Now that the year is coming to a close video game journalists all across the world are starting to think about what game deserves to be their pick of "Game of the Year." Should it be a fan favorite like Halo 3? Or maybe it should go to a game like BioShock, whose storytelling is second to none. There's no doubt about it, there have been a lot of great games released this year ... and still more on the way (such as Mass Effect and Rock Band). But despite all of these high profile games that will no doubt grace everybody's best-of lists, my personal favorite game of the year doesn't have huge explosions, top of the line graphics or a $60 price tag. In fact, my favorite game of the year is a multi-platform title that just about anybody can get into, no matter how long they've been into video gaming. You see, my favorite game of the year is Puzzle Quest: Challengers of the Warlords.
I've been in love with Puzzle Quest since I received the preview build of the game back in January, I knew from the moment I played my first battle that this game was made for me. In the months leading up to its release I tried everything I could to convince all of my friends that this was worth buying; the relatively simple nature and the addictive gameplay made this a must-own in my opinion. Most of these people were understandably skeptical, the game's name isn't exactly instill a lot of confidence (even if it does sum up the game perfectly) and it's not always easy to get action-loving gamers into what looks like a Bejeweled knock-off. But they bit, and soon enough I had lured all of my friends into the wonderful world of Puzzle Quest.
Being the fan I am, I decided it was my duty to go through both the PSP and Nintendo DS version of the game, both of which I highly recommended (even if the PSP version is just slightly better than its touch screen counterpart). The game's quick battles made this a perfect portable experience, and at $30 the price tag was just right. Despite the fact that I put more than 500 hours into the two games, after a few months I ended up putting the game down and taking a lengthy break from my favorite game of the year. Part of the problem is that I'm always getting new games to play and review, just when I find that one game I feel I can play for years on end another title pops into my mail box and sucks me in. Needless to say, I looked forward to playing this Xbox Live Arcade version of the game so that I had an excuse to give Puzzle Quest another go.
Released last week on Microsoft's download service, Puzzle Quest: Challengers of the Warlords is easily one of the best (if not the best) game currently available on the Xbox Live Arcade. This is a massive adventure game that will have you glued to your TV set solving puzzles, battling fantastical enemies and going online to fight one-on-one with a whole world of other Puzzle Quest fans. In other words, this is just about the best version of Puzzle Quest you can buy ... and it's yours for the cheap price of $15 (1200 Microsoft Points).
Puzzle Quest is not an easy game to describe; it's the wacky combination of the popular puzzle game Bejeweled and a traditional turn-based role-playing game. That's right; this is a role-playing puzzle game, perhaps the strangest pairing since Final Lap Twin (the role-playing racing game). But while it may sound strange (and maybe not even appealing), Puzzle Quest manages to get every element just right and provides one of the very best video game experiences of the year.
For the most part Puzzle Quest is played like a traditional role-playing game; you have a little guy who you must navigate through a large map and go from city to city talking to townspeople and accepting various quests. As you peruse the local castle you'll be able to stock up on items, upgrade your stats, buy new weapons/armor, and learn a little more about whom you are and what you're doing there. It's not until you leave the castle, mission in hand, that you discover that this is no ordinary role-playing game ... this is something altogether different, something MUCH better.
Instead of traditional RPG battles, all of the combat is done using a Bejeweled-like puzzle game. When you enter a battle you will see a large board made up of 64 squares (8 tall by 8 wide). In those 64 spaces you will see a number of different icons, including four different colored "mana" pieces, gold coins, purple experience point pieces, and human skulls. It's your job to find a way of connecting these pieces so that you can combine three or more of the same object. Each player takes turns connecting the items until somebody has lost all of their health.
The trick to Puzzle Quest is that all of the objects do something different. Early on the most important piece to connect are the skulls, because connecting three skulls together takes health away from your opponent. You can also connect the coins to earn more money or match the purple experience point pieces, both of which you keep after the match is won or lost.
Perhaps the most important items on the board are the mana pieces, four colored pieces that can be used to cast spells against your opponent. The idea is to collect a lot of these mana pieces so that you can unleash the powerful spells you've earned. What is really cool about Puzzle Quest is how many unique magic spells there are, all of which you have to learn how to use to your advantage. For example, some spells will take one hit point off of your enemy for every red piece that is on the board, other's will turn blue mana pieces into green pieces, another spell will restore your health, while some other spell may poison your enemy and let you take several turns in a row. Learning to use these spells can mean the difference between winning and losing a match, and they really add a lot to the strategies you use.
Of course, it's not just you using the magic spells. Just about every enemy you go up against will have their own special magic spells, so it's important that you not only match the best pieces but you also make sure your opponent isn't able to connect the colors he needs in order to deal you a mighty death blow. What's cool is that you can capture all of the enemies you go up against and then play a special mini-game to learn their magic. So not only are you able to earn new spells from just leveling up your character, but you can learn all of the enemy's magic just by capturing them and playing a short (but sometimes difficult) mini-game.
The problem with a written review like this is that it's very difficult to convey just how exciting and original the battles are in Puzzle Quest. The brilliance of the game is that you can learn how to play in only a matter of minutes; it's actually an extremely easy game to learn. But just because it's easy to learn that doesn't mean that it's easy to master. The more you play the game the more you'll realize that there's a lot of strategy at play, it's all about balancing your spells and making sure you don't leave a good turn open for the bad guy. It's all about matching four or five pieces together so that you can earn an extra turn and mana multipliers. It's all about making sure you don't leave yourself open for a devastating barrage of magic attacks. There's a lot of depth to this game, a lot more than most people will initially give it credit for at first.
