I can see a lot of validity in people's complaints about Puzzle Quest: Galactrix. There wasn't a significant change to the gameplay, even by altering the Bejeweled format of the playing field, and while the science fiction aspect was certainly different from the fantasy realm of the original Puzzle Quest, it was hardly enough to make the game worth playing for most fans. With that said, when I heard about yet another colored gem puzzle game coming from Infinite Interactive, I had to stop myself from rolling my eyes. I mean, really, already? However, after having spent time with the game over the past week, it's a far better follow-up than Galactrix was, and while I still find the story aspects a bit dry and tedious to read through, the small alterations to the puzzle gameplay in Puzzle Kingdoms manages to keep it addictive and familiar, but in a good way.
The puzzle bit isn't the only change, as Puzzