How to build a sequel.
Way back in the heady days of early 2007, when the Playstation 3 was released to Australian customers and Paul McCartney was continuing his lengthy divorce with his one-legged, piratical mistress, a small Australian development studio created the charming downloadable game, Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords. Designed on a shoestring budget and focussed on a simple gameplay idea, Infinite Interactive’s Puzzle Quest was a resounding success. All across the wonderful cesspool of hatred and bickering that is the internet, those involved in the gaming media and fans alike revelled in its engaging gameplay and surprisingly high level of quality. It was one of the first truly great downloadable titles for Xbox Live Arcade and Playstation Network, and proof they were legitimate platforms for truly great gaming experiences.
Three years later, the market that the original Puzzle Quest created has been bombarded by a vicious flood of cheap clones, poor reimagining’s and low-quality applications of the core gameplay concept to other traditional puzzlers. Perhaps the most heinous part of the crime was the bulk of storm of mediocrity that followed was developed by Infinite Interactive themselves. Puzzle Quest: Galactrix, Puzzle Chronicles, Puzzle Kingdoms, Neopets: Puzzle Adventures – all ranging from deceptively mediocre to downright awful overran the market and sent sales tumbling faster than that of the rhythm game genre. Puzzle Quest 2 is the last chance at redemption to save a crippled behemoth and resurrect a beloved series. Thankfully, not only is it the shot of adrenalin the series needed, but it is once again a shining beacon of just why the downloadable market is every bit as good as the traditional marketplace. Make no mistake; Puzzle Quest 2 is a brilliant game.
Puzzle Quest 2 maintains the traditional, match-three gameplay that the series was initially famous for. By taking turns manipulating a grid filled with different coloured gems, players gain mana to cast spells, ready weapons and use items. By using better spells, creating larger combos and using smarter combinations of items and weaponry, the opponents’ health is slowly whittled down until the battle is complete. The gameplay, whilst simplistic, is addictive on a level usually occupied by nicotine or skill-testers – once the game settles its hooks into you, it’s impossible to stop after just one or two battles.
Veterans of the series will notice that the experience star and gold bag gems, which in the first title gained you (surprisingly enough) experience and gold, have been replaced with a fifth coloured mana and all-new gauntlet-shaped gem. These gems are known as Action Points, which are used by the new weapons and items system. Items and weapons cost action points to activate, but often are the key difference between a successful battle and a hideous loss. There exist four unique character classes, with each using distinctive spells and weaponry tailored to various styles of gameplay. Equipping your character with a variety of spells, weapons and items in different and exotic combinations allows you to truly customize your play-style much deeper than ever before.
Whilst the core gameplay has remained relatively unchanged, almost every other aspect of the game has been re-imagined. The hub-world exploration, previously represented by moving a blip on a large map has been replaced by an isometric, Diablo style labyrinth to explore and maneuver through. Story progression and side-questing is made more natural through conversing with various NPC’s scattered throughout the world. Whilst there is little voice-over throughout the story, some of the dialogue is genuinely funny and the core narrative, whilst rudimentary, is enjoyable to see through to the end. Perhaps of most importance to note is that nearly every action undertaken outside of exploration and direct conversations leads to some form of modified match-three minigame. This is a welcome feature that adds relevant and rewarding gameplay to the mix, but I cannot stress enough that it really does encompass every action undertaken. Opening chests, breaking locks, learning spells, putting out fires – the game makes sure that by the time you’ve finished the lengthy main quest, your bejewelled skills will be second-to-none.
It should be noted that despite being a fantastic title with a lengthy campaign and plenty to do, this is not a game that can be played in long sittings. I could only endure around an hour of play in a single stretch before the constant match-three puzzles would begin to burn me out and become monotonous. Playing in short bursts of three or four puzzles is ideal, and makes for a great game during the ads or while waiting for a download to finish. Whilst it’s hardly a glowing endorsement, I challenge you to play Bejewelled for any longer than half an hour before starting to feel burnt out – the game is stupid amounts of fun and addictive to a level where counsellors may have to become involved, but it’s something that’s better suited to short bursts than marathon slogs.
It’s rare where a game that in so many ways has remained identical to its predecessor can feel so fresh and new, and overshadow hiccups in the series’ past. There’s an intangible level of quality to Puzzle Quest 2 that makes it incredibly polished, addictive and – most importantly – damn fun. Somehow in its potentially chaotic Bejewelled-meets-Diablo-meets-Ultima gameplay, there is an incredible harmony created whereby almost every aspect of gameplay feels polished and enjoyable. I cannot reiterate this enough – Puzzle Quest 2 is undisputably fantastic.
ProsAddictive, rewarding gameplay
A lengthy and enjoyable campaign – especially for a downloadable title
Deep RPG roots with extensive customization and user-specific gameplay styles
ConsLengthy play sessions leads to Puzzle-Quest burnout
Menu system isn’t all too intuitive, a tad too clunky for its own good
In case it’s hard to tell, I loved the wholly hell out of this game – It was phenomenal from start to finish and shows exactly why downloadable titles are so relevant in today’s gaming market. Whilst it’s no game of the year contender, its well and truly one of the best games downloadable games on XBLA and PSN of this year, and possibly of all time. Absolutely fantastic.