Puzzle Quest

Genre crossovers are nothing new in the world of gaming. Action/role playing, first-person/adventure and action/platformer are just some of the common combinations developers have used to create unique titles.

Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords is one of the most successful marriages of two different gaming styles available. Its blending of traditional role-playing and addictive puzzling makes for a game that is fun, unique and appeals to an amazingly vast audience.

Puzzle Quest takes place in a fantasy realm and allows the player to choose a character from four different classes (Knight, Wizard, Druid, and Warrior). Beyond that, the story is almost totally forgettable, told with “cut scenes” featuring still pictures of the player’s character using comic book text bubbles. Players are tasked with fetch quests, hunting monsters, rescuing innocents and searching for treasure — all stock fantasy fare. Luckily for Puzzle Quest, the story is of no consequence, as it just serves to move the player from battle to joyous battle.

Combat in Puzzle Quest is where the “puzzle” in the title comes from. Each battle takes place on a Bejeweled-like grid of gems. Gems come in five different types: red/blue/green/yellow mana gems, stars, coins, numbered blocks, and skulls. By lining up three or more of the same type of gem, an effect is generated. Skulls hit enemies directly, colored mana adds to your mana reserves and is used for spell casting, numbered blocks are wild cards used to increase mana haul, and stars grant extra experience. Those familiar with Bejeweled or similar titles will feel right at home.

The combat is addictive, fun, highly strategic and rewarding. Spells come in an array of varieties, ranging from straight-up damaging fireballs to more subtle elemental mana-fixing. Some battles can take upwards of 15 minutes and two fights rarely play out the same. The degree of difficulty is also nearly perfect. Battles can be tough, but with thought and planning, even high-level enemies can be taken down. There is also no need to “grind” — the dreaded role-playing practice of walking around and leveling up to beat tougher enemies — in Puzzle Quest.

Since Puzzle Quest is available on a number of platforms, it bears mentioning that the Wii version added a control scheme available with the system’s unique remote. Unfortunately, it did so to spectacular failure. The game allows the player to use the remote by itself to shift gems, move the character along the world map and, well, everything else. Within the gem grid (the most important aspect of the game) pointing and clicking to shift gem positions is an inexact, headache-causing chore. Penalties come within the game for illegal moves (trying to align two red gems with a green, for example) to make the player think about their next play. You would need the hands of a surgeon to be able to play a mistake-free battle the way this pointer jumps. I made at least three mistakes per fight that were clearly controller error before switching to the nunchuk-style control scheme.

This alternate style is much better control-wise, but poorly mapped buttons and an unnatural feel take away from it. Why am I using the nunchuk when I don’t ever have to control my character’s movement? At least with this control scheme the remote’s directional pad is used to shift gems, cutting mistakes to zero. Flipping the controller horizontal would have been a lot more intuitive.

Other problems arise with the Wii port of Puzzle Quest. The text on screen is unforgivably small, simultaneously eliminating any interest in the story and making buying items a lesson in squinting. With certain backgrounds, the text is completely unreadable. The music also skips and cuts in and out during battles, something that is jarring during game play and shows laziness on the part of those responsible for the port.

Graphically, Puzzle Quest is underwhelming at best. There is very little animation in the title, evidenced by the fact that your character is nothing more than a picture, and spells aren’t much more than glorified lightning bolts. Enemy picture cards do look cool, so there’s that.

For all the technical problems, though, Puzzle Quest does a whole mess of things right. Enforcing the Wii’s commitment to casual gaming, the title can be as deep or shallow as the player wants. There are hundreds of side quests that can be used to beef up characters or sate players’ troll bloodlust, but which have no bearing on the “story” or beating the game. Similarly, the Citadel (a hub for learning new skills, training mounts and forging items, among other tasks) is a hardcore player’s dream, but it’s also something that casual players can skip altogether and never be penalized. You can spend 20 minutes every few days playing this game, or you can pour hundreds of hours into making your character a powerhouse.

At $30, the Wii version of Puzzle Quest isn’t as great a deal as the Xbox Live Arcade or the superior DS version. But it is a great deal for the amount of content that’s there. Anyone with even the slightest interest in puzzle games and/or role-playing games will find something worthwhile in Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords. Hopefully, developer Infinite Interactive will add some polish and better controls to this groundwork to produce a truly divine sequel down the road.

If you can overlook the graphics, don’t mind reading a lame story and have a nice set of headphones and some music to listen to, Puzzle Quest goes from underwhelming and quirky port to a must-have. At worst, the uniqueness of this title must be admired.

RATING 6 / 10