When it comes right down to it most of us play games for the exact same reason: They're fun. I don't care if you're into sports games, heavy role-playing games, or one on one fighting, if you're a gamer chances are it's because you think it's a fun way to spend an afternoon. But while most games out there are fun, it takes a very special kind of experience to make something really addictive; the kind of addictive that makes you not want to put it down regardless of how many days, weeks or months you've been at it. D3's newest Nintendo DS game, Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords, is that kind of addictive. Despite the fact that I've had the game on both the PSP and DS for several months now, I find myself looking forward to getting up everyday just to continue playing it.
Puzzle Quest is not an easy game to describe; it's the wacky combination of the puzzle game Bejeweled and a traditional turn-based role-playing game. That's right; this is a role-playing puzzle game, perhaps the strangest pairing since Final Lap Twin (the role-playing racing game). But while it may sound strange (and maybe not even appealing), Puzzle Quest manages to get every element just right and provides one of the very best video game experiences of the year. Forget Halo 3 and Grand Theft Auto IV, there will be no game this year that is more original and exciting than Puzzle Quest.
For the most part Puzzle Quest is played like a traditional role-playing game; you have a little guy who you must navigate through a large map and go from city to city talking to townspeople and accepting various quests. As you peruse the local castle you'll be able to stock up on items, upgrade your stats, buy new weapons/armor, and learn a little more about who you are and what you're doing there. It's not until you leave the castle, mission in hand, that you discover that this is no ordinary role-playing game ... this is something altogether different, something MUCH better.
Instead of traditional RPG battles, all of the combat is done using a Bejeweled-like puzzle game. When you enter a battle you will see a large board made up of 64 spaces (8 tall by 8 wide). In those 64 spaces you will see a number of different icons, including four different colored "mana" pieces, gold coins, purple experience point pieces, and human skulls. It's your job to find a way of connecting these pieces so that you can combine three of the same object. Each player takes turns connecting the items until somebody has lost all of their health.
The trick to Puzzle Quest is that all of the objects do something different. Early on the most important piece to connect are the skulls, because connecting three skulls together takes health away from your enemy. You can also connect the coins to earn more money or match the purple experience point pieces, both of which allow you to keep what you match even if you lose the battle.
Perhaps the most important items on the board are the mana pieces, four colored pieces that can be used to cast spells against your opponent. The idea is to collect a lot of these mana pieces so that you can unleash the powerful spells you've earned. What is really cool about Puzzle Quest is how many unique magic spells there are, all of which you have to learn how to use to your advantage. For example, some spells will take one hit point off of your enemy for every red piece that is on the board, other's will turn blue mana pieces into green pieces, another spell will restore your health, while some other spell may poison your enemy and let you take several turns in a row. Learning to use these spells can mean the difference between winning and losing a match, and they really add a lot to the strategies you use.
Of course, it's not just you using the magic spells. Just about every enemy you go up against will have their own special magic spells, so it's important that you not only match the best pieces but you also make sure your opponent isn't able to connect the colors he needs in order to deal you a mighty death blow. What's cool is that you can capture all of the enemies you go up against and then play a special mini-game to learn their magic. So not only are you able to earn new spells from just leveling up your character, but you can learn all of the enemy's magic just by capturing them and playing a short (but sometimes difficult) mini-game.
The problem with a written review like this is that it's difficult to convey just how exciting and original the battles are in Puzzle Quest. The brilliance of a game like this is that you can learn how to play in only a matter of minutes; it's actually an extremely easy game to learn. But just because it's easy to learn that doesn't mean that it's easy to master. The more you play the game the more you'll realize that there's a lot of strategy at play, it's all about balancing your spells and making sure you don't leave a good turn open for the bad guy. It's all about matching four or five pieces together so that you can earn an extra turn. It's all about making sure you don't leave yourself open for a devastating barrage of magic. There's a lot of depth to this game, a lot more than most people will initially give it credit for.
