The original Puzzle Quest expertly fused match-3 gameplay with a fantasy setting, turning standard Candy Crush-style puzzles into a full-on adventure complete with cutscenes, turn-based battles, and special powers. Puzzle Quest 2 built on the idea further, adding towns and dungeons to be explored, multiple questlines, and expanding on the turn-based match-3 system. Now, a decade later, Puzzle Quest 3 has emerged, stripping away a lot of what made those games unique and offering up a more streamlined experience. The result is a game that, while fun in spurts, becomes tiresome quickly thanks to repetitive and unvaried gameplay beset with rudimentary RPG elements.
Puzzle Quest 3's core gameplay loop is unchanged from the previous games: matching colored gems in order to deal damage to an enemy and gain energy used to cast spells and abilities. There are multiple ways to play, including a huge, 14-chapter story mode, daily and weekly dungeons that give rewards, and competitive multiplayer to test your characters against friends. Progressing through the story unlocks companions who offer special perks, minions who can help you open chests faster, and special events that can lead to gaining rare equipment. All of this sounds like a sprawling adventure that fits right into the Puzzle Quest motif, but it's when you look below the surface that chinks can be found in the armor.
One of the game's main problems is how every battle in the game, be it in the story or a limited-time event, plays out the same way: an enemy approaches, you match gems to attack, you get attacked, you go again, repeat. As with previous Puzzle Quest games, there are five gem colors--red, blue, green, yellow, and purple--as well as a Skull gem that, when joined in a group with two others, serves as the most powerful attack on the board. However, there are fewer moves to make--by using a 5x7 board as opposed to the previous games' 8x8, battles go faster. When an enemy is beaten, the next one just walks onto the screen to take the fallen one's place and the process repeats itself. Contrast this to Puzzle Quest 2, where you also walk your character through different areas, talking to NPCs and initiating battles yourself. That made you feel like a traveling warrior in the world, whereas here you just feel like you're playing a standard match-3 game. There's no variation to the gameplay here--no major shakeup that changes things around even for just one battle.
The story mode, thanks in part to its extreme length, is the biggest victim of this repetition. The enemies your hero faces are mostly generic-looking goblins, orcs, and other standard fantasy enemy fare. The occasional cool dragon or giant will appear, but there's not much to get excited about. The only real variance when choosing a story chapter is how many cutscenes will play: either one before the battle, one afterward, both, or none at all. Otherwise, aside from the brief cutscenes of dialogue, there's nothing that differentiates the story mode from the daily or weekly events. Oh, and don't expect much intrigue from those cutscenes either, as the story beats a familiar "why are dragons returning to the land?" drum we've all heard before.
However, Puzzle Quest 3 does feature some light RPG elements that, unlike the battle system, do harken back to previous Puzzle Quests. Characters can find a dozen different types of gear in their travels, from weapons to armor pieces to accessories like rings and necklaces. Each piece of armor can be upgraded with resources earned while playing the game, as can special spells that the character can equip and use after breaking a certain amount of the corresponding colored gem (blue gems for ice spells, red gems for fire spells, etc). However, the balance for some of the spells needs addressing; I found a Frost Bolt ice spell early in the game that I began to call the "win button," as it scored a one-hit kill almost every time I used it.
Upgrading this equipment also builds up a Gear Score, which you can then use to gauge your readiness for the next story mission. If the enemy score sits at 200 and you're only at 150, you have two options for preparing: replay a story chapter as a Skirmish or try a daily or weekly dungeon for better rewards. Skirmishes can be played endlessly but offer middling rewards, while daily/weekly dungeons have better loot but can only be played twice each per day at no cost, with additional tokens available via the Event Shop. If this is starting to sound like a typical microtransaction system, that's because this game has them in spades.
One might hear "Puzzle Quest 3" and "mobile" and assume the game is microtransaction-heavy, and they'd be right. Crowns are the premium currency, but there's also gold coins, gems, event tokens for both daily and weekly events, keys for opening chests, shards for each type of gear that are needed to upgrade that particular gear, food for upgrading companions--the list goes on and on. However, even with all of those, the game is generous enough that I have not needed to open my real-life wallet at all. I've always had what I needed to proceed, even when my Gear Score told me I'd be outmatched in the next battle, and I appreciate that. However, not opening my wallet means I've missed out on what is perhaps the most egregious microtransaction system I've ever encountered: limited-time upgrade bundles for new companions.
As mentioned before, progressing through the story adds new members to your team. These companions don't help during a battle, instead giving perks between missions like increased inventory space or the ability to craft random items. When a companion is first unlocked, the game immediately generates a bundle of items that's only available for a limited time and can only be purchased with real-world currency. While most of the bundle consists of currencies like gold coins, one of the items is unique to that character and is required to continue progression at levels 5, 15, 25, 35, 45, and every level after 45.
The idea of a character-specific bundle makes sense, but it's the limited-time offering and the "real-world currency only" rule that makes this feel underhanded. The bundle immediately flashes on-screen when the new companion is unlocked, bombarding you with a one-time limited offer and seeming like it will be essential for your journey… until you learn that every item in the bundle, including the "unique" one, can be earned in-game. It's a sneaky move disguised as a good deal, and puts a stark blemish on what is otherwise a pretty lenient microtransaction system.
I don't want to seem entirely negative on Puzzle Quest 3, as what is included in the game is enjoyable. I did have fun matching wits with the game's match-3 system, and there were moments where I snatched a victory from the jaws of defeat that thrilled me. However, when you hold it up to its predecessors, this game doesn't bring anything new to the table. It's the same Puzzle Quest we've seen before, only now there are limits to certain modes, microtransactions, and a story that's barely there.. The stripping away of things like explorable towns and non-linear world maps skew the puzzle/RPG balance hard toward the "puzzle" part, making it feel less like a RPG that uses puzzles as its battle system and more like a typical match-3 game with RPG elements added on as an afterthought. I had hoped for a grand quest, but what I got only left me puzzled.