Let’s take a moment to discuss prejudice. I don’t mean the kind of prejudice that gets you fired from your nationally broadcast radio show. I’m talking about the opposite but no less harmful scenario: when you want so desperately to love a game with an inspired premise that you keep subjecting yourself to its buggy coding, messy interface, and perplexing AI. This is what happened to me with Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords, which I was convinced was going to live up to its incredible title. So why wasn’t I enjoying it? Surely the problem was mine and not Puzzle Quest’s. Like a battered spouse, I kept making excuses for the game.
ROLE PLAYING AND PUZZLE SOLVING: Not to mention computer crashing.
Well, no more. Puzzle Quest certainly has all the makings of an out-of-left-field hit. It’s an unlikely combination of genres with a good mix of seriousness and humor. Head-to-head games using falling block puzzles are nothing new (it was done most successfully in Capcom’s classic Super Puzzle Fighter Turbo for the PlayStation), but Puzzle Quest may be the first to marry fantasy role playing and gem-swapping puzzle solving. It’s epic stuff: warriors with shadowy pasts, royalty hiding among commoners, kingdoms under assault from undead and orc armies. The zeal with which Puzzle Quest throws itself at the story line is initially charming. And then you realize that they’re not kidding around. This is a serious RPG.
Besides the main story quest, there are numerous subquests you can undertake to pump up your character. You can acquire magical runes that can be used to craft weapons and armor. Or capture enemies and ride them around the map, thereby obtaining status and attribute boosts. You can even face off against entire cities — they’ve got a lot of hit points — and once you’ve besieged them you can exploit their resources. In other words, there’s much more to the game than the colorful-gem swapping you’d expect. That may be right in the wheelhouse for some, but for those looking for the next addictive puzzle game, it’s tough to swallow. Worse still, the bugginess hampers the text-driven upgrade systems. More than once my PSP crashed while I was navigating the menus.
The puzzle-based battles are the real draw here for a mass audience, though they too are riddled with flaws. If you’ve played Bejeweled, then you’re familiar with the basic mechanic. Colored gems are randomly arranged on an 8x8 grid. You can swap any two adjacent gems to try to create three in a row or greater, which then vanish from the board and are replaced from above. Except that in this game the board is a proxy for a fight to the death between your character and a foe. Match three skulls and you’ll deal direct damage. Match any colors and you’ll draw energy into a mana pool, which then allows you to cast offensive and defensive spells. It’s easy to grasp but frustrating when you realize that your computerized opponent can predict the future. Foes frequently bypass obvious moves to set up huge chains that will deal massive damage once several new gems have dropped on screen. You can scrounge up your own cheap methods over the course of the game, but it’s never good when AI crosses the line from challenging to cheap.
You may still enjoy Puzzle Quest — it’s the kind of experiment game developers ought to try more of. Just don’t make the mistake of falling in love with it before you know what you’re getting yourself into.