Wednesday, May 09, 2007


Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords

I wasn't sure if I was going to write a full review of Puzzle Quest. My in-depth impressions of the PC demo tell you pretty much everything you need to know about the game.

Or do they?

The Puzzle Quest System

There's something epic about Puzzle Quest as a package. I'm not sure exactly how to describe it. Tycho comes close: "They seem to be gesturing at the broad outline of a vast genre here, one whose sensual contours entice."

When I play most video game RPGs, I get the feeling that the entire game system was built from scratch just for the purposes of that particular game. I can't imagine, for example, Final Fantasy VI being made into a generic tabletop RPG system -- everything about it, from the character classes to the monsters you encounter, feels like it was custom tailored for that exact campaign. Even the game system behind Pokemon, that Holy Grail of "transfer your party into the next iteration of the series" goodness, gets tweaked with every new generation -- when you're allowed to move a Pokemon from a previous incarnation into a later one, it often comes with a new set of game rules, skill sets, and what-not.

Not that this is necessarily a bad thing. It's just... Puzzle Quest feels a little different.

It feels like an interactive rulebook for a tabletop RPG system. It has a modest bestiary of classic RPG monsters -- goblins, orcs, minotaurs, undead, dragons -- as well as a system to scale their abilities to make them appropriate opponents for any experience level. It has four character classes to choose from, complete with a wide variety of skills to learn. And it has a wealth of rule systems that are completely optional and even unrelated to the included single-player campaign. There are rules for laying seige to neighboring cities, collecting tithes and supressing rebellion. There are rules for capturing monsters and training them as mounts or researching the spells that they cast. There are rules for forging new weapons and magical items. There are rules for improving your skills beyond your experience level.

The core of the game is completely portable. It's a generic framework that could probably be very easily adapted to suit any number of different game campaigns. It feels like they created the game world first, then thought of what could happen in it afterward. The locations that you visit only cover about half of the world map -- they designed half a continent and a number of islands just to give the game world a feeling of completeness, to give you the feeling that you've only scratched the surface of its true scope.

As if to underline how portable the game system is, you can get a complete experience without ever even playing the main quest. You can, if you wish, simply select a character class and battle hordes of random monsters in Instant Action mode. As you rise in experience, more opponents become available. You'll earn hoards of gold that you can use to buy yourself new weapons and items. The best stuff is earned through the main quest, of course, but the possibility is there.

And I like that.

This Is Not a Perfect Game

Ask around about the difficulty, and you're likely to find people in two camps. There are those who think the game is too hard, and those who think it's too easy. These are, roughly, the people who haven't figured out how to exploit imbalances in the game system versus the people who have.

Me, I'm in the happy medium somewhere in between. I'm aware that, in a game setting where the player is given the freedom to steal spells that his opponents cast, and to cook up hundreds of possible magical items, the possibility is bound to exist for imbalance. I'm just smart enough that I'm able to leverage this to my advantage, but not so smart that I was able to figure out the recipe for a one-kit KO against the final boss.

So yeah, the game system isn't perfectly balanced. Which is why I'm glad that there isn't an online multiplayer option. Online play would be dominated by the people who knew how to turn their skill set into pure rape. We'd see a backlash that would make the snaking in Mario Kart DS look like SOMETHING THAT'S MUCH LESS SIGNIFICANT THAN PEOPLE MADE IT OUT TO BE.

A lot of people say the AI cheats. I prefer to think of it as they suck. Yes, the AI is ruthless, yes, there's more than a little luck involved. But if I, a prissy little wimp who has ended every game of Risk that I have ever played in shameful tears, can play this game from beginning to end, anyone can.

And there's any number of little details that could stand to be polished up. The graphics glitch up here and there. The puzzle board configurations aren't random enough for my tastes -- every time you turn the game on, you get the same initial board setup, and I'm going to make the educated guess that the pieces that drop are also somehow predetermined. And, most disappointing of all -- four character classes, but two save slots. Ouch.

But these problems can be overcome, and the player will cope with them for a very simple reason: the game is fun and addictive. Whatever its problems, it'll keep you glued to the screen for hours on end as you rake in the time-released rewards for matching up gems. And in the end, that's what's really important.


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