Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords - Staff Review  

Heroic Effort
by Mikel Tidwell

50-60 hours


Rating definitions 

    When I first heard about Puzzle Quest: : Challenge of the Warlords, I was intrigued. While never a fan of Bejeweled, the game most people compare with the puzzle play in Puzzle Quest, Tetris has been a favorite game of mine since the green-screened Game Boy. Puzzle Quest merges the quick action of a puzzle game with the length and complexity of an RPG-style story. It accomplishes this surprisingly well, so well in fact, the hours fly by during play sessions.

    The game begins with the selection of hero or heroine. There are four classes to choose from: Warrior, Knight, Druid, and Wizard; each having two male and two female portraits to choose from. Each class has its own selection of spells for the entire growth of the character. When the hero levels, each class has its own costs for each stat, further separating the classes from each other. The PlayStation Portable version of Puzzle Quest allows for multiple characters to be stored, making it possible to play all the different classes. Each character, of course, has to make separate progression through the plot.

    The story is simple: save the kingdom. While no one would consider the story to be epic, it gets the job done. There's enough there to keep the action moving, but it does seem to drag on now and then. The hero has to entertain many royalty and their requests during the journey. Even without the side quests, the game will take a long time to complete. The hero travels from point to point on a static map. Paths on the world map open up via quests, either story or optional. It's possible for a place on the map to disappear, so make sure to explore it fully before moving onward. There are runes scattered throughout the land. Finding and winning these runes is essential for the long journey, as they are a source for powerful equipment. Other side quests include taking over cities and forcing them to pay gold every month the hero visits, and capturing monsters for their spells or using them as mounts.

    The battle system is equally simple: match three of a kind by swapping two adjacent pieces on the board. Matching yellow, red, blue, or green gems nets the hero mana for their spells. Matching the gold coins increases the gold amount, and matching the purple stars gives the hero a few experience points. Matching four in a row grants another turn, and matching five in a row both grants another turn and produces a wildcard on the board in the same location. When a wildcard is used in matching mana gems, it multiplies the outcome by the number on the wildcard. This speeds up an otherwise slow collection process.

Map Mode Drakenburg has an idea.

    To win the battle, you must match skulls to cause damage to the opponent. The amount of damage done depends on the type of skulls and the Battle Skill of the player, as well as any items that affect damage worn by either player. It's not as complex as is sounds. If a skull glows red, it will cause five more damage and explode when matched, taking out all gems touching the skull. If one of these happens to be another red skull, another explosion will occur around that spot as well. Any gem destroyed in this way gives one respective point to the player, be it extra damage, mana, experience, or gold. If the player wins the match, they are awarded extra gold and experience based on their Cunning Skill and the challenge of the opponent. If the player loses, they do not get a bonus and are sent packing, but they keep the gold and experience gained during the battle, and can try again as many times as they need. It's a small compensation, but over time it does make a difference.

    While the developers claim they did not make the AI smart enough to cheat, it does seem to be able to pull off consecutive moves fairly often. The tutorial mentions that sometimes you'll have to play the game of mana deprivation, but in reality that's an impossible strategy because of the uncanny matching of new gems and wildcards for both players. Early on, it seems unfair, but as the hero levels, the plays even out. As the skills increase, the chance to receive a random extra turn from a match also increases. Near the end of the game, I would be able to run off more chains of turns than my opponent. This decreases the overall difficulty of the game, even though at first it may seem nearly impossible at certain points.

    One aspect that can make a major difference in the game is the Heroic Effort. If a chain of five or more matches occurs from a single move, the hero is awarded 100 experience points. It's the fastest way to level the hero, and early on can jumpstart your journey, but it does take a bit of luck. Try to match from the bottom of the grid where you can see more matches will be made. You may not be able to see all five matches, but there is uncanny luck involved from the gems that fall into play. If you can see three matches in the grid, there's a very good chance it will turn into a Heroic Effort.

Battle Grid Don't miss the four-in-a-row!

    The graphics are not as good as they are on the popular PC demo, simply because of screen size. Little things could have been done to make the whole game look cleaner. The profile images during battle have no anti-aliasing done to them at all, making them look pixilated. The small screen size allows large portions of the grid to be blocked out by large graphics for four and five of a kind, as well as Heroic Efforts. These are a non-issue, except during timed battles. If you only have five seconds to act and three seconds are lost because the graphics blocking the grid, it becomes frustrating as a lucky extra turn instead becomes a five HP penalty.

    The music is softly played, as if as background sound, throughout the whole game. Despite it being a long game, the battle music is mixed up enough I didn't grow tired of any single piece and enjoyed quite a few of them. The map music was almost completely unremarkable, sadly. There aren't many sounds in the game, but they are done decently enough. Each match has its own sound. A voice warns you when your HP falls under ten HP, as well as praises when you score a Heroic Effort. There is a bit of a loading delay the first time a sound is triggered, but once the sound is loaded into memory, it's not forgotten until the game is restarted.

    Restarts will happen more often than you would like. The final version of the game still has a few bugs in play. Most of them crash the game, forcing you to reset the PSP, but one particular bug is with companion effects. During the hero's journey, different people will join up for one reason or another. They will assist in battle, from a simple starting damage of ten to a specific monster type, to increasing the hero's Battle Skill when laying siege to a city. None of these effects trigger on the PSP version of Puzzle Quest. While this is not a show-stopping bug, it makes the start that much more difficult, as well as attributes to the unfinished feeling the game already has.

    Puzzle Quest had the potential to be a dominant title--merging two genres in a way no one had thought of before. Combining overly addictive puzzle solving with a sense of progression and accomplishment makes for a powerful experience. However, the final product, with its bugs and glitches, falls flat of greatness, tainting the gameplay with a feeling of mediocrity. Greatness can never be rushed.

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