Initially released on the PSP and Nintendo DS in early 2007 before making its way to the PC and Xbox Live Arcade a few months ago, Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords continues its tour of the video game systems with recent editions for the Wii and PlayStation 2. All that’s left is for the title to appear on the PlayStation 3 and considering how good this game is, I wouldn’t the least bit surprised to see that happen.
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 of the puzzle game 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.
Much like the PC and Xbox Live Arcade editions of Puzzle Quest, the Wii version offers a couple of significant enhancements over the earlier PSP and Nintendo DS editions of the game. Certain spells have cool down periods, meaning you can’t re-cast that spell until a specified number of turns have passed. This negates the overuse of some of the game’s more powerful spells. The other major addition is multiplayer, which sees two players do head-to-head battle.
Unfortunately it’s not all rosy for the Wii version of Puzzle Quest. The presentation is sub-par compared to its PC and XBLA counterparts. Visually, everything has been shrunk and so it’s difficult to make out some of the finer details on the world map, not to mention read some of the game’s text. The poor presentation extends to the game’s epic-sounding music, which cuts off abruptly rather than making smooth transitions from one track to the next.
The most disappointing aspect is the game’s control schemes. The default scheme uses the Wii Remote as a pointer, but it’s too sensitive and the menu icons too small to be effective. Ultimately the default scheme is too time-consuming and frustrating to deal with. The optional control scheme uses the Wii Remote and Nunchuk together. In this scheme, rather than using the Wii Remote as a pointer, you use the d-pad to navigate the world map and manipulate gems during combat. Unfortunately this scheme doesn’t work much better. The button layout is completely random and for the life of me I can’t figure out why the Nunchuk’s analog stick is disabled during combat. Clearly this is one case where the Wii’s unique controller complicates what should be a simple game.
In my opinion, Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords is the best puzzle game of this past year. It’s fun and dangerously addictive. If you’re a fan of puzzle or role-playing games, you owe it to yourself to check it out. Having been said, the Wii is the weakest of all versions of the game. It also happens to be the most expensive. Go figure. If you can play this game on any other system, particularly the PC, Xbox Live Arcade or PS2, I would recommend you do just that. If those aren’t options for you, I suppose the Wii will do.