A Heroic Effort
If you have never looked into D3's Puzzle Quest franchise, picture a role-playing game with character classes, quests, loot, economy, a classic fantasy setting, and so on. Fuse that with a combat system akin to PopCap's casual game mecca Bejeweled, and you have the basic structure of this strange and fresh series. Puzzle Quest 2 is addictive, rewarding, and a huge improvement over its forebear. By removing the extraneous strategy elements that arguably bogged down the pacing of the original and instead focusing on a more streamlined, dungeon-crawl experience, this is a sequel that is unequivocally better than the original.
Tasked as a hero who must save the human town of Verloren from some unsavoury monsters, Puzzle Quest invites you to choose a character class, name, and match gems in lines of three or more to smite everything evil you find. As in the original, it's a bit surprising that the classic match-three gameplay translates so well to the role-playing genre. There are purple, green, blue, yellow, and red gems, each of which represent a different kind of mana needed to cast spells. Matching skulls deals direct damage to your opponent, while collecting fist gems accumulates points you can spend on using your equipped weapon or shield. Matching four or more gems grants you another turn, and it's exciting to scan the board, measuring your options and trying to keep yourself in play for as long as possible. The battle system still feels as fresh as ever, and although the occasional fight can drag on for what seems like forever, it's a fun and totally unique way to have a fracas in an RPG.
While you may not expect it, your character class can actually make the combat significantly different – as an Assassin, I often relied on chaining the five abilities I brought into battle in the correct sequence and at just the right moment. Generating a shield that absorbs any damage you would have taken by draining your purple mana, I could then use 'strike' abilities to turn a certain colour of gems into purple ones. All the gems that were converted do double damage to the enemy with the purple mana shield, and the huge amount of purple gems created from these strikes kept my defences active. Puzzle Quest 2 isn't a short game by any means, but the option to play through it again with some drastically different abilities is more than welcome.
One of the weakest aspects of the original game was its flat, drab world map that you would often be looking at. That has been replaced this time around by much larger-scale areas that your character actually moves around in. Clicking on characters, enemies or an exit to another room will cause your character to move about and interact. It's nothing too special, and inarguably behind the curve of other, similarly priced games, but it's certainly a step up from the original, and the colourful visuals satisfy the needs of the gameplay. The game's audio is about the only thing that hasn't undergone a significant shaping. Although the adventurous tone fits the game well, the score itself plays it pretty safe and doesn't stand out as a result.
Other significant tweaks include the removal of tower-building, town owning and other strategy elements of the original that seemed to serve only to bog the game down with needless additions. Replacing these appendices are a more in-depth inventory, with plenty of gear that you can upgrade by collecting gems and other loot from enemies, along with gem-matching variants for things like picking locks or searching for hidden traps. The game feels much more cohesive as a result of these presentational and secondary alterations to the gameplay, and it's clear that Infinite Interactive is gaining more confidence and talent as an excellent game developer.
It goes without saying that if you weren't all that into the first Puzzle Quest game, this one is unlikely to change your mind. There's a lot of small tweaks and additions here that add up to make a much more compelling product than the first game, but its colour-matching gameplay firmly remains the core of the experience. If you enjoyed the foundations of the series and saw the potential for more, you'll find that Puzzle Quest 2 is a fantastic time sink, one that's more than capable of holding your attention and entertaining you for as long as you let it, regardless of some minor issues.