-to-town. The game is navigated by selecting active nodes within each area; these nodes may be characters with whom the player interacts, monsters which must be fought, treasure to be looted, doors to be opened, or simple markers indicating exits to the next areas and other events. Selecting a node gives the player several options from which to choose; for example, selecting a door-type node will give the player the options to either pick the lock, bash the door or leave it alone.
Many of these actions will result in a match-3 puzzle being used to determine the outcome. The most common and robust of these puzzles is that used in combat. The player faces off against an opponent over a grid of colored gems, which must be moved to create matches of three or more like-colored gems. The player alternates turns with the enemy, each making matches. Matched gems are captured as mana; the five colors of mana — red, yellow, blue, green and purple — are used to fuel the character’s spells, which have various affects such as dealing damage to the enemy, buffing your character, debuffing your opponent, or manipulating the board. Matching skulls inflicts damage to your opponent, and matching gauntlets accumulates action points. Action points are spent using your weapon to inflict damage upon the enemy, or your shield to temporarily increase your defense. Combat is won by reducing your opponent’s life points to zero.
Outside of combat, there are many mini-game variations of the match-3 puzzle used for other actions. Looting chests, picking locks, bashing doors, extinguishing fires and more all result in different types of match-3 puzzles. As did its predecessor, Puzzle Quest 2 gets a lot of mileage from the match-3 mechanic, and despite so many RPG trappings remains a puzzle game at its core.
Puzzles won reward the player with experience points, and as the character levels up, her overall strength increases and new spells are unlocked. Five spells may be equipped for battle at once, meaning that players will need to carefully choose which abilities to carry into each encounter, as characters will learn far more than five spells by the time the game is done. Additionally, characters may be equipped with various weapons, helmets, suits of armor and accessories to aid them in battle. These items affect the characters offense and defense, but may have additional impacts on mana collection, stat bonuses, etc.
Visual Presentation: If the first game was pretty, the second is a sight to behold. The rooms which comprise the game world are each hand-drawn and look fantastic, the character and monster art is top notch, the puzzle boards look fantastic, and the interface elements are very well-designed. Puzzle Quest 2 is polished to perfection, and visually outclasses the first game in every way.
Strategy: The Puzzle Quest series elevates the match-3 mechanic from simple casual game for non-gamers, to a game with enough content and depth for even the most hardcore of gamers. There’s a ton of strategy to be had depending upon your character class, active spells, and the opponent you are facing. Some encounters can be played very offensively, while others must be played defensively, making matches not to fuel your own spells, but to prevent your opponent being able to use their most powerful attacks. Every encounter requires careful examination, consideration and planning. It’s not often match-3 games can make such claims.
Response: This is a difficult point to quantify, but Puzzle Quest 2 just plays better than the first game. While the first game was most definitely enjoyable and still one of my favorite iOS puzzle games, there is no denying the sloppiness of the iOS port. The first game was made better when re-released as Puzzle Quest HD for the iPad, but even that feels wonky by comparison to Puzzle Quest 2. Here, things happen as a comfortable speed, and the game’s feedback to player input just feels right. And that’s a feeling the first game never managed.
Game Modes: Puzzle Quest 2 offers a generous amount of things to do. There’s the main Quest mode, in which your character takes part in the story and evolves by acquiring spells, equipment and experience levels. Each of your characters may also participate in Quick Battles — one-off encounters taking place outside of the story line, but with experience gained being applicable to other modes; great for puzzling on the go or grinding your character when stuck in the main game — or Endurance Mode, in which you are pitted against one foe after the other until you can stand no more. There’s also Tournament mode, where players get a chance to play as the game’s monsters, selecting a line-up of four for both the player and the computer AI, then battling it out for supremacy.
What happened to …?!: There are things from the first game that I miss in Puzzle Quest 2, such as the many character classes, sieges, my citadel, mounts, and the ability to make matches for gold and experience points in the heat of battle.
Navigation: In the first Puzzle Quest, it was easy to identify the location of events simply by panning around the map and looking for markers. It was then easy to get there; there might be enemy encounters along the way, but the journey was fairly quick.
In Puzzle Quest 2, events appear as directional markers on your compass and sometimes on your map, but it is difficult to determine exact location or distance from your current location, and often takes far too long to get there as your character must trek back through cleared rooms to reach a portal. Between each room there is a load time, then you have to select a navigation point, choose an action, wait for your character to move, endure another load time, and repeat this for each room standing between your character and your objective. This quickly becomes frustrating, as rooms once cleared have nothing left to offer you on repeat visits.
To wit, travel in Puzzle Quest 1 was easy and breezy, and it was clear where you needed to be. In Puzzle Quest 2, travel is tedious, a chore, and it’s never entirely clear where you need to be for an event, or what stands in the way of your getting there. Getting around the game is easily the worst aspect of Puzzle Quest 2, and while the rooms look great, that’s no reason I should have to trek through them again and again with nothing to do there.
It Cheats!: I have no way of proving it, but the AI cheats. There is simply no other explanation for the ridiculous run of good luck enjoyed by most of the opponents you will face, with literal cascades of matches falling onto the board during enemy turns, piles of skulls exploding in your face, and your opponent constantly receiving extra turns . The game cheats. Meanwhile, you will be lucky if you’re ever able to line up more than two cascading matches.
No Multiplayer: It’s utterly baffling why Tournament Mode doesn’t allow for two-player competition, human-vs.-human, either online or sharing a device face-to-face. The game mode is a natural fit for play against friends.
Puzzle Quest 2 is a universal app, playable on iPad, iPhone or iPod, but I find it most enjoyable on the iPad. The game really takes advantage of the larger screen, with a more intuitive and attractive interface. Unfortunately, the game is not optimized for the iPhone 4′s Retina display, and actually looks pretty ugly on that device.
In many ways, Puzzle Quest 2 improves upon its predecessor and is overall a better game on iOS. That’s not to say, however, that the game is without its frustrations. Getting around the game world sucks, the game is a shameless cheater, and I am sorely missing some of my favorite aspects of the first game, such as the Knight class, developing my citadel and training mounts. The good news is that you can still go back to enjoy the first game, and have a somewhat different experience than is offered by the sequel. That is to say, Puzzle Quest 2 is not a replacement for the first game as is often the case with match-3 sequels; if you play Bejeweled 2, there’s really no reason to return to the first Bejeweled. Instead, Puzzle Quest 1 and 2 coexist happily on one device, offering a multitude of classes, quests and strategic possibilities between them.
If you enjoyed the first game, you will enjoy the second. If you missed the first game, but find yourself enjoying Puzzle Quest 2, then give it a try as well. But if you are determined to have only one or the other, then make it Puzzle Quest 2. On the other hand, if the first game didn’t really do it for you, probably Puzzle Quest 2 isn’t going to do it for you either.
I would like to see more content added to the game via updates or IAP. There’s plenty of room for new classes, and I would love to see classes from the first game reworked for play in Puzzle Quest 2. I would also like to see the developer add support for local multiplayer, with the possibility to play against human opponents in tournament mode, and also to play against human or AI controlled player characters. How fun would it be to complete the game as both the Assassin and Barbarian, then to pit the two characters against each other in a VS. mode?!
As match-3 games go, Puzzle Quest 2 is king of the hill. And while the game has been out for several months on Nintendo DS and Xbox Live Arcade, the App Store is really where it belongs. The game is a natural fit for touch-screens, and I would say that the game is at its definitive best on the iPad.
Puzzle Quest 2 is is published by Namco, and a product of Infinite Interactive and D3 Publisher. Available as a universal app for $9.99. Reviewed at version 1.0.0 on an iPad and iPhone 4.