Hands-on: Puzzle Quest 2

"So would you call this a return to form?" I asked Infinite Interactive's Steve Fawkner right before I picked up the controller to play Puzzle Quest 2. "Yes, very much so," he replied. Fawkner isn't shy about admitting that Puzzle Quest Galactrix deserved a few of the lumps it got from fans ("They didn't like it when minigames blocked progress on the main game"), and so when his team set out to create a full-fledged sequel to the gem-matching, role-playing hit, they wanted a good mix of updated gameplay that didn't stray too far from what made the first title so good.

And from my short play session, it seems that's exactly what they got. A lot has changed from the first Puzzle Quest, and while fans will miss a few things (my beloved Druid class is gone!), most of the changes are in service to, and succeed at, making the game more fun.
Yes, the class list is very different. Instead of the archetypal D&D classes in the first game, the list of four is more combat-oriented this time: Barbarian, Assassin, Sorcerer, and Templar. That's because the overworld is also gone. Rather than wandering an empire, you're dungeon-delving into one deep cave below the town of Verloren and instead of navigating from town to town, you're going from point to point in a series of rooms. Fawkner described the gameplay to us as more like Diablo than a full D&D campaign.

That also means that all of the overworld stuff that was so important in the first title is now gone: No mounts (with their extra abilities), no castle sieges, no "owning" castles, and no overworld travel. Why lose such a significant part of the game? "We felt the map navigation was a little impersonal," says Fawkner. "We wanted you to go down into the dungeon and see the monsters."

And once you hear that, a lot of the other changes make more sense. There are no more money or experience gems to be matched -- instead, there's purple mana to collect, which means you're matching for your own abilities rather than an arbitrary skill number. Skulls are still in there for direct damage, but you can also do direct damage with weapons found throughout the dungeon. Weapon swings cost a sort of "battle" mana, which you gain by matching the new black gauntlet gems. Armor is still equipped to increase your attributes, but you can also do things like equip shields in the off hand (which will defend points of damage when used), use mana potions, or even dual-wield.

The whole experience is more personal -- whereas the first game had you leading an army, the second game more directly equates to hand-to-hand combat; a concept strengthened again by animations during weapon strikes and various graphical flairs.

Although castle sieges and the forge are gone (crafting just requires you to fill out recipes, "like the Horadric Cube"), there are still plenty of minigames to play in the form of disarming traps, searching rooms for more loot, learning spells or opening chests. And here again, Infinite learned its lesson from Galactrix. Minigames are a rewarding affair and no longer exist solely to block progress. I played the chest-looting minigame, and the more matches I made with special crown and goblet gems, more and better loot appeared in the chest that I was opening. If you do badly on a loot minigame, you simply won't get loot as nice as if you had done well, but you'll get rewarded no matter what.

Balance was a concern with the first game (especially as it was developed across platforms at different times), but Fawkner said this is the best-balanced version of the game they've made yet. "We spent a lot longer balancing this one," he told me, "because we had a bigger team."

Puzzle Quest
is an interesting game to balance, since the gems that fall have an element of randomness to them. I brought up Sid Meier's GDC keynote about making a game "fair" to a player who always thinks he's entitled to win, and Fawkner laughed and said that was exactly what he thought when he'd seen the keynote. Fawkner said Infinite had done some of their own testing with the chest-looting minigame, trying to determine what players thought was "fair," and they found that when things went their way about twice as many times as things went the enemy's way, players thought it was even. "In other words," Fawkner laughed, "twice as much luck feels fair to the player."

I also played the DS version, and while gameplay is the same, the graphics are a little more sparse. The XBLA version played in beautiful HD, whereas the DS version's buttons were more pixelated and smaller gems made for smaller targets while playing. If you need to play the game in a portable format, DS might be a necessity -- and since Fawkner told me that there will be an iPhone version out eventually, XBLA looks to be the version to play for now

Puzzle Quest 2 seems like exactly the kind of update fans will want: a few new mechanics and a new setting built around the same core gameplay. The team is very aware of fan feedback on Galactrix, and even though Puzzle Quest 2 is a very different game from Challenge of the Warlords, I'm definitely looking forward to sinking some hours into the RPG/gem-matching mashup when it comes out later this summer.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.