For as often as developers attempt to marry distinct game genres hoping for a peanut-butter-and-chocolate-like result, they usually come out more peanut-butter-and-onion. Infinite Interactive's Puzzle Quest is one of the rare exceptions, and the way in which it integrates familiar puzzle gameplay into a traditional Japanese RPG format makes for an experience that is far greater than the sum of its parts. The way these disparate elements play off each other helps make it an incredibly difficult game to put down, and it finds a smart balance between accessibility, challenge, and variety that makes it an easy game to recommend to just about anyone.
The game's story and setting splits the difference between the Japanese and Tolkien styles of high fantasy, producing a world filled with knights, dwarves, a variety of elves, orcs, ogres, wizards, warriors, dungeons, dragons, and so on, but all portrayed with a distinctly anime art style. The main story concerns warring kingdoms, uneasy alliances, and of course, an ominous, creeping force of darkness that threatens to consume everything. As standard as the setup is, the writing in Puzzle Quest is better than you might expect, especially when it comes to defining the various characters that you'll fight with and against. There's a simple character creator at the start of the game that gives you four professions to choose from--druid, knight, warrior, and wizard--as well as a handful of different character portraits.
At the start it seems like RPG business as usual. There's a nicely painted overworld map dotted with castles, villages, and enemy strongholds that you'll travel about, taking on quests and fighting the random monsters that block your path from one location to the next. You'll get new weapons, armor, equipment, and spells; new characters will join your party; and once you establish your own personal citadel, you'll be able to capture creatures and use them as mounts, craft new items out of special runes found out in the world, and eventually lay siege on opposing cities. What makes Puzzle Quest so interesting is how it uses a familiar puzzle game format to perform these actions. The gameplay in Puzzle Quest is most analogous to Bejeweled. You're presented with an 8x8 grid of pieces that you can slide around one at a time. By lining up rows or columns of three or more identical pieces, those pieces will disappear, and a random assortment of new pieces will drop down from above to fill the gap.
If Puzzle Quest were just Bejeweled, it would probably get tedious quickly, but by applying several standard RPG combat conventions to the formula, it becomes something much more strategic. Standard, one-on-one combat is the most common game you'll play, and it's also the deepest. You and your opponent, each using the same board, will take turns moving pieces, trying to whittle down each other's reserve of hit points. Attacks are performed by lining up skull-shaped pieces, though you've also got several spells that you can use for both offensive and defensive purposes. The spells you'll start off with, as well as the spells you'll earn as you earn experience levels, are largely dictated by which profession you choose at the start of the game. Spells can require up to four different types of color-coded mana to use, and of course, you charge up your mana reserves by clearing out red, blue, yellow, and green pieces from the board. The back-and-forth dynamic demands that you think several steps ahead any time you move a piece, since you want to avoid setting up your opponent with favorable piece positions at the end of your turn. In addition to the mana and skull pieces, there are gold coin and purple experience-point pieces that can earn you extra postgame bonuses, as well as wild-card multipliers, which can make the pieces you clear out worth much more.
Setting up rows or columns of four or five pieces is of critical importance during combat, as it gives you an extra turn, and any time you can buy is useful, because even just a few hours into the game, the enemies you'll face in Puzzle Quest can be downright merciless. Their spells are potent, they have a lot of hit points, and they have a knack for setting up lengthy strings of attacks that leave you depleted before you even get a chance to retaliate. As easy as it is to get into Puzzle Quest, it can be damn frustrating too, and there are times when it seems as though the computer is stacking the odds in its own favor. Still, even when you lose a fight, you earn a small amount of coin and XP, and the only punishment is that you have to fight that enemy over again. The other activities you'll perform via puzzle proxy tend to be a little more evenhanded, and are just different enough to keep them interesting. Training a mount is similar to straight combat, except that your turns are time limited. When capturing enemies, you're presented with a carefully placed board that you have to clear completely, leaving no extra pieces behind. Learning new spells and crafting items introduces specific types of pieces that you'll need to clear to succeed.
When you gain enough XP to level, you're given points that you can distribute between seven character attributes. The air, earth, fire, and water masteries will determine how effective you are at using the different types of mana; battle determines how much damage you do when you clear skull pieces; cunning increases how much gold you'll earn; and morale increases your hit points. All these factors, along with your gear, your mount, your party members, and your spells, can have a profound effect on how Puzzle Quest plays, and it's what helps keep the game fresh. Even if you stick strictly to the main quest, ignoring the numerous side quests, the item crafting, the sieging of towns, or the numerous other activities you can get into, Puzzle Quest is truly epic in size. If you consider all of the content on offer in the single-player game, along with the inclusion of local, two-player multiplayer, there's easily 100 hours of gameplay to be had here.
Both the PlayStation Portable and DS versions of Puzzle Quest have their quirks. On the PSP, loading issues can cause the game to hang for a second. These disruptive pauses can strike at almost any time, whether you're scrolling across the overworld map or casting a spell during combat. They don't really ruin anything, but they're annoying nonetheless. On the DS, the problems with the presentation are much more severe and end up impacting the gameplay. The graphics aren't as crisp and clear as they are on the PSP, and there are barely any flashy special effects. Most significantly, the puzzle playfield appears cramped on the lower screen of the DS, and it's difficult to discern certain pieces. Because of the size of the pieces, it's also easier to make mistakes with the game's mandatory stylus controls. The content is still good, but these problems make the DS version harder to recommend. While the presentation can be uneven between the two versions of Puzzle Quest, both feature some really great, sweeping music that fits the tone of the straightforward adventure quite beautifully.
The appeal of Puzzle Quest for fans of either RPGs or puzzle games is quite obvious, as it does a great job of scratching two distinctly different types of itches simultaneously. What's most remarkable about Puzzle Quest, though, is how a simple change of context turns some tired genre conventions that have been done to death into something that's suitable for just about anyone, regardless of your interest in the components.