Still fun, but takes some steps backward
Puzzle Quest brought together two genres – puzzle and RPG – and made them work so well that we all asked “why hasn’t this been done before?” Three years and a poorly received spin-off (Puzzle Quest: Galactrix) later and the big question is whether or not the formula holds up. It does, but rather than refine what the original offered and streamline the experience, Puzzle Quest 2’s real improvement is in its presentation (which ironically creates some new problems).
The premise is exactly the same as before with a different story: pick a class, and get questing. You can follow the main story arc closely or deviate from the path and embark on side quests for extra gold, experience, and equipment. Combat is a one-on-one affair that sees each take turns to match coloured gems and skulls. Matching the right gems allows you to use a class-specific spell or ability and matching skulls deals direct damage to your opponent. In addition to this, you can match action gems that let you use equipped weapons or potions and other items in battle – something you couldn’t do before. The ability to craft items and upgrade existing ones is also present, giving you an extra layer of control over what sort of strategy you adopt.
It has all the same positives and problems that it used to: there is some degree of strategy in choosing what gems to match and thinking two or three turns ahead, but luck ultimately plays a huge part in determining the outcome. The AI will still have occasional bouts of mass four or five gem matches to score free turns, a truth not lost on developer Infinite Interactive who reference this in the achievements.
What you’ll notice from the get-go is the absence of the world map in favour of actual environments. Rather than observing from birds-eye as you used to, it’s pretty clear now if you’re in a bustling town square or an icy dungeon. Rather than giving the player direct control of the hero, a navigational cursor allows you to select non-player characters to interact with (mainly for accepting quests or buying and upgrading equipment) or to move on to the next screen.
The new look is very attractive and works with the medieval-fantasy setting; it’s sharp and stylistic and backed up with a generic-but-sufficient fantasy soundtrack, but it arguably creates more problems than it’s worth. Questing can begin to feel like a dungeon crawl after navigating through a dozen screens to arrive at your destination, taking you away from the puzzle-battling that is the main attraction. There’s also the issue of concluding a quest by returning to whoever issued it, the time lag that occurs from quest and experience pop-ups, and a variety of other small time eaters. It sounds like I’m nit-picking because these are all small issues, but they all add up and take away the sharp pace that the original Puzzle Quest had.
Thankfully, the sprawling dungeons are made manageable by a competent quest tracker and plenty of quick travel points. There is always an onscreen trail directing you to the next objective, which is gold for main quests and silver for side quests. It only directs you for one mission at a time (which you can choose if you’ve got lots active) which may disappoint some people who like to multi-task – perhaps allowing you to track one main and side mission at a time would have been the best method – but it works fine as a guide. And when you’ve navigated the dungeon and vanquished your mighty foe, the travel portals let you get back to civilisation pretty quickly to conclude the quest and sell any loot you might have acquired.
In terms of puzzles, the environment-based navigation creates a lot of opportunities for mini-games. The problem is these mini-games (and I use the term loosely) are very similar and not particularly exciting compared to battles. Actions as mundane as looting a treasure chest, bashing in a door, or searching the environment for a hidden object are all used as an excuse to subject the player to a slight variation on the regular game. It’s true that the original Puzzle Quest had similar variations, but they were fewer and further between and less likely to get monotonous as a result. The frequency and homogeneity of the games here means the tedium will set in quicker.
Multi-player balancing in the original was notoriously difficult because you could only play as created heroes. This time around, a series of stock characters from each class are available at different levels; this is perfect if you want to play locally since you don’t have to build up two heroes in single player for an even match. This applies to online ranked and player matches, though you can battle with your created character if you want. The online puzzle community isn’t burgeoning like FPS’ or racers so jumping into an online game quickly isn’t always possible, but the improved accessibility and flexibility of multiplayer makes Puzzle Quest 2 a viable option locally or for player matches with friends.
Balance between the four classes (assassin, barbarian, sorcerer, and templar) is generally pretty good and they do have an impact on what gems you should be looking to match. Barbarians are the strongest class so a skull-matching strategy for maximum damage is ideal, assassins and sorcerers will be slightly more reliant on gems to fuel spells and abilities, and the defence-minded templar is ideal for outlasting your opponent. Each has a unique list of spells and abilities to learn but some are far more useful than others, particularly board manipulation spells that allow you to change the colour of gems and potentially score a lot of free turns. You can only equip five spells per battle though, so some trial and error is required to find out which ones suit your style.
While it’s far from a bad game, Puzzle Quest 2 feels like an opportunity missed. The attempt to improve the RPG component with well-drawn environments is admirable, but the story and voice acting are still nowhere near immersive enough for players to care about any plot or mythology that has been created. This is compounded by the time it takes away from the player through poor interface design; inventory management is needlessly clunky and it’s more trouble than it should be to quickly compare equipment statistics or where you need to spend points when levelling up. Returning to my original point: yes, the Puzzle Quest formula holds up as an enjoyable hybrid between the puzzle and RPG genres, but the way it is packaged in Puzzle Quest 2 leaves something to be desired.