At first glance Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords appears to be little more than a colorful Bejeweled-style puzzle game in which you're tasked with rearranging colored gems on a grid so that they form lines of three or more. Comparisons to Bejeweled are inevitable, which is why we've got ours out of the way nice and early. In truth, Puzzle Quest is a role-playing game that simply uses something vaguely resembling the aforementioned puzzle game as its combat system. We've recently taken delivery of both the PlayStation Portable and Nintendo DS versions of the game and have spent several hours getting into its story-driven quest mode.
You can choose to play as one of four different character classes at the start of your adventure, including a druid, a knight, a warrior, or a wizard. Regardless of the fact that you'll be doing battle with your enemies via a grid filled with colored gems, each class has a very different way of fighting. For example, if you choose to play as a druid, you'll find that they're a strong defensive class with access to spells that restore health, dispel harmful magic effects, and the like. However, if you play as a warrior, as we have been, the game is all about dealing damage more quickly than your opponent, so the class abilities definitely favor an aggressive style of play.
Once you've settled on a class, a name, and one of a handful of different appearances for your hero, you'll be whisked away to a map screen on which you're able to move between locations that are known to you simply by clicking on your desired destination. There's no way for you stumble upon new locations while exploring, but the majority of quests that you agree to take on will task you with defeating enemies at previously unknown locales, which appear on your map as soon as you're told about them. The enemies that we've faced on our adventure thus far include giant rats, zombies, skeletons, orcs, killer bats, and an evil sorcerer. The most obvious difference among all of these enemies is the portrait that appears opposite yours when you enter combat. But once the fight gets underway, you'll realize that each has its own unique spells and abilities.
Puzzle Quest's spells and abilities come in many different flavors, but the one thing they all have in common is that using them costs mana. The four different-colored pools of mana that each character has correspond to the colored gems on the puzzle grid, so when you clear a line of red, yellow, green, or blue gems, you'll earn mana for that pool. Our warrior's abilities focus primarily on causing damage to the enemy; doing things like causing an amount of damage equivalent to the number of skulls on the grid or destroying certain gems without needing to arrange them into lines. There are far too many different spells and abilities to detail here, but other typical effects include draining enemy mana pools, turning gems of one color into another color, and forcing enemies to miss turns. Each character and enemy in the game can go into battle with up to six spells and abilities enabled, plus a seventh belonging to their mount if they're riding one. The upshot of having so many different spells available, along with the fact that the grids of gems are randomly generated, is that no two battles are ever the same.
As you progress through the single-player adventure and unlock more abilities for your character, you'll have more options with which to tailor him or her to your playing style. Still more options will become available to you if you invest some gold in your character's citadel, which is a base of sorts where it's possible, among other things, to craft such magical items as weapons and armor. You can also imprison enemies that you've captured so you can learn abilities from them or, where applicable, you can turn them into mounts. Every task that you can perform at the citadel takes the form of a different minigame played on the same grid that's used for combat. The games are all played in the same way, but the rules change. Learning a new ability from an enemy requires you to solve a puzzle by clearing every gem on the grid, while training a mount requires you to defeat it in battle with only a short time available to think about each turn. Like every battle, these minigames can be attempted as many times as needed, and no matter how horribly you lose, you'll still earn experience points and gold for your efforts.
Although the most advanced thing we've managed to do in our citadel was crafting a powerful dagger, it's clear that there are far more significant achievements waiting for us later in the game. The construction of a siege workshop will let us besiege and claim an income from other cities, while a temple will let us exchange a gold tribute for improved character attributes. Your goal in Puzzle Quest is to save the land of Etheria from the evil Lord Bane and his undead minions. But it's clear that you'll have plenty of opportunities to stray from the linear storyline while doing so because all of the citadel features and many of the quests that we've completed appear to be optional.
After spending several hours with both the PSP and DS versions of Puzzle Quest, we can report that their content and gameplay are more or less identical. The DS version benefits from touch-screen functionality that's well suited to the game, while the PSP version boasts significantly superior visuals. Both games are currently scheduled for release later this month, and with multiplayer features augmenting the single-player adventure that we've talked about today, it looks like you won't go wrong with either of them. We look forward to bringing you a full review of Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords closer to its release.