Thursday, March 29, 2007


Thoughts From the Game Demo

I do things a little backwards sometimes. I'm not proud, but I like to think it's one of the things that just makes me so gosh darned lovable.

After committing thirty bucks toward ordering Puzzle Quest through Amazon, I decided to download the PC demo and find out, once and for all, the nature of the beast I was inviting into my life.

I'm pleased to discover that my money was most likely not spent in vain.

Puzzle Quest is very much an RPG. (At least, as much as Final Fantasy is an RPG. It's a picky thing to bring up, I know, but it bugs me when I see the term "role-playing game" taken to mean "any game where your character's strength increases by slaying things".) The game system -- with monsters, character classes, gold, experience points, mana, magic spells, equipment -- is instantly recognizable and comfortable to old-school dungeon crawling fans.

The game world is made up of various interconnected nodes, and you travel from location to location along predetermined routes. There are various "quests" that you can agree to undertake. All of the quests in the demo involved moving from location to location, meeting up with NPCs, and slaying monsters. And that's where the game starts to get good.

How does actual combat work? Well, if you're familiar with CCGs, then you've already got a head start on understanding this game. But instead of abstracting combat into a card game, it's abstracted into a game of Bejeweled. You're trying to hurt your opponent by manipulating the puzzle board.

Everything works just like in Bejeweled. You swap two adjacent "gems" to try and match three of the same kind. Matched gems are removed from the board and whatever is on top of them cascades downward, with new gems falling from above to replace what was removed. You can create chain reactions if the gems that fall into place create another three of a kind, and so on.

The gems you match up determine what you do to your opponent on your turn. Match up three skulls, for example, and you do a basic attack. Mana stones come in three colors -- for earth, fire, wind, and water -- and matching up three of the same color builds up your mana pool for that element. Matching purple stars earns you an experience point bonus. Matching gold pieces earns you a money bonus. Those are the basics.

Thing is, you share the same puzzle board with your opponent. This opens up a whole world of strategy. Most importantly, you never want to leave the board in a state where your opponent can match three skulls. Then you have to find a balance between any number of small goals -- building up your own mana pool with the color you need, taking mana off the board so your opponent can't get it, and snagging yourself some extra experience and gold (which won't help you win the battle, even though it'll help you pump up your character a bit).

Then there's "spells". Every spell has a mana cost, usually in more than one element. Most of the time, you'll have to choose between casting a spell or doing something to the puzzle board, but some spells won't end your turn. Spells are special moves that can cause damage to your opponent, heal you, cause status conditions, or do something special to the puzzle board (or, of course, any combination of those things). For example, there's the Throw Axe move, which inflicts four hit points of damage on your opponent, plus one point for every skull on the board. There's the Spin Attack move that lets you destroy one piece on the puzzle board plus every piece adjacent to it and use every effect that's destroyed.

It makes for an excellent game. Strategy plays a more important role than luck or experience level. I started playing last night after work and didn't stop until five hours had passed. In that time, I cleared the entire demo campaign, raised my character to the maximum level the demo allowed, and went straight on to play match after match of Instant Action mode.

The full version promises to have much, much more gameplay. There's promises of companions and mounts that give you bonuses. (The demo included an elf who would inflict 10 damage at the start of any match against an undead monster.) There's the suggestion that you'll be charged with conquering citadels and building a personal empire. And if you don't want to get involved in the campaign, that's okay too -- you can level-grind to your heart's content, facing random opponents in Instant Action mode. And everything you earn against those opponents helps to build up your character.

I have a feeling that this game will be replacing Pokemon Trading Card Game as my all-time favorite "abstract combat" RPG. Makes me think that maybe I should have put down a little extra cash for the next-day shipping. In the meantime, I'm playing and replaying the demo every chance I get. Hopefully, by the time I get the full version, my appetite for puzzle combat will be sated and I won't feel compelled to whip it out while I'm at work.


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