Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Puzzle Quest (PSP) review

I finally got the PSP version of Puzzle Quest last week, after having played the PC demo for a while. Good timing, I just got it a day before I had to spend 3 hours on the train, the perfect opportunity to play a PSP game. Meanwhile I clocked another couple of hours with the game, and it's time to write a review.

Puzzle Quest combines role-playing elements with a Bejeweled-like puzzle game. You play a hero in a long story, saving the Queen and her kingdom (queendom?) from an evil undead threat through countless battles against monsters. And each battle is this Bejeweled-type puzzle. You have a square board full of random tiles of 7 different types. You and your opponent take turns, and each move consists of swapping two tiles in a way that you get at least 3 tiles of the same type in a row. At that point those tiles are destroyed, and the tiles above them "fall" down, with empty spaces in the top row being replaced by new random tiles. If this falling creates new rows of 3 or more tiles of the same type, they are destroyed as well, so you can get a cascade of destroyed tiles.

Every destroyed tile counts for something. Most important are the skull tiles, which deal damage to the opponent. You win if you reduce your opponent to 0 life points. Then there are gold tiles and purple xp stars, which give your hero gold and experience points, respectively. And then there are 4 colors of mana tiles, which add this color of mana to your stock. Once you have enough mana, you can use it to cast spells instead of doing a regular move. Spells can deal damage, heal, manipulate the board, buff yourself, or debuff the opponent. As different types of opponent have different spells, the game is very different depending on what you fight. For example a troll has a spell that regenerates his life if he spends a certain amount of blue mana, and if you want to win you better make sure that he doesn't get too much blue mana, which means having to take it yourself, or manipulating the board to destroy blue tiles.

The game lives of the interaction between character abilities and the puzzle. Playing the puzzle makes your character stronger, as he gains gold and experience points, even if you lose a battle. But then gaining levels gives you new spells, and points to distribute among abilities, which helps you win the puzzle. For example fire mastery makes every destroyed red tile give you more red mana, and also increases your chance to get another turn after lining up 3 red tiles. So your level, and the level of your opponent, plays a big role in determining who wins the puzzle battle.

Puzzle Quest also offers other typical role-playing elements besides questing and battling monsters. You can equip a number of items which increase your stats. You get an income from holding cities, and once you built a siege engine you can lay siege to other cities, and get money from them. With the money you can buy buildings in your castle, for example a temple where you can pay gold to increase your stats. You can build a dungeon to capture monsters, a mage's tower to learn the spells of the captured monsters, a forge to craft items, or a stable to capture mounts. You can visit taverns to learn rumors, have companions join you that give you a bonus in battle, build towers to reduce the chance of your cities starting a revolt, and many more activities like that. Besides the main quest line, there are side quests, and also random monsters blocking the road. At any given moment you have lots of options on what to do next. You even get to make some moral decisions, like whether to imprison the evil sorcerer, or to free him in exchange for information and a good weapon.

Of course puzzling with random tiles involves some luck (and some people swear the AI cheats when it gets unusually lucky). But skill plays a big role in winning the puzzle battles. If you are able to see how to line up 4 or more tiles instead of just 3, you get extra turns. Being able to start cascades is an obvious advantage. And you constantly need to decide after which sort of tile to go next, whether you want to grab some gold or rather some mana, and how you can prevent the opponent from getting the mana he needs. Different strategies apply to different opponents, and sometimes you need to battle a strong opponent several times before you learn the best strategy or get lucky. Beating an opponent higher in level than you can give very nice rewards. And of course your decisions outside the puzzles are important as well. Should you try to conquer cities to earn gold, or rather follow the main quest line? Maybe first gather some runes to forge items, or do side quests to level up before tackling that next hard opponent? The possibilities are endless.

Having played the game first on the PC, the PSP version has some obvious disadvantages: The screen is small, the control with cursor keys are less comfortable than with a mouse, and the loading times are longer (a constant PSP problem). The PC version also had a helpful hint function showing you one possible move if you couldn't find one for a while, which the PSP version lacks. And the PSP version has a nasty bug which prevents your companions from giving you their bonuses. But then the PSP is easier to transport than a PC, and Puzzle Quest is programmed to constantly autosave, so whipping your PSP out to play a quick battle while on a break is always possible. Puzzle Quest also exists as a Nintendo DS version, and the PC version is rumored to come out this summer.

I like this game very much. I even think that I'll buy the PC version as well when it comes out, for my laptop, in spite of already owning the PSP version. While the main quest series, apart from a few decisions, remains always the same, Puzzle Quest has great replayability. There are 4 different classes I talked about in an earlier post, and they play very differently. And the influence of your and your opponents level, spells, and items on the puzzle makes every combat a bit different. So Puzzle Quest offers many, many hours of fun. Recommended.

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