Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords DS Review
Puzzle games have taken off hugely on the DS, the touch screen pumping blood into the veins of grid based puzzles and resulting in more choices than you could possibly hope to shake a stick at when it comes to choosing one to pick up. One of the earliest titles to for the DS that took advantage of this new style was the charming gem Zoo Keeper, a frantic matching game that relied on concentration, speed, and most importantly a sharp pair of eyes. Puzzle Quest at a first glance appears to be a similar title, using the touchscreen to match up lines of three or more gems to defeat the various minions you come across in your adventures. The similarities are however only skin deep; rather than being a solo experience the game is turn based, quickly forcing you to take your time and choose the best move possible before you relinquish control to the devastatingly ‘lucky’ AI player.
Now I say ‘lucky’, because now I’ve gotten to a stage where I’m able to pull off considerably impressive moves myself, but until reaching that stage of competence it seemed much more appropriate to describe it as ‘Cheating’. And this is where the beauty of Puzzle Quest begins to shine, the RPG elements thrown in mean that for the first hour or two at least- it’s OK to lose. You’ll still get some gold, and you’ll still get some experience points which means, as with many MMORPGs, it’s impossible to play for an hour and fail to achieve anything – playing well will merit you with more, but nonetheless even when facing a particularly nasty beast you’ll never come close to wanting to bash your head against the wall – which is nice.
Instead you’ll be slowly building up your funds, cackling maniacally to yourself as you hatch plans to lay siege to your homeland, research new spells from captured monsters, train your mounts to assist you more effectively in battle, and craft magical items with rune stones found around the world. All sounds fairly exciting eh? Well considering all of the aforementioned activities are completed using simple variations of the game’s classic puzzle system, surprisingly all of these activities are very exciting; the early stages of the game are a glorious grind-fest, travelling about collecting bits and bobs and fighting beasties to turn the tides of battle around in your favour, the scope of potential activities giving you seemingly endless streams of things to do and keeping you locked in that ‘just one more go…’ mindset.
The actual style of Puzzle Quest isn’t half bad either, some of the art is patchy but mostly it’s fairly pretty, and the dialogue sections whilst not being epic aren’t badly written and occasionally made me chuckle; and perhaps more importantly they rarely made me cringe. Also noteworthy is the sense of moral ambiguity instilled into the game, quests often giving you a choice of outcomes that seem to avoid the black and white categorizations of good and evil pretty damn well, evading the common mistake of ending up with a game full of faux-morality choices that force you to lean towards being good in order to progress through the game in the ‘right’ way.
It’s at about 6 to 10 hours into the game that you’ll hit Puzzle Quest’s sweet spot, having carefully selected some premium gear and magical techniques the game becomes much more controlled, allowing players to hatch devious plans and strategies for launching all out assaults on your opponents. This initial sensation of realising that after hours of blood and sweat the tables have finally turned is a fantastic rush, but after this things sadly begin to slip downhill rather quickly.
In all of it’s scope, Puzzle Quest has neglected to add a strong enough sense of balance to the game; despite struggling to win regularly for a long period of time, after a while I was able to devise a variety of strategies that essentially rendered me unbeatable by most opponents, and it was a few hours after I reached this point that I lost interest in the game entirely due to this rather major design flaw. This laziness is also evident on the DS version’s graphical presentation, sporadic glitches and large obtrusive on-screen messages often making playing the game much more difficult, something which feels particularly broken when attempting to play puzzles involving time limits; the game stealing seconds away from you whilst it essentially rewards you for playing well by temporarily blocking your view of the screen.
Despite the game being to an extent pretty broken, this is almost entirely forgiveable for two reasons: Number one; Puzzle Quest has tried something genuinely new, fusing two game elements together in a manner that whilst not perfect does a damn fine job for a first try. Most importantly however is number two; Puzzle Quest is the most insanely addictive handheld game I’ve played since Advance Wars on the GBA. It’s not perfect, sure. It’s not even close to perfect, and after a good 16 hours of playing you’ll probably get pretty bored and move onto something else. But those hours while they last will be the most fun you’ll have had in a long time, trust me.
There’s nothing more admirable than a game that’s well polished and carefully designed, but by the same account there’s nothing more amazing than a game that’s enthralling to play despite being pretty broken. If you have a DS and haven’t played Puzzle Quest, go and buy it. It’s cheap as chips, and it’s an absolute blast.