Puzzle Quest comes with dozens of different missions, including optional side-quests and a fully realized story full of bosses, plot twists, boss battles and cool helper characters. At their core, most missions are nothing more than going to some cave or town, battling the monsters, collecting a special item, and then taking it back to where you first got your quest. With most role-playing games this one-sided mission structure would get old after only a few quests, but not in Puzzle Quest. Because the battles are so much fun (and so different from one to another) you'll look forward to every fetch quest, regardless of how many times you've been to that one cave or mountain top. Since you never really control your character's walking (instead you point to the place you want to go and he walks there by himself) you don't have to worry too much about spending all of your time just wandering around looking for enemies to fight and loot to pick up. Puzzle Quest cuts out all of the things you don't like about role-playing games and adds some of the most exciting puzzle-based battles you'll ever see.
Another thing that separates Puzzle Quest from the Final Fantasy's of the world is that the battles only take a few minutes to complete. No matter what skill you are, most battles only last three to five minutes, which is extremely short when compared to most of the epic RPGs released these days. These short battles work out perfectly when you only have a few minutes to play the game and want to make some progress. No matter if you win or lose, the way the game is set up you'll end up making progress no matter what. That's the secret to this game's success, whenever you play this game you always feel like you're making progress ... you never once feel like you're just spinning your wheels and getting nowhere. The gaming landscape would be a better place if more games took this idea and implemented it.
Like all role-playing games, Puzzle Quest is all about you leveling up your character, improving your stats, buying new weapons/armor and developing your character into a massive killing machine. Each of the four character types (be it a druid, knight, warrior or wizard) can go all the way up to level 50, which gives them access to the best spells, weapons, etc. Best of all, the four character types play completely differently; depending on who you pick you'll get different spells, armor, weapons, and other items. Unlike a lot of RPGs, Puzzle Quest has a lot of replay value.
What's great about the Puzzle Quest world is that the more you explore the more stuff you'll find. Along with the great battles, you can also earn friends who will travel with you, animals you can fly on, and all sorts of other wild additions that can potentially change the way you play the game. While a game like Final Fantasy XII is probably deeper, Puzzle Quest is certainly no slouch. There's so much to do and see in this game that you'll probably still be playing it long after you've beaten the game and maxed out your hero. It really says something when you can go through the same game three times on three different consoles and look forward to playing it again and again. The fact that you can go through the game using characters of different classes only makes the replay that much greater; there is no doubt in my mind that Puzzle Quest is one of the greatest puzzle games of all time. Heck, it's one of the best adventure games of all time.
The fictional world of Puzzle Quest has a lot of familiar faces; if you've played other fantasy role-playing games then you're going to feel right at home. I'm talking about trolls, dragons, imps, zombies and a whole host of other creatures. Part of the fun of Puzzle Quest is just going around and trying to capture each and every one of the 51 monster types, especially if you want to learn all of the spells and exert your dominance over the world map.
This Xbox Live Arcade version of the game is essentially a port of the PSP version of Puzzle Quest. While the Nintendo DS and PSP versions of the game were largely the same, the PlayStation Portable version had better graphics and a slightly easier interface. This "next gen" version of the game retains those better graphics and improves the look enough to feel right on your television set. Obviously this isn't going to look as good as Halo 3 or BioShock, but Puzzle Quest isn't one of those games that needs to push millions of polygons and crazy lighting effects.
Like the PSP version, this Xbox Live Arcade game has you controlling the board with either your D-Pad or analog stick. You move the cursor around the board until you figure out what you want to move, and then you push the "A" button to select it and push the D-Pad/analog stick in the direction you want it to move. You can only move a piece in four directions, either up, down, left or right. While on paper this game sounds like a perfect fit for the Nintendo DS' touch screen, the game seems to work better on the PSP and Xbox Live Arcade. The main problem with the DS version is that the pieces were so small that it was easy to make a touch screen mistake. In contrast I don't recall ever running into any control issue in this Xbox Live Arcade port.
While Puzzle Quest is not about amazing graphics and stunning CGI cinemas, the graphics are pretty good for what they are trying to do. The problem with judging a game like this is that you're constantly going from battle to the world map, so there isn't much time for beautiful graphics. The world map looks good, and it's fun to go from area to area because of how different everything is (even if the battles look the same every time). The battle graphics look fine, but don't expect to be wowed by amazing animation or detailed enemies. This is just not that kind of game; this is not a showpiece for the power of the Xbox 360.
When you're not trudging through side-quests and story missions, you do have the opportunity to go in and just challenge different enemies. This is actually a lot of fun because it allows you to play the best part of the game (the puzzle battles) without worrying about wandering around the map looking for enemies to kill. On top of that you get an online one-on-one mode that allows you to see how good your character really is. Granted, the multiplayer mode is a bit limited, but it's definitely a lot of fun to finally be able to take on real opponents and not just computer characters.
Seeing how popular the two portable versions of Puzzle Quest were, D3 has done the smart thing and decided to port it to just about every console known to man. In the next few months you will be able to buy this game for the PlayStation 2, PC, and even the Nintendo Wii. But despite all of those newer versions coming, this Xbox Live Arcade port is easily the cheapest way to buy the game. At $15 this game is a steal, I wholeheartedly recommended the game at twice that price on the PSP and Nintendo DS. If you're one of those gamers who didn't pick the game up on one of the two portable systems earlier in the year, then this Xbox Live Arcade version is a must-buy. And I'll be honest with you, even if you do already own the game on the DS or the PSP, this still may be worth it for the achievement points and online multiplayer. Either way, this is easily one of the best puzzle games of all time, and (at least for the time being) my favorite game of the year.
What makes Puzzle Quest the best game of 2007? It's easily the most addictive game you will play this year, full of exciting quests, easy to learn puzzles and an online mode that is way more fun than any game deserves to be. It may not look like Halo 3 or BioShock, but that shouldn't keep it from being considered one of the best games of the year ... if not the best.