Not since Monty Python and the Holy Grail has there been a medieval adventure as sacrilegious as Puzzle Quest. Breaking from the traditional hack-'n'-slash RPG, it rolls in like a Sir Bedevere's Trojan Rabbit, albeit one bearing the gift of addictive puzzle-solving gameplay.
In Puzzle Quest's extraordinarily lengthy campaign, you take the role of a hesitant hero from Etheria, a land overrun with ugly orcs, nefarious necromancers, and all manner of feral beasts. In the form of either a druid, warrior, knight, or wizard, it's your job to quiet down the surge of evil by dispatching its mastermind, Lord Bane.
As with any role-playing game, your goal is to move around this world of castles, dungeons and villages, defeating creatures and gaining experience points in the process. But in an interesting twist – and as its name suggests – Puzzle Quest sees you hacking apart your enemies using the medium of turn-based puzzling.
If you've ever played games such as Connect Four or casual Web favourite Bejeweled then you'll have a good idea how this works.
Battles occur on an 8 x 8 grid filled with coloured mana gems, skulls, coins, and purple stars. Your goal is to connect lines of three, four or five items together. This not only removes them from the grid, but you also gain the effects of whatever you've joined together to make the line.
For example, connecting a line of three blue gems grants you that much mana for casting spells (there are four different coloured manas representing earth, air, fire and water). Matching skulls deals damage direct to your enemy. Coins contribute to your coffers, while purple stars bring you additional experience points.
All you have to do to move items on the grid is tap and drag them with the stylus. The system works very well, letting you intuitively position items to maximise your puzzle-solving power. On rare occasions, the touchscreen will err and you'll miss a turn, but for the most part the interface holds up nicely.
Coins and experience points are well and good, but winning battles is about taking your opponent's hit points down to zero. Bringing a line of skulls together is the best way to dish out the hurt, and you can also cast defensive and offensive spells.
These spells can be unlocked when you reach specific levels or can be learnt from your enemies. One of our favourites is the stun spell, which delays your enemy's turn and effectively gives you two turns in a row. Using spells like this becomes crucial when facing advanced foes, so you'll want to learn a variety of magic and play around to see what works best for you.
Success also requires you to be able to think ahead, both in order to set up your attacks, and to make sure you don't leave obvious moves for your opponent to exploit.
You'll also spend plenty of time optimising your character's attributes, by distributing your experience points between options such as battle, cunning, morale and the four types of magic. In this way, developing your character provides a ton of depth – and Puzzle Quest doesn't stop there. You can also boost your abilities by building a citadel using the cash you gain. More practical than that silly place called Camelot, expanding its facilities enables you to capture enemies and train them as mounts, as well as researching magic and forging weapons to augment your combat abilities.
Even with these resources and a well-developed hero, you'll get beaten by many of the tougher foes. This can be blamed on the often insanely challenging artificial intelligence that often lands killer combos, resulting in strings of devastating attacks that eat up your hit points. Fortunately there isn't any penalty for losing a battle; in fact, as you get to keep any experience earned, you're encouraged to try until you emerge victorious. Nevertheless the process can become very frustrating, and the spiky AI is the one real gripe we have with Puzzle Quest.
If the campaign gets you too heated, you can always amass a bit of extra experience in the multiplayer mode, assuming you have a friend with a copy of the game; sadly there's no support for the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection, nor can you trade items. Still, the head-to-head matches do provide some passing fun.
All-in-all, Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords provides an experience that despite its hybrid nature is surprising enjoyable, engaging and lengthy, if overly difficult at times. It's unlikely to gain the sort of widespread reputation of Monty Python's quest, but we think you'll have a hard time saying "Ni!" to this innovative little gem.
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