Bejeweled meets Magic: The Gathering. That comparison must have been part of the pitch meeting for Gyromancer, an Xbox Live Arcade game that fuses puzzle gaming with card games and role playing in a manner similar to that seen in Infinite Interactive's acclaimed Puzzle Quest. PopCap Games is behind this one, so it shouldn't come as much of a surprise that the god of casual gaming responsible for such superaddictive concoctions as Bejeweled and Zuma has created yet another addiction that will steal away a good chunk of your life. A poor tutorial, campaign problems, and el cheapo production values lower the fun factor somewhat, but the incredibly catchy core of the game still makes it a great value for 1,200 Microsoft points.
Gameplay structure mashes jewel-based puzzling with a role-playing-game-like story and atmosphere. You play Rivel, a typical fantasy hero who is off to track down the bad guys responsible for assassinating a member of your royal family. As in Japanese RPGs, goofy names abound. The rebel faction you're fighting is called Temperance, for reasons probably best left unexplained, and the chief villain is dubbed Quraist Kingsley. Uh-huh. Not that the story matters much. It's really just an excuse to get you into the magical Aldemona Wood, which is a mystical forest that shuts down every so often and traps visitors within it. Most folks would just put up a tent and start a wienie roast, but because you're a fantasy hero on a quest, you instead fight evil dudes.
Battles take place at arm's length as in a card game like Magic: The Gathering, with you controlling a hand of three beasts that you throw into the fray one at a time to duel with similar enemy creatures. Most of the beasts are variations on fantasy archetypes, like demons, giant spiders, giant frogs, giant ants, and other inspirations from D&D. Whenever you encounter an enemy, you pick a beast and then have at it. Fighting is handled by rotating jewels on a game board in the same way as in Bejeweled Twist. The goal is to line up three or more jewels of the same color so that they explode, which adds power to your creature's attack bars. If you do this enough times, you max one of them out, resulting in a magical effect that launches a hit-point-draining salvo at the enemy. Special-ability jewels on the board are also switched on by maxing out an attack bar. If you line these up with regular jewels, you trigger immediate magical assaults on your opponent. Of course, you have to deal with enemy reprisals. Even though your opponent doesn't get to move gems on the board, rival beasts also have ability jewels that turn gems into skulls. Once these are activated, you have a set number of moves to line them up with regular jewels and detonate them harmlessly. Otherwise, they explode on their own and hammer you with various forms of magical ordnance that knock down your hit points.
If you've ever played something like Bejeweled, you know that this sort of puzzle game can be addictive. The card-styled beast collection and story layer on top of everything just sucks you in even more. A lengthy solo campaign (there is no multiplayer) stretches over 10 big levels with a spiderweb of paths that are stocked with wandering monsters and various goodies, such as treasure chest with coins that can be used to summon creatures. Levels can't be completely explored during your first run-through because many branches of paths are blocked off initially and must be opened up later in the game. This gives the game a fair bit of replay value because you can always come back for more even after defeating the end boss and beating the level. Beast templates called gyro codes are found scattered throughout levels, too, so you are often rewarded for your explorations with a new monster to add to your menagerie. There is also a slight amount of tactical depth in combat beyond simply matching colors. Each beast has an affinity with a specific color of jewel, so you get extra power when lining up gems of your own creature's color. Conversely, you power the enemy if you line up gems linked to its beast. So you have to be mindful of your matches. The jewel board gradually gets more complex. Locked jewels that you can't rotate show up, and you get penalized for making moves that don't lead to matches, which really pushes you to think before you make a move. Experience points are gained with every fight as well, allowing you to gradually level up your hero and his beasts. This gives the game a skin-deep RPG vibe, enhancing the story without getting into customizable stats and skills.
But not everything here is entirely well crafted. The tutorial is a woefully inadequate primer that deals solely with how to rotate four jewels at a time, which is of course the easiest aspect of the game to figure out. Everything else is left unexplored: beast abilities, how to deal with enemy counterattacks, summoning beasts, combos, chaining, and so on. This leaves you fumbling for the first level or two, putting two and two together as you fight battles and gradually understand how everything fits together. The campaign itself feels a touch off, too. You can retreat to the start of a level at any time and exit for a healing break that restores beast hit points, which lessens the tension of battles because there doesn't seem to be a whole lot at stake if you lose. Also, enemies respawn when you exit and reenter a level. This allows you to grind, killing the same foes over again for the sole purpose of gaining experience points and levels. If you do this every so often, you move up in level so much that the campaign turns into something of a cakewalk in spots. And PopCap was really cheap on the production values. Graphics are murky and grainy. Music is beyond cheesy. Battles are static affairs where nothing is animated aside from jewels and occasional blasts of magical hoohah. Characters don't even move during the between-level story cutscenes; their figures just slide back and forth like cardboard cutouts.
Even with this handful of problems, Gyromancer delivers impressive hybrid puzzle/card/RPG gameplay for $15. While the campaign could use a little tweaking and the game could certainly be a little easier on the eyes, the jewel puzzle core of the game works just about perfectly. Like so many other PopCap games, this is one of those deceptively casual games that is easy to pick up and excruciatingly hard to put down.