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Review: Puzzle Quest
Bar Harbor
alexx_kay
Remember how, a few months back, I wrote this huge post about my strategies for Bejewled 2? Almost all of those strategy ideas have been rendered obsolete by the latest piece of digital crack: Puzzle Quest.

PQ has an absurdly simple high concept: a simple fantasy RPG, with most of the game mechanics expressed through one or another variant of Bejeweled. It sounds dumb, but it works far better than you might expect.

First off, simply making it a competitive game makes Bejeweled hugely more interesting. No longer do you set up combos for yourself; now you have to try *not* to set up combos which your opponent can take advantage of. If the board is short on moves, you can even sometimes deliberately maneuver your opponent into setting up combos for you, though this is pretty rare.

It doesn't stop there, though. Because the jewels you match-3 on aren't just abstract interchangeable colors; each type has a different effect. Four of them generate mana when you match them, in the traditional elemental flavors, which can then be used to cast spells. Two of them, coins and experience points, have no direct effect on the current battle, but will aid your character growth in the metagame. The last type, skulls, do direct damage to your opponent. Sometimes, there are glowing skulls which, when matched, explode and take out the eight surrounding gems.

The spell system adds a sort of Magic the Gathering layer to the whole thing. The player can only bring six spells into any one battle, so carefully balancing which ones you choose is an important aspect of gameplay. Spells can be devastating, but of course the most potent ones require lots of mana to power. And many enemies have mana-draining powers, so you have to gauge carefully when to deploy your spells for best effect.

There's lots of other RPG goodness under the hood: skills to raise; magic items to find, buy, or craft yourself; mounts you can capture and train; capturing enemies and researching their unique spells; laying siege to cities to increase your domain; quest to perform (some of which even have multiple outcomes); faithful companions who will aid you in your travels. Oh, and a story, though that is a minor element, being a straightforward "Evil invades, Good must defeat it." There's always some new thing to look forward to, encouraging you to play "just one more round".

There are four different player classes, each of whom has a completely different set of spells. I suspect that this lends the game significant replayability. In discussing our individual experiences at work, the classes do seem to play very differently.

Depending on your mix of skills, spells, and items, you will care more about some types of gems than others. This also holds true for your opponents, adding yet more layers of strategy. Whenever I'm up against an Orc, I do my best to get all the red mana, even though that's not my strong point, simply because I fear letting the Orc have too much of it.

In addition to the variety of RPG mechanics, they also change up the basic Bejeweled game from time to time. There are crafted puzzles, timed matches, and a variety of single-player modes used to accomplish various goals. For instance, to forge a new magic item, you play a single player game on a board that has a new symbol added - anvils - and you need to match a certain number of anvils to successfully craft the item.

This game gets my highest (if somewhat back-handed) accolade: it got so deeply into my brain when I first got it that I was unable to sleep, spent most of the night playing it, and called in sick to work the next day because I was so fried. That hasn't happened to me since WoW. In fact, sometimes when I'm at home and *could* be playing WoW, I play PQ instead. Although I haven't yet finished the campaign -- or indeed gotten halfway -- I've already received more than enough gaming value to justify the purchase, and there's lot's more to come. Highly recommended, if you have room for a casual game addiction in your life.
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I largely agree with you, but there were two huge problems with the game. (1) Dominant strategies were very easy to find. By about level 30 I had figured out a set of spells that I could basically infinite-combo anyone to death with. (2) I reached the level 50 cap very quickly, and soon after that exhausted all other non-quest stuff you can do. So I was left with pretty much one option: continue the main story quest. But without the carrot of leveling up, I completely lost interest in the game about halfway through the story arc (judging by the amount of the map I'd explored) and haven't picked it up since.

I'm curious. What combos did you find, and with which character class?

I forget the names of the spells now, but as a Knight there's a spell where you can pick any gem and turn all gems of that color red, and then there's a spell you cast where any four or five-combo nets you +1 to all your mana. So you cast the second spell first, and then just continually cast the first spell getting infinte combos until you've done a ton of peripheral damage in the process and your mana is maxed out across the board.

Thanks for the reply. I've currently got a L22 Druid, and he hasn't (yet) got anything that game-breaking in his arsenal.

"Casual game addiction"... this illustrates the problem with the "casual" moniker for these games.

No longer do you set up combos for yourself; now you have to try *not* to set up combos which your opponent can take advantage of.

Does this mean it's entirely turn-based with you and your opponent taking turns making matches?

I see from the developer's website that the PC version won't be released until later this month, they don't give the system requirements, don't know what if any copy protection will be used, and the FAQ is just three questions: two about major bugs and one about availability in Australia.

It certainly is largely turn-based. The "train a captured mount" sub-game has time limits on turns, but that's the only time pressure bit.

I should perhaps also mention that "taking turns" is sort of approximate. There are lots of conditions, some deterministic, some probabilistic, that can result in multiple turns in a row for either player.

Last night I downloaded the demo (and was surprised to find it actually worked on my system), and spent a couple hours playing through the available content (it had a level cap at 7 and no new quests after you bring Darkhunter to your home city). Does anyone know why it starts by trying to access the internet (which I had my firewall block), then do nothing for about a minute before showing the splash screen?

Interesting game. (Disclaimer: the developer's forums indicate a lot of changes have been made since the demo came out.) The dialog is written out letter by letter v.e.r.y..s..l..o...w....y but the spell results gobyreallyrelyfst. Also, the help tips that appear during combat (not the tutorial lady) are very annoying (they cover up gems you may want to click), and usually tell you stuff you've already heard a dozen times before ("Mana lets you cast spells!"). And yet nothing ever explained what wildcards are or how to use them (it took my a lot of trial and error to figure them out).

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