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Puzzle Quest: a role-playing gem


This is a weekly column from freelancer Rowan Kaiser, which focuses on "Western" role-playing games: their stories, their histories, their mechanics, their insanity, and their inanity.

Puzzle Quest: Challenge Of The Warlords is one most inspiring role-playing games of recent years. It tends to fall out of the conversation compared to more traditional, big-budget fare like Skyrim, Dragon Age, The Witcher, or Fallout. But that's to be expected – big money means big marketing and more discussion. But while the blockbuster games can be great, but so can the surprising little games.

This is part of what made Puzzle Quest so exciting – there would have been no expectation that a small, (initially) handheld hybrid puzzle game would be something special. As an underdog story, it's compelling to see such a game have such success, spawning ports, sequels, and spinoffs. As a long-time PC gamer, I also enjoyed watching the world of Warlords III depicted in a surprising new fashion. And, of course, the game itself is excellent.

But those aren't the main reason that Puzzle Quest is worth examining for this column. That would be its combat system, a form of Bejeweled-style, "Match Three" puzzle gameplay. This use of puzzle-based, abstract combat created a new dimension of role-playing combat. Traditional models of tactical, or hybrid real-time/turn-based, or action-style systems didn't apply to Puzzle Quest. It was both something new, and, by following Bejeweled, something already respected and comfortable.

Gallery: Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords (XBLA) | 10 Photos

If you haven't played Puzzle Quest, the combat works like this: you and an enemy take turns matching gems on a grid. Connect various colors, and your character will gain mana-for example, red builds fire mana. Using that, you can cast spells, like fireballs which attack the enemy directly, or defensive, support, or healing spells. For more straightforward attacks on the enemy, you can create chains of skulls, which attack the monsters directly. There are also gold coins and experience gems to supplement your character.

As you journey through the world, your character progresses as well. Levels are gained from combat and turning in quests. You can also gain items, which increase the usefulness of your matches on the game board-for example, a better sword will allow skulls to do more damage. You also gain new spells at different levels, and even encounter wild animals to tame as mounts. It's a moderately deep system, but one with an appealing robustness.

Puzzle Quest a roleplaying gem
The hybrid concept of Puzzle Quest may be one of the major reasons why it's not mentioned with other RPGs. We're used to certain styles of combat, and modeling it after Bejeweled may be just a little bit too abstract. And yet so many forms of RPG combat are abstract. Many MMORPGs and games like Dragon Age: Origins utilize systems of special moves combined with cooldowns. It makes sense from a balance perspective not to let the players use all their best skills all the time, but it's also a thoroughly abstract mechanism for stamina, designed to lead to longer, slower battles.

Alternately, take turn-based tactical role-playing games as an example. Although these seem to be somewhat based in reality, the requirements of taking the chaos of combat and making it work, one character after another, ends up making combat a more abstract puzzle. Imagine that those characters on that grid are blocks, that you have to manipulate into place, and this sort of combat ends up looking less like an RPG and more like a puzzle game. Sure, the characters and progression would make it an RPG, even if they were represented just by blocks of different colors-but that's exactly the case with Puzzle Quest. On its grid, the skulls are abstracted openings in an enemy's defenses, while the mana could be seen as time to concentrate.

Puzzle Quest also derives power from the fact that Match Three-style gameplay is really good. There's a reason that Bejeweled is the only puzzle game to come anywhere where Tetris in the pantheon of "Greatest Ever Timewasters." I had always enjoyed Bejeweled, but attaching a narrative drive and mechanical development to it made this RPG fan extremely happy. And that progression and development also help game as a whole. Early combats can be simple, sometimes painful exercises in tracking down skulls. Fights in the middle of the game offer more variety, and let you develop varied strategies according to new spells, items, or enemies. And by the end of the game, both you and your enemies are so powerful that it almost seems like an entirely different game. It may not be "balanced" to cast a spell that turns a third of the gems on the board into skulls, nuking tough enemies into submission, but damn if it doesn't feel satisfying.

Puzzle Quest a roleplaying gem
Puzzle Quest spawned two different sequels, of varying success. The direct follow-up, Puzzle Quest 2, sacrifices some of the energy and charm of the world of the original game, instead focusing on a single dungeon crawl. I also felt like it pushed the player into using specific, powerful spell combinations, instead of allowing for experimentation. Puzzle Quest: Galactrix takes place in space, and uses a slightly different Match Three form. It's still playable, but like Puzzle Quest 2, seems to be missing the charm that made the original game so special.

That charm wasn't merely a one-time thing, though, even if it has eluded the original series. Might & Magic: Clash Of Heroes possesses that same kind of energy and joy. Like Puzzle Quest spun off from Warlords, Might & Magic takes the RPG and strategy games that bear its name, and fuses them with a form of puzzle-style combat. It's slightly more impressive than Puzzle Quest, since it isn't built on a specific game's model. It's less customizable and random than Puzzle Quest, which makes calling it a role-playing game something of a stretch. It's still fantastic, regardless.

These aren't the only games in the new, odd puzzle/RPG/strategy hybrid mold. Runespell: Overture attaches a poker-based combat system to a game very close to an RPG, while Gyromancer has a more traditional RPG skin attached to Bejeweled Twist-style gameplay. While I'm not always happy with each and every game, I am delighted to see Western RPGs branching out into different combat mechanics, different platforms, and different price points. Puzzle Quest helped to open all of those doors, and it's an amazing game as well.

Rowan Kaiser is a freelance writer currently living the Bay Area, who also writes for The A.V. Club, and has been published at Salon, Gamasutra, Kotaku, and more. He still occasionally finds Ultima VI Moongate maps and mantra notes when he visits his parents' house. Follow him on Twitter @rowankaiser.

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