Puzzle Guzzle definitely drinks some other games' milk shakes. Blocks fall from the top of the screen, you organize them into clusters to make them go away, and when they do, they'll cue other, nastier blocks to fall on your opponent's rising wall. And yet, Puzzle Guzzle is definitely a game you haven't played before. Its blocks actually contain triangles, parallelograms, and other shapes you can rotate into all manner of combinations great and small, and there's a neat white line that helps you identify big shape opportunities. Even though it doesn't reinvent the genre, Puzzle Guzzle is not just another brick in the wall.
Before you get started, you'll have to create an avatar out of a shape, a color, some eyes, and a mouth--like Mr. Potato Head. From there, you have three main gameplay options: drop puzzles, stuffit puzzles, and quiz puzzles. Within the first two options, you can choose either solo play or challenge play. In a solo drop puzzle, pieces fall from the top of the screen at an increasingly faster rate as you try to clear them, just like in Tetris. In a challenge drop puzzle, you try to outlast an opponent by clearing your own blocks and dropping special blocks on their side. Alternately, in a normal stuffit puzzle, the screen is full of blocks and you try to clear as many as you can within a time limit. A challenge stuffit puzzle is pretty much the same, except that you can hijack your opponent's big shapes as you compete for the higher score. And finally, quiz puzzles are big jumbles of shapes that you have to clear all at once. Among these three modes, there are a lot of puzzles to guzzle.
No matter which you choose, the controls are the same: the D pad selects a fallen block, and one button rotates it clockwise, while another rotates it counter-clockwise. That's simple; the tricky part is that each block contains a shape. For instance, the smallest, most basic shape is a triangle that takes up one quarter of a block. The next smallest is a triangle that takes up half a block, and there are other, trickier shapes that show up whenever a match begins to wear on. The basic idea is to rotate your blocks so that the shapes within them conjoin into a larger one, which will then disappear. Matters are complicated by the fact that every shape has a "soft" side, which must be covered by another shape. These aren't intuitive when you first start playing; however, as you rotate pieces into a larger shape, a bold white line will show you where the hard sides are, and where they aren't, making it easy to fill in the gaps. After just a few minutes of play, you'll happily fly around your wall tweaking blocks here, rotating others there, and chaining things together into long destructible veins.
Puzzle Guzzle's cup truly runs over with 300 different challenges and puzzles. In quiz mode and each of the challenge modes, there is a field of 100 rival avatars organized on a 10-by-10 grid (easiest at the top, hardest at the bottom). If you defeat one of them, no matter the mode, you can steal any of its features for your own avatar. This gives you a pretty good reason to explore the whole grid, rather than just going straight to the bottom where the toughest challenges wait.
Aside from decking out your little potato person with funny hats and big noses, you can also steal your rivals' special attacks. In drop games, these are the blocks you drop on the enemy screen anytime you clear something big. In stuffit games, these are attacks triggered when you hijack an enemy combo. In both cases, the presence of these X factors requires a bit of strategy on your part. For instance, as you climb down into the geometric Hades that is the bottom of drop mode, you'll be faced with enemies who land the block equivalent of napalm on you every time they clear a square. But since you haven't won a match yet at their level, your special drop won't be nearly as wicked, putting you at a distinct disadvantage. To compete, you have to anticipate their attacks and shape the surface of your ever-growing wall in such a way that will minimize the damage and allow you to counter. When was the last time you read that about a puzzle game?
There's also some strategy involved in the stuffit puzzles, though these are generally less interesting to play against the computer. If other players create a shape, you can basically piggyback their score by completing a shape that touches theirs before it disappears. This also lets loose your special attack, which in some way hinders or handicaps them. So really, the best way to play this game is to wait for your opponent to do something cool, play off it, then go to town while they're all screwed up from your special attack. Against either a human or computer opponent, this mode gets old pretty fast. However, watching a friend create a huge, elaborate shape then moving one piece out of place right as he or she is about to complete it is pretty entertaining.
Speaking of friends, you can host sessions for up to eight local players with just one copy of the game. Now, this isn't exactly a strong eight-player experience; you aren't going to invite friends over to guzzle beer and trapezoids. Nonetheless, if you and some folks decide to play, it's pretty cool that no one with a PSP will be left out. You can also play ad hoc games with up to eight other owners, as well as craft and share custom quiz puzzles. But unless you're sharing a puzzle that turns into either a marriage proposal or a death threat, this feature is too nerdy for its own good.
For 20 bucks at retail, Puzzle Guzzle is a pretty good deal, but it isn't a very pretty game. The graphics are simple and functional but never dazzling or beautiful, and the avatars are extremely low-tech. The audio matches the video, with serviceable tracks that you'll forget as soon as you turn off the game. Come to think of it, serviceable is a good word for Puzzle Guzzle. The game is neither elegant nor stylish, but by god, it gets the job done. Indeed, a boring road trip with a copy of Puzzle Guzzle wouldn't be boring at all.