Surprisingly deep and addictive, given its casual roots
Genre mixing is nothing new. We have RTS/RPG hybrids, MMOFPS's, and FPS/RPG hybrids. Now, with Puzzle Quest, we have – the RPG/Puzzle hybrid? Yes, you read that right. The combination doesn't sound quite right, and, in practice, it is not always an elegant blend. However, Puzzle Quest is still a great, cheap game with extremely satisfying, addictive gameplay inside of an interesting RPG framework. It is not going to challenge Crysis in the graphics department any time soon and the story is fairly ordinary, but there is nothing like it on the PC. If you are looking to spend less than twenty bucks on a game that can be played on a six year old computer, then Puzzle Quest is one of the best budget games you will ever find.
Puzzle Quest is branded as an RPG/Puzzle hybrid, but it's more like a turn-based strategy game with a story and some RPG elements. The centerpiece of the game is its Bejeweled-style combat. You travel from place-to-place on the world map, picking up quests and fighting monsters. When you encounter an enemy, the combat sequence begins. The combat could exist on its own without any of the game's other features, because it is that good. You and your opponent take turns swapping gems on a board, clearing a set when you match three or more. Colored gems can be accumulated to cast "spells" – special moves that you learn by gaining levels or capturing enemies. Skull gems damage your opponent, and other gems give you extra experience or gold.
The combat mechanics are basic, but the unique implementation of combat and spells transforms a simple setup into a completely unique experience. Puzzle Quest is a surprisingly addictive game that will have you contemplating your every move. Should you use a move to clear a trio of blue gems to deprive your enemy of them? Or, should you clear a trio of green gems so that you can cast a spell on your next turn? As you progress through the game, you will become better and better at seeing one or two turns ahead and anticipating your opponent's moves. Sometimes you will pass up a chance to do 3 points of damage to your enemy, because it will set him up to do 7 points of damage to you. This captivating chess mechanic is what makes Puzzle Quest an excellent strategy game. No two battles ever play out the same, and most of them require a lot of thought. Puzzle Quest can be like crack. It will have you thinking about moves at work and swapping gems in your sleep. The game can be very challenging – sometimes punishing, since your opponents can have frustratingly good foresight and some annoyingly good luck. It is this level of challenge that gives the game its longevity and addictiveness.
The game's role-playing elements are somewhat rudimentary and less important than the combat, but they still provide an interesting framework for the game. You can gain experience levels and use gold to buy equipment upgrades. If you ever get tired of straight up one-on-one combat, you can dabble in some other activities, such as capturing mounts or learning new spells. The world map gives you a lot of areas to visit, and once you have unlocked areas you can visit them at your leisure. As an open-ended game, Puzzle Quest is never lacking in something to do. Unfortunately, you never get to explore or see any place besides its icon on the map. Fighting monsters or initiating dialog is as simple as selecting an option from a drop-down menu. This dialog offers you no choice and is mostly uninteresting. Fighting, while fun and addictive, is totally disconnected from the rest of the game. Fighting in Puzzle Quest would be like meeting a troll in Oblivion and then pulling out a game of checkers to see who wins the fight. If you are truly looking for the next great RPG, then Puzzle Quest isn't necessarily the game for you. However, the RPG elements at least facilitate the game's Bejeweled-style combat, and that's all that is necessary.
In case you did not notice, Puzzle Quest is also available on handhelds such as the Nintendo DS and the PSP. As you might expect, the graphics are considerably behind the times on the PC. The game is entirely 2D and can probably be played on any PC built this decade. If you are looking for a game to justify the purchase of a $400 video card, then this is not the one for you. However, it still looks pretty good for a 2D game. The art direction is top-notch, and the battle sequences feature lots of bright colors and dazzling effects. The cut scenes are well drawn, although they are totally static and just feature two characters exchanging dialog through word bubbles. The lack of voice acting in the game is a disappointment, but a surprisingly good soundtrack is one of the game's better points.
Graphical showcases like Crysis and World in Conflict have largely overshadowed games like Puzzle Quest, but don't let this game pass you by. In many ways, it is as fun and satisfying as the big budget major releases of recent years. I played it for probably 60 hours before finishing it. It is a game that can be picked up and played for half an hour, and it is also a game that you can sink four hours into at a time. This game actually pulled me away from Gears of War and The Witcher. Considering the game's sub-$20 price tag and its casual roots, that was a pleasant surprise.