Puzzle Quest comes with dozens of different missions, including optional side-quests and a fully realized story full of bosses, plot twists and actual characters. At their core, most missions are nothing more than going to some cave or town, battling the monsters, collecting a special item, and then taking it back to where you first got your quest. With most role-playing games this one-sided mission structure would get old after only a few quests, but not in Puzzle Quest. Because the battles are so much fun (and so different from one to another) you'll look forward to every fetch quest, regardless of how many times you've been to that one cave or mountain top. Since you never really control your character's walking (instead you point to the place you want to go and he walks there by himself) you don't have to worry too much about spending all of your time just wandering around looking for enemies to fight and loot to pick up. Puzzle Quest cuts out all of the things you don't like about role-playing games and adds some of the most exciting puzzle-based battles you'll ever see.
Another thing that separates Puzzle Quest from the Final Fantasy's of the world is that the battles only take a few minutes to complete. No matter what skill you are, most battles only last three to five minutes, which is extremely short when compared to most of the epic RPGs released these days. These short battles work out perfectly when you only have a few minutes to play the game and want to make some progress. No matter if you win or lose, the way the game is set up you'll end up making progress no matter what.
Like all role-playing games, Puzzle Quest is all about you leveling up your character, improving your stats, buying new weapons/armor and developing your character into a massive killing machine. Each of the four character types (be it a druid, knight, warrior or wizard) can go all the way up to level 50, which gives them access to the best spells, weapons, etc. Best of all, the four character types play completely differently; depending on who you pick you'll get different spells, armor, weapons, and other items. Unlike a lot of RPGs, Puzzle Quest has a lot of replay value.
What's great about the Puzzle Quest world is that the more you explore the more stuff you'll find. Along with the great battles, you can also earn friends who will travel with you, animals you can fly on, and all sorts of other wild additions that can potentially change the way you play the game. While a game like Final Fantasy XII is probably deeper, Puzzle Quest is certainly no slouch. There's so much to do and see in this game that you'll probably still be playing it long after you've beaten the game and maxed out your hero. I personally have put in well over 500 hours into it between the PSP and Nintendo DS version, and I still get a rush every time I pick up the portable and jump into this fantastical world.
The fictional world of Puzzle Quest has a lot of familiar faces; if you've played other fantasy role-playing games then you're going to feel right at home. I'm talking about trolls, dragons, imps, zombies and a whole host of other creatures. Part of the fun of Puzzle Quest is just going around and trying to capture each and every one of the 51 monster types, especially if you want to learn all of the spells and exert your dominance over the world map.
This Nintendo DS version of the game uses the touch screen display to its full advantage; all of the battles are performed using the stylus and the bottom screen. For the most part it's easy to move the pieces around, but I did find that every so often I would accidentally move the wrong piece and mess myself up. Part of the reason for this is because all of the pieces are extremely small; they have to be if you're going to fit 64 items onto one screen. The PSP version of the game offers larger, more detailed pieces, but the game play is the same regardless of which portable you play it on.
While Puzzle Quest is not about amazing graphics and stunning CGI cinemas, the graphics are pretty good for what they are trying to do. The problem with judging a game like this is that you're constantly going from battle to the world map, so there isn't much time for beautiful graphics. The world map looks good, and it's fun to go from area to area because of how different everything is (even if the battles look the same every time). The battle graphics look fine, but don't expect to be wowed by amazing animation or detailed enemies. This is just not that kind of game; this is not a showpiece for the power of the Nintendo DS.
When you're not trudging through side-quests and story missions, you do have the opportunity to go in and just challenge different enemies. This is actually a lot of fun because it allows you to play the best part of the game (the puzzle battles) without worrying about wandering around the map looking for enemies to kill. There is also a fun one-on-one battle mode that allows you to challenge your friends to a game of Puzzle Quest. On paper this mode sounds great, unfortunately very little time was spent making this a must-play multiplayer mode. That's actually really disappointing, I can only imagine how much fun it would be to play a really exciting multiplayer version of this game.
But who cares how unspectacular the multiplayer mode is? Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords is easily one of the strongest single-player games of the year. It's the type of game that almost anybody can get into, and best of all you can play the entire game with only one hand. If you set out to complete every mission and max out your characters skills, then chances are you'll be involved with this game for hundreds of hours. And even after you've seen and done everything, you'll want to go back and do it all over again ... the game is that addictive. It may have a silly name, but Puzzle Quest is one of those games that everybody should own. Even if you're not into puzzlers or role-playing games, this is definitely one game you can't let slip by.