I picked up Puzzle Quest and its sequel quite awhile back, but never got around to trying it until I saw a comedy video about it. That’s when I knew I needed to try it. Unfortunately, it really didn’t live up to my expectations, and I can’t help but wonder if the near-universal praise for it has something to do with the match-3 concept being more interesting back in 2007 than it is now that a million mobile games have exhausted it (many of which do it better than this game, in my opinion). Coming at this game without any nostalgia, I was blown away by just how shallow it was despite all of its complexities, with the vast majority of the game coming down to the same flawed matching system and feeling same-ish no matter what items and special attacks you have. That’s to say nothing of its non-story or the fact that the last third of the game is a giant, seemingly unending fetch quest, either. It’s just not anywhere near as enjoyable as its praise led me to believe.
A lot of talking for nothing
Puzzle Quest’s aesthetic kind of reminds me of Fire Emblem, with non-voiced characters facing each other and there being kingdoms and royalty and all that jazz. The difference is that Fire Emblem games are actually well written and involve you in the game’s events in addition to allowing you to get to know its characters. Puzzle Quest isn’t anything like that, instead filling the entire game with meaningless “the undead are becoming more frequent and/or attacking” quests that never develop beyond that. Characters appear, only to be thrown by the wayside, existing solely to give you fairly meaningless perks inside of combat. There’s a ton of dialogue, and it’s all filler to give the impression that there’s something resembling a story here. This is just an illusion, and really what you’re doing is fighting your way from point A to point B, doing a ton of busywork, then finally beating one of a handful of bosses to progress the non-story. Eventually you reach the bad guy in his surprisingly unfortified fortress, beat him, and that’s that.
Where are the characters?
Don’t let the game art fool you—characters look detailed enough from a graphical standpoint that you’d be justified in expecting them to have matching detail put into their personalities, and yet they might as well be talking rocks. Every so often you’ll get a little back story, but it never leads anywhere or causes your companions to be likable. Basically, they just follow you around because you’re the hero and they’re secondary characters, and they’re fleshed out about as well as an NPC wandering around your typical RPG village. It’s just hugely disappointing to go in expecting something—anything—from the character department, only to realize that there really aren’t any actual characters in this game. They have their quirks, of course: the bow guy is standoffish while the dwarf talks too much, but the fact that I’d need to look up a screenshot to remember their names after spending 30-40 hours with the game speaks volumes about how far this goes to flesh them out. Even the royalty-types who you report to in the beginning of the game eventually become meaningless as you wander around without consulting them.
Sharing the board is irritating
I could get past the absence of a story or characters if the underlying gameplay was solid enough, but I’ve played quite a few match-3 games that are simply better than this because of the strategy they allow. In those, you plan ahead to create huge combos and doing so is always incredibly rewarding. In Puzzle Quest, however, you and your enemy take turns making moves on the same board, so you’re unable to set up anything spectacular because your opponent will just swoop in and use it against you. This turns the gameplay into a slow, stale affair where you’re actively trying to keep anything too big from developing on the board for fear that your opponent will be able to capitalize on it before you do.
And they will, if you play slowly enough
I noticed a few weird things while playing, with the first being that the enemy will always make incredibly smart moves if you take too long to make your own, whereas matching as quickly and haphazardly as possible causes them to miss obvious matches that would be more advantageous to them. The game effectively rewards a lack of planning, which seems like an incredibly stupid thing for a game with “puzzle” in its title to do. The second and more astonishing thing I noticed was that the game cheats a lot. I’m not the type to call a game out for cheating, and yet even I have to admit that this game cheats like crazy, consistently making boneheaded moves that turn out to be brilliant because the perfect pieces fell from the top of the screen. If this was rare, I could chalk it up to chance, but this was happening in almost every match toward the end of the game.
Skulls and skills
The actual gameplay seems interesting enough at first glance, with the different pieces you can match all having their own unique uses. The purple stars give you experience, the gold pieces give you money, skulls directly damage your opponent, and red/blue/yellow/green pieces are different types of magic that certain spells require you to have a certain amount of before you’re able to cast them. The annoying thing about skills is that late-game enemies are able to block your skills a disgusting amount of the time, so I found myself relying on skulls almost entirely, which is another thing that caused matches to go painfully slow.
There are RPG elements, kind of
As you gain levels through experience (gained by matching stars and finishing quests), you’re given points to put into skills. Most of these increase the effectiveness of certain board pieces and give you a slight increase in your chance to get another turn when matching them. There’s also one stat that determines whether you or your enemy goes first (“cunning,” I think), with the highest value getting the first turn. You can also buy weapons and armor that help you in various ways, and while I suppose the RPG elements could aid some players, I found them to be surprisingly distracting. There are just a lot of mechanics that accomplish very little and do nothing to remedy the repetitive nature of the game.
The last third of the game is just painful
Not only were enemies constantly resisting my special attacks, forcing me to slowly chip away at their health, but toward the end of the game you’re forced to engage in this series of quests where you find and assemble a not-dead-but-disassembled god to help you. This is a giant fetch quest, and I was so worn out by the tedious battles by that point that I considered just giving up on the game. Eventually deciding to just press on, I was rewarded with more non-characters and a series of mind-numbing puzzle-fights that were every bit as terrible as I expected.
Mana drain sucks
When there are no possible moves, the game doesn’t just reshuffle the board like a normal game would. No, it does the single most irritating thing it could and takes everyone’s magic away, then reshuffles the board, forcing you to build up your magic reserves all over again. Whoever decided this was a good idea was a sadist, and I occasionally found myself making stupid moves solely to avoid needlessly extending matches and making them more tedious than they already were.
The graphics and music are good for awhile
Like I said, the graphics are pretty good. Sadly, almost everything occurs on the overworld map, so you don’t get to actually see the characters a great deal, and the game is more likely to tell you that something happened with someone than to actually let you participate. Beyond that, I couldn’t get the game to run at a resolution higher than 1680×1050, which is incredibly bizarre for a game from 2007. The music is another matter, being of an extremely high quality, but the soundtrack has very few unique tracks and this causes them to be reused so frequently that they eventually become incredibly grating. I also found that tracks would randomly stop before they reached their end, with another song taking their place rather than one ending and another beginning. This happens when a character has low health, but it also frequently happened when nothing was happening and I was looking for the best move. Weird stuff.