Puzzle Quest: Challenge Of The Warlords

It’s always risky for videogame developers to try something new and different, because while innovative titles have the potential for greatness, sometimes innovation comes at the expense of a game’s quality. Thus, there was much trepidation at the announcement that a game combining role-playing, puzzle, and strategy elements entitled Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords, would see simultaneous release on the PlayStation Portable and Nintendo DS systems, both versions releasing in 2007, ports to other media following. Fortunately, innovation works very much in the game’s favor.

Gameplay in the first installment takes place on an overworld with various line-connected areas representing various locales, the game’s customizable protagonist having a citadel where the player can expend money to add various facilities to learn spells from captured enemies, forge equipment, and train mounts. Enemies appear on the overworld randomly on individual lines connecting towns and other areas, and coming into contact with them commences a battle, with plenty of battles necessary to advance the story and complete quests as well.

Upon encountering an enemy, the player can fight them via a grid with various icons similar to Bejeweled, or “capture” the enemy if the player has fought the same enemy enough times, in which case the game takes players to a grid where they must clear all icons by connecting three, four, and sometimes five of the same icon. The player can repeat the capturing process as many times as desired, and if successful, the player can learn a skill from the captured monster via another puzzle grid, or more rarely, train them as a mount for the protagonist, with additional effects provided in combat.

In a traditional battle, the player and the enemy exchange turns matching three, four, or five of various kinds of icons, with four differently-colored elemental jewels, violet spikes, coins, skulls, and wildcards. Matching elemental jewels nets the protagonist or enemy a certain number of points depending upon their numbered proficiency in the element, with the player able to equip their hero with various kinds of skills that require a certain number of points of different elements, and wildcard icons can greatly multiply the amount earned. Matched violet spikes and coins respectively earn one side experience and money, while matching skulls deals a certain amount of damage to the opposition’s hit points, and when one side’s HP runs out, the battle, of course, ends.

Even if the player loses a battle, they still gain some experience and money depending upon how many violet spikes and coins they matched, although player victory naturally reaps greater rewards. Outside battles, players can outfit the hero with four pieces of equipment, most of which have special stat requirements for players to equip in the first place. The battle system is fun and innovative for the most part, although there is no mid-battle saving, a burden since fights can sometimes take a long time, and sometimes victory is dependent upon luck, particularly against the final boss.

The interface is solid for the most part, with a good direction on how to advance the main storyline indicated by red exclamation points above towns that have story quests, an easy menu system, non-problematic shopping, and so forth, although the aforementioned lack of mid-battle saving can be a shortcoming, not to mention occasional glitches in the Nintendo DS version. Otherwise, interaction is definitely well above the norm in the RPG genre.

The storyline actually contains decent writing in spite of the rare grammatical error and always has a good direction on where things are going, with sidequests providing additional depth, and the hero, despite being customizable, having actual interaction with plenty of NPCs and some semblance of development. Ultimately, the plot is a decent driving factor throughout the game.

The soundtrack is also a pleasure to hear, with the music putting quality above quantity, although there isn’t a special theme for the final boss. There’s also some occasional voicework that definitely helps the title more than hurts.

Puzzle Quest’s weak spot is its visual presentation, which is somewhat simplistic and mostly consists during cutscenes of static character portraits interacting, and in battles there isn’t any graphical indication of actions performed by both sides. However, the graphics are hardly an eyesore, like the other aspects helping the game more than hurting it.

Finally, one can reach and possibly beat, depending upon luck, the final boss in as little as fifteen hours, although there is plenty of extra content to push playing time well beyond that range, to somewhere around forty-five hours.

In the end, Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords is for the most part a great puzzle/RPG hybrid that hits many of the right notes with regards to its gameplay, control, story, and soundtrack, although there are some occasional areas in need of improvement such as the visuals. Given its solid combination of genres, the game would unsurprisingly spawn a few spinoffs and sequels, not to mention other puzzle/RPG hybrids such as Might and Magic: Clash of Heroes, but the original Puzzle Quest definitely does things better and is in many respects a gold standard of hybrid games.

The Good:
+Solid puzzle-based gameplay.
+Tidy interface.
+Nicely-written plot.
+Great soundtrack.

The Bad:
-Sometimes dependent upon luck.
-No mid-battle saving.
-Some rare glitches.
-Simplistic visual presentation.

The Bottom Line:
A great start to the series.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: Nintendo DS
Game Mechanics: 8/10
Controls: 8/10
Story: 9/10
Music/Sound: 9/10
Graphics: 7/10
Lasting Appeal: 10/10
Difficulty: Adjustable
Playing Time: 15-45 Hours

Overall: 8.5/10

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