Have you ever sat down to play a video game for 30 minutes, only to look up at the clock two or three hours later wondering where the time went? Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords is likely to have that kind of effect. It’s dangerously addictive.
Puzzle Quest is a combination puzzle and role-playing game. I know what you’re thinking, that’s an odd mix, but it works amazingly well here. The puzzle aspect comes into play during combat, which takes the form of a turn-based puzzle game similar to Bejeweled. On an 8x8 grid, you and your opponent take turns swapping adjacent gems in an effort to match three or more of the same gem in a row, either vertically or horizontally. If you match skulls, you inflict damage to your opponent. Matching stars nets you experience points while matching coins adds gold to your pocket. There are also four different colored gems (red for fire, blue for water, green for earth and yellow for air) that add mana to your reserve when matched. The object is to defeat your opponent by depleting their hit points.
The obvious way to do that is to match skulls, but that’s why you want to accumulate mana, so you can cast spells. There are a wide variety of spells in the game; some offensive in nature, causing direct damage; some defensive in nature, providing health and resistance to different mana types; and still others that affect gems on the grid or grant extra turns. You can only perform one action, casting a spell or swapping a tile, unless the spell specifically states your turn doesn’t end upon casting, therefore strategy plays a key role. Do you jump at the chance to do direct damage by matching skulls, do you try to match the colored mana required to cast your spells, or do you actively seek out the mana your opponent needs in order to cast one of his spells, especially if they rely heavily on one color? Toss in extra turns every time you match four or more gems, wildcards (with multipliers) each time you match five, and glowing skulls that cause additional damage, and you wind up with a clever combat engine that never plays the same way twice.
You start Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords by selecting one of four character classes: Druid, Knight, Warrior and Wizard, each with a predisposition to one or two mana types as well as their own set of spells and class bonuses. The world map is dotted with cities, villages, dungeons, camps and other locations that you can travel to and from. There’s a main quest to complete, as well as several optional side quests to help your character earn experience, gold and find items. You can visit shops to purchase new weapons, armor and miscellaneous equipment that grant bonuses in combat, as well as taverns to listen (or pay) for rumors.
You also have a citadel you can build up by spending gold on various structures. When appropriately augmented, you can then capture enemies you’ve defeated multiple times in combat and use them for mounts or to research their spells. You can search for and collect runes throughout the game world and use them to forge new weapons. You can even lay siege to other cities in order to earn more gold. Most of the actions at the citadel also take the form of the aforementioned puzzle game, with modified rules. Some require a little more brainpower, such as capturing creatures, while others are unfortunately based more on luck than skill, like when researching spells. Putting together all these aspects, Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords really is quite an in-depth experience.
If you’ve already had the pleasure of playing Puzzle Quest on the Nintendo DS or Sony PSP, there’s a major change in the Xbox Live Arcade version. Certain spells have cool down periods, meaning you can’t re-cast that spell until a certain number of turns have passed. This negates the overuse of some of the game’s more powerful spells. The other major addition is multiplayer. Two players can go head-to-head in combat via Xbox Live.
Visually, Puzzle Quest is functional, colorful and gets the job done. The same can be said for the audio. There are very few voice clips – dialogue between characters is done entirely in text – but the soundtrack is appropriate, heating up just at the right moments, and the sound effects are spot on. For an Xbox Live Arcade, it’s a very pleasant presentation.
Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords is available via Xbox Live Marketplace for 1200 Microsoft Points. That’s $15 USD. The crazy thing is you’ll undoubtedly spend more time playing Puzzle Quest than most of the $60-70 games in your collection. It’s fun, addictive and easily ranks among the very best offerings on Xbox Live Arcade.