Although I don’t often have time to enjoy my Nintendo DS these days, I finally managed to get around to playing Puzzle Quest 2, a game that blends the gameplay of Bejewelled with RPG elements and presents them in a fantasy world. It’s prequel, Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords, was my addiction when I first purchased my PSP a few years ago, and it remains the best Bejewlled-style game I’ve played. So how did Puzzle Quest 2 measure up?
The first thing I’ll say about Puzzle Quest 2 is that it definitely looks better. The development team took a lot the feedback about congested screens and confusing colours and filled Puzzle Quest 2 with bright, contrasting colours. Now all of your gems are larger and more distinguished from one another, which, in a puzzle game such as this, makes a huge difference.
Also changed is the “overworld” screen of the first game in lieu of a more dynamic dungeon-esque style of play where you can direct your character to an edge of the screen to walk around towns, dungeon corridors, or explore.
Perhaps the most obvious improvement beyond the visual is the addition of new mini-games: casting spells, unlocking doors, grabbing loot: all of them feature a modification on the main puzzle theme (i.e. you match money in the loot game, or locks in the door game) that add a little bit of variety. And while the formula for these additional mini-games doesn’t differ from the main battle puzzles, there aesthetic and thematic differences are refreshing (the loot game in particular is loads of fun).
Another element that the development team strived to improve upon was the story aspect of the series. The first game featured an interesting story (though not overly original) that gave some context to the puzzle battles. Puzzle Quest 2 attempts to do the same thing, but falls short in that the majority of the story plays out in expository form: “You walk into a room and see Golath, the Goblin King, standing over you wielding a spiked club.” Really? You couldn’t have made that any more dynamic? The entire story plays out this way, with a series of three “faeries” blurting out expository jargon at you that does nothing to provide detail or develop character. In fact, your character never actually develops. This is because the dialogue (when it actually occurs) is one-sided: your hero never says a word. While the “silent protagonist” is a fairly common aspect of RPGs, I’ve never found it to hold up particularly well. Perhaps that’s because when I’m forced to play the hero, I want to know what he or she is thinking. I want to know their motivations, and conflicts, and history. These are the things that allow the player to connect with the story. In Puzzle Quest 2, you only have your main character, and if you can’t connect with them, you’re always going to feel distanced from the game.
And this is exactly what happens. In trying to bring the story into focus, the writing team spent too much time on the description and not enough time on the characters or the events. After 20 hours of playtime, I couldn’t recall for you one major event from Puzzle Quest 2. But I could tell you that in the prequel, you’re forced to make a choice between kidnapping a princess or handing her over to the enemy to establish peace via marriage. You’re also forced to either kill an ever sorcerer or release him with a message for his master. You’re also given the choice on whether or not to aide your Dwarven in rebuilding his country. And all three of these scenarios are memorable and affect the options afforded to you in the later parts of the game. Puzzle Quest 2 makes no such attempts.
But what about the gameplay? Isn’t the central idea behind Puzzle Quest that you’ll battle all sorts of fantastical creatures in Bejewelled style? Well yes, but even this doesn’t hold up well. Why? Because the gameplay isn’t refined enough. Characters no longer specialize in one or two colours of magic, but have abilities across all five colours. This means that, more often than not, players will spread their skill points out across all colours and can’t establish a specialization. This has the ripple effect of making every character play almost identically. When leveling up, you receive a single skill point to place into one of five skills. This means that your character evolves at a snail’s pace with no notable difference when investing the lonely skill point. The game includes weapons, a fresh idea to the series, but they do so much damage that they render all other forms of damage moot. The battles also take far too long. I can barely get through two fights on a 20-minute subway ride–not good quality for a portable title. I could pick up the first game even now and get through at least 6 fights in that time.
Looking at Puzzle Quest 2 holistically, it certainly is not the sum of its parts. It’s parts are clever and, indeed, an improvement on the first game, but when combined together, Puzzle Quest 2 feels as though it’s trying too hard to be a completely different game that instead becomes alienating. The puzzle aspect suffers as a result. Add to this a shallow story that is void of any significant meaning and the RPG element of the game fails in its purpose. What remains is a game without a spark, the very thing that made the first game so simple yet addictive. At the end of the day, Puzzle Quest 2 is very much a puzzle itself: all the pieces are there, but when you put them together, they reveal little more than a blank piece of cardboard.