Puzzle Quest 2
Has it really been almost six years since PC users got a taste of the original Puzzle Quest? Well, that won't do at all. Puzzle Quest 2 is here to slake your thirst for monsters, treasure, shiny gems and experience points in this return to the RPG/match-3 hybrid. This time the story takes you to a very Icewind Dale-ish frozen town suffering from a very Icewind Dale 2-ish siege of goblins. Of course, it turns out the pesky little goblinoids are the least of their problems... you, after all, are on the trail of a paladin who might have gone too far in her quests and awoken something slumbering deep beneath the ice near her hometown. Puzzle Quest 2 offers all the addictive gameplay of the original, plus significant additions and a visual upgrades. That's the good news. Of course, depending on how much you adored the simple presentation of its predecessor, the good news is also the bad news.
The core mechanics are still essentially the same; instead of engaging in emasculating slap-fights with enemies, battles are conducted by swapping coloured gems and skulls on a grid to match different colours for various abilities and effects. This time around there are also gauntlets to match, which give you points you can spend to activate the special abilities granted by weapons or items you're carrying. Some playing fields will also have immovable stone blocks that need to be destroyed. The game also offers a lot of mini-games, or rather, it offers a lot of minor variations on the match-3 battle mechanic to do different tasks. Swap a certain number of blue gems to put out a fire, create combos to bash down doors, loot treasure chests for more valuable items, or even search an area for hidden secrets.
Instead of taking place primarily on a world map as with the original, Puzzle Quest 2 goes with a top down isometric view that lets you explore your environment... sort of. You can still only interact with a very few things, but it at least showcases some beautiful environmental artwork. Silver symbols mean the object or person on the screen relates to a side quest, while gold indicates you're following the main storyline. You can see enemies or objects on the screen, and choose whether you want to engage them (although some enemies obviously can't be avoided). While walking back and forth over big distances can be frustrating, the game thankfully opens various portals as you progress that you can use to make short hops from place to place.
Analysis: Be honest; how much of the original's painfully generic fantasy story did you ever really pay attention to or care about? Puzzle Quest 2 isn't exactly going to give David Gaider a run for his money, but at the same time, it's a bit more interesting and involved than its predecessor. Perhaps a big part of this comes from the new look and feel of the game, and choosing to allow you to manually explore areas. Obviously the art style is a lot different this time around, and while it didn't necessarily need a change, about 80% of the graphical shift is actually really very lovely, particularly the environments and character portraits. The character sprites are a bit of a mixed bag, and in particular the female assassin sprite looks a lot like a giant barbarian man wearing a Hannibal Lecter face mask. Which... would actually be a pretty darned scary assassin.
The addition I'm most on the fence about is actually the presence of so many mini-games. The worst is actually the looting mini-game; it's entirely up to luck, and you'll either make out like a bandit or wind up with some bits of old wood and string nobody wants. At least if this were tabletop the Dungeon Master would be within throttling distance for granting the adventuring party a piece of leather in the ornate chest they found after slaying the orc king. None of these games really detract from the experience, but they don't really add much to it either. Some of the mini-games show up so infrequently that they give the impression that they were only added so you can point at them and go, "See? That's new."
Even with the changes made to how weaponry works and your shiny new top-down perspective, however, Puzzle Quest is still Puzzle Quest, and everything that was fun about the original is still fun here. The new assassin class is actually a lot of fun to play, and offers a lot of choice for the strategic player who prefers abilities that work best with planning. The upgrade system is also nice, and lets you turn all the random items you pick up into some seriously formidable equipment bonuses. In fact, compared to what you find or make on your own, the quest rewards will probably feel a little underpowered, but maybe I'm just greedy.
If what you liked about the original was the fast, relatively simplistic gameplay, then admittedly a lot of the changes and additions here are going to feel a little pointless to you, if not downright annoying. But while it didn't necessarily need all the extra bells and whistles that have been padded in here, Personally, I like Puzzle Quest 2. In fact, I really like it. After I'm done writing this, I'm going to go play it some more, and will probably spend a lot of time with it in the future. While some of the new additions aren't as well fleshed out as they could have been, the colourful, addictive gameplay you remember is still there under the hood, while still remaining friendly to newcomers.