After the abysmal effort to port Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords to iPhone and iPod touch, it's great to see the sequel handled with care.
There's no simpler way to put it: Puzzle Quest 2 carries none of the baggage of its beleaguered predecessor and all of the charm of the handheld original.
Namco Networks, in collaboration with developers Infinite Interactive and Spark Plug Games (the latter of which is responsible for this iPad port), is crafting an absorbing game that skilfully blends role-playing and obsessive puzzle play.
With a few tweaks here and some polish there, this is sure to be a winner.
What's old is new again
RPG-puzzle is a concept that seems commonplace, but it was Puzzle Quest that broke new ground with the formula. This is a sequel that opts for high quality reinterpretation than adventurous innovation and the result is rock-solid gameplay that may not be fresh, but promises a lot of fun.
You begin by selecting a male or female character from four classes: stealthy magic-casting assassin, brute force barbarian, magic-heavy sorcerer, and defensive templar.
While you're able to directly attack enemies and cast spells from each class, you start with statistical bonuses related to your class's speciality.
Additionally, some items and abilities can only be used with a certain class. Assassins, for example, are the only class capable of using poisons to harm enemies.
Cast a spell on you
Acquiring new abilities and equipment is done like in any other role-playing game: winning battles to earn experience that levels up your character.
The key difference in Puzzle Quest 2 is that battles play out as competitive match-three puzzles. Linking three or more skulls dishes damage to your foe. Whittle away all their hit points and you win.
Along with skulls, the grid is filled with coloured gems that can be matched for mana. Accumulated mana can be used to cast spells that boost defence, raise attack power, affect the layout of the puzzle grid, or even harm your opponent.
The assassin's Swift Strike spell, for instance, converts all yellow gems to purple ones and deals one point of damage for each gem converted. The barbarian's Pummel doles out one point of damage for every two red gems on the grid.
It's possible to win battles solely by stocking up on mana and casting spells. Conversely, you could shun magic use and focus on matching up skulls to take down your enemies. That choice infuses the game with strategy that's absent from other match-three puzzlers and makes Puzzle Quest 2 incredibly engaging.
Loot, to boot
Outside battle, you're able to equip armour, weapons, and relics to boost your attack and defence capabilities. Items can be purchased from shops, but are more commonly won from battle or looted from chests.
A clever match-three mini-game determines the quality of loot you get when opening a chest. As you successfully clear coins and treasure chests from the grid, stones creep up to render rows unplayable. Not only does it put a limit on how much loot you collect, but it restricts potential matches.
Even if you're not interested in developing a character through the campaign, there's a diverse slate of alternatives. Modes include one-off Quick Battle; never-ending Endurance mode; Tournament mode, in which you line up teams to duke it out on the puzzle grid; and you're given access to any of the mini-games from the main menu.
Stuff that needs fixing
All of the elements for a great game are here, though some work remains to be done.
The game's new isometric perspective brings performance challenges. Tuning up the game to run smoothly is a must before release.
Additionally, tweaking menus to guarantee the greatest ease of use should be a priority. Scrolling through your inventory, for instance, requires a scroll bar - you should be able to scroll manually with a finger.
Multiplayer doesn't seem to be in the cards - it was nowhere to be found in the preview version - but given the wealth of gameplay that Puzzle Quest 2 promises there's more than enough to keep you occupied for hours on end.
Quite honestly, I'd prefer the focus to remain on fine-tuning the single-player experience, which is shaping up nicely.Puzzle Quest 2 will be available this autumn for iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad.