Developer Infinite Interactive created a new type of game with 2007's Puzzle Quest, fusing together the seemingly incompatible puzzle and role-playing game genres. By layering the tropes of a fantasy RPG over the basic gameplay of Bejewelled, the Australian developer managed to produce a fiendishly addictive blend of gem battling and levelling up.
It's possible to draw comparisons to its latest offering--called Puzzle Chronicles. After all, they both involve matching coloured blocks, roaming around a fantasy world, and building up your hero. But a closer look at the new game reveals some very different gameplay mechanics at its core.
Gone are the grid full of gems and the turn-based gameplay of Bejewelled. Instead, Chronicles utilises Tetris-like rotatable sets of blocks, which move toward the centre of the screen. You and your opponent still share the same playfield, but each player controls half of the bar-separated screen. By combining chains of matching coloured blocks, you charge up and unleash attacks on the bar, pushing it further toward the opposing side of the screen. Either party will be knocked out if objects are stacked high enough on their corresponding side to prevent them from bringing the next set of blocks into play. The closer the dividing bar is to your opponent, the more likely he or she is to achieve this fail state because he or she'll have less room to create block-destroying and attack-charging combos.
There is definitely more of an emphasis on action, with the real-time battles rewarding a good eye for potential colour combos and quick thinking. In fact, there's very little strategy here compared to Puzzle Quest due to a lack of a strength-and-weakness and base-level character customisation. That's not to say that the game lacks depth, though. You can still kit out your hero with a variety of fantasy-appropriate weapons, armour, and equipment, which can grant various bonuses in battle. You also have a war beast, a companion creature that levels separately from your avatar, which potentially allows for some mix-and-match variety later in the game.
Your warrior's battles are represented onscreen, which is not so common in puzzle RPGs. In Infinite Interactive's previous offerings, characters were merely static avatars, leaving it up to the player to imagine how the conflict might look. Here, the top half of the screen displays a fully animated battle scene that reacts accordingly to the course of the match, with polygonal versions of your warrior, his war beast, and the current enemy duking it out. While you'll probably only be seeing this out of the corner of your eye most of the time, it definitely adds to the game, providing an indication of how the battle is going and a sense of excitement.
You'll engage in the usual RPG trappings outside of combat, taking on side quests, visiting shops, and furthering the story. These elements are as straightforward as you'd expect from a puzzle RPG, (the Conan the Barbarian-inspired story is pretty simplistic), but they do look to provide enough of a backbone to support the base gameplay.
Puzzle Chronicles walks a difficult line of differentiating itself from its Infinite Interactive brethren yet keeps true to the simple, addictive nature of the original Puzzle Quest. So far, it looks to have struck a very admirable balance of the two. The game is out now on Xbox Live Arcade and the Nintendo DS, with PC, PSP and PlayStation 3 versions coming soon.