Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords Review
Puzzle games are timeless. They're timeless entirely because of their inherent addictive qualities; it never has anything to do with flashy graphics, in-depth storylines or professional sound. Tetris began a landslide of puzzle titles on handhelds, and now, over 20 years later, we've got a PSP game that ends up on the PS2. It's Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords, and while it's still best on Sony's sleek portable, it's definitely a worthy budget title for the console now entering its 8th year. One of the best of the genre in 2007, Challenge of the Warlords combines standard role-playing and puzzle elements to provide the gamer with a very unique experience. The story basically only exists as an aside because the focus is always on the gameplay, and the end result is one of the deepest (and longest) puzzlers in history. If you're not familiar with this one and you're looking for something to occupy your time during those long, cold winter days, pay attention.
I often wonder why we even bother talking about the graphics when it comes to games like this. After all, nobody really cares how accomplished the visuals are provided the gameplay is both accessible and addictive. However, because this particular puzzle game actually implements RPG elements, Infinite Interactive does create a rudimentary world map and some basic character design. If you're familiar with the map in Final Fantasy Tactics (the remake arrived last year for the PSP, remember), then you understand the basic idea. You have an overhead view of the map, and you simply move your character back and forth between points of interest, like cities and significant parts of the landscape. It's kind of muddled and not all that detailed in Puzzle Quest, though, and the character design is actually beyond basic. Aside from that, the battles themselves only consist of a grid and some bright symbols, so there's not much else to complain about. We do wish they could've done something more to bring out that RPG aspect, but it's not enough to matter in the long run. You'll be spending a tiny percentage of your time looking at that map, anyway.
The sound is only marginally more important than graphics in puzzlers, but thankfully, the music and effects here are excellent. They manage to implement several finely crafted tracks during battle that emphasize the medieval, fantasy setting. They're not invasive and they're actually quite relaxing (which is good, considering you'll be spending a great deal of time pondering your next move). The effects are sharp and clear, and while the voice acting is merely average - and entirely unnecessary - the overall sound presentation is top-notch. There isn't quite enough variety in either the battle effects or music, but at the same time, you often don't even notice. You're so absorbed in the puzzle battle going on that you probably won't bother with analyzing either the sound or graphics too closely. Still, it really could've helped if they had just abandoned the voice acting entirely and stuck with the character text, and the soundtrack outside of battles isn't anything to write home about. For the most part, we find it difficult to complain too much, despite a few small flaws here and there, so you won't be disappointed with the sound in Challenge of the Warlords. We do think it was better in the PSP version, though.
As expected, the gameplay operates around a very simple puzzle formula that will have you hooked from the outset. Basically, all you do is maneuver the pieces of the board around to line up three-of-a-kind either horizontally or vertically. When you do, you absorb the power of those pieces; if they're Purple Stars, you gain experience, if it's Gold, you get money, if they're Red balls, you get Fire Mana, etc, etc, etc. As you can see, we've already entered into the RPG realm, because you need Mana to execute any and all special abilities your character may have at his/her disposal. For example, if you want to execute the Haste spell with the Wizard, you need 6 yellow (Earth) and 5 blue (Air) orbs. Just like in any role-playing game, there are both offensive and defensive spells and abilities, and your ultimate goal is to completely deplete your opponent's HP. Essentially, it's the epitome of a true turn-based RPG that uses a puzzle grid as the battle mechanism. If this sounds intriguing, well...it is.
The character you create at the beginning can be either a Druid, Wizard or Knight, and you will have a different set of unique skills depending on the class you choose. As you level up, you will obtain points to distribute to any of your base statistics, and you can purchase equipment, items, and even build and upgrade an entire citadel throughout the course of your adventure. There are over 150 total quests to undertake - yep, 150 - which means you'll have plenty of time to build up experience, money and allies. Furthermore, you can even repeat most of the quests over and over again to level up and gain the edge for plot-advancing battles, which is perfect for all you power-leveling fanatics out there. In order to buy what you want, you'll need both the required cash and level, and many of your opponents present their own set of unique challenges. Therefore, there's plenty of depth involved in this game, and if you really dive into it, you could lose many, many hours to this involving and engaging world. However, and perhaps this is limited only to our personal experience with the game, we found the AI to be immensely frustrating.
As is the case with most puzzlers, the computer opponent tends to be perfect. Regardless of who (or what) you face, that foe will invariably make the exact right move, and because his moves are executed instantly, it's kinda like a slap in the face. You could sit there for several long minutes, contemplating your next move, only to see the computer go nuts in a span of a few seconds, linking together chains and tearing giant chunks out of your HP. Granted, some of it is luck just because the new pieces that fell into the board just so happened to be arranged correctly, but even so... We very often had to repeat battles just because it seemed as if our opponent was just a little too perfect. Then again, we could issue this very same complaint for just about any puzzle title in history, so maybe it's not a significant problem. We do know that if you lack patience, this game will piss you rightoff; a player who doesn't carefully survey the board on each and every turn will inevitably lose later battles. Most hardcore puzzle fans will enjoy this, but the casual gamer will loathe such a trait entirely. So the only real question is, which type of gamer are you?
Our only other complaint centers on the puzzle mechanic itself. We really think it would've made more sense to implement a slightly larger board, perhaps another puzzle piece or two, and the ability to line them up diagonally. Being limited to only the horizontal and vertical tends to slow things down a bit, just because you will sometimes run out of moves very quickly in certain battles. And when that happens, the screen is refilled, but both players also lose all their Mana. Furthermore, while there is a bonus for lining up four or five in a row (you get an extra turn), there isn't any bonus for linking up two three-of-a-kinds in the same turn. In other words, if the piece you switch creates two different three-of-a-kinds, you do get to absorb both, but you don't get the free turn. Why? Isn't that even more challenging than lining up four in a row? These issues are evident right off the bat, but some players might not mind them so much. Hence, we will admit that our analysis of the puzzle grid is very subjective, but we maintain that it could've been refined more. There are just certain things you notice when you play and if they have a negative impact on your experience, they have to be mentioned. Correct?
But in the end, Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords is a fun, fulfilling and yes, even addictive game. Better yet, at only $20, you'll definitely get your money's worth; with 150 different quests and an opportunity to endlessly repeat many of them, the play time is almost limitless. Granted, there are a few issues, but many of them are mostly subjective and the simple bottom line is that it's a nicely constructed gameplay format. The blending of RPG and puzzle elements might seem a little strange at first, but the two come together surprisingly well, and you never feel as if you're playing some ridiculous hybrid that doesn't make any sense. This one might be a little too straightforward when it comes to the actual puzzle part, but that's okay. It's fun. It's not flashy and it's not perfect, but it's fun. And in the end, isn't that what really matters?
1/16/2008 Ben Dutka