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Review: Puzzle Quest 2 (DS)

When creating the follow-up to a critically beloved game, it's rare for a developer to lose sight of just about every aspect of what made the original so great. That was the unfortunate case with Puzzle Quest: Galactrix -- a title so disappointing, it led many fans to worry that the franchise's maiden voyage was merely a fluke. A really entertaining, addictive-as-all-get-out fluke, but a fluke nonetheless.

Where Galactrix represented an attempt at innovation by first throwing out baby, bathwater and tub, Puzzle Quest 2 is a love letter to the jilted fans of Challenge of the Warlords. It not only recalls the prodigal formula of the series' first iteration -- it improves on that formula in countless clever ways.

The core gameplay mechanics from the original Puzzle Quest have returned in all their glory -- players swap gems on a square eight-by-eight grid, collecting multicolored mana they can spend on class-specific abilities. Also present on the field are skulls, which can be matched up to deal instant damage, as well as a brand new gauntlet-shaped tile. When these are matched, players gain "action points," which they can then spend to use a held item, which include weapons, potions, poisons and shields.

This one little change adds a whole new layer of depth to the original game's already addictive combat -- provided you've got the persistence to keep your equipment top-of-the-line. That's not as arduous a task as you might think; loot flows pretty freely in Puzzle Quest 2, whether from quest rewards, random chests, merchants or by upgrading your old, busted junk. Between the plethora of gear and an all-new set of unlockable abilities, there's a lot of character customization to go around.

One of the most noticeable changes made to the game is its isometric, tightly-framed perspective. Rather than bouncing between faceless cities and dungeons on an overworld map, players will spend most of their time traveling from room to room with a close-up view of their character, nearby adversaries and other notable interactive items. These miscellanea include pickable locks, lootable chests, disarmable traps and so on, each requiring their own gem-swapping mini-game to successfully use.

Though it's not the most efficient or intuitive method of exploring an immense RPG world, this new view adds a great feeling of exploration that was sorely lacking from the original. Though navigation in such tight quarters might sound confusing, a network of portals and a surprisingly functional quest-tracking system makes getting around a painless process.

Unfortunately, though this new perspective gives us a much closer look at the world we're traversing, it's not exactly the prettiest world to look at. Sprites, character art and backgrounds all look cheaply hand-drawn -- an effect that's somehow intensified by the isometric angle. When the game you're releasing in 2010 looks incrementally better than a SNES game released in 1993, then somebody somewhere has dropped the ball.

Also, while the changes introduced to the core gameplay serve to bring the game's Puzzle side to its addictive zenith, there are a few aspects of the game's RPG nature that could still do with some bolstering. One particular benchmark the series has yet to capitalize on is having an engaging narrative that gives players a reason to keep on swapping gems. The game's "story" is delivered through infrequent, unanimated cutscenes, which mostly focus on introducing you to new areas you discover.

Infinite missed a good opportunity to inject the game's robust quest system with some storytelling, but unfortunately, many of these just boil down to simple fetch quests. This doesn't make them any less fun or rewarding, but after your first few hours, you'll start to realize how disjointed your objectives really are.

Ultimately, Puzzle Quest 2 manages to add some new strengths while still clinging onto some old weaknesses, resulting in a game that's addictive and engaging in short bursts, but slightly repetitive in extended sessions. Though a more visually appealing version is due out for XBLA next week -- at half the cost of its DS counterpart, no less -- it's still seems like an experience designed to be played for a few minutes, folded up and placed neatly in your pocket.

When savored in this manner, Puzzle Quest 2 is exponentially more engaging than the original. Sure, there's still plenty of room for improvement -- but there's no doubt in my mind that the contents of my DSi's cartridge slot are now spoken for for the foreseeable future.

This review is based on the DS retail version of Puzzle Quest 2 provided by D3.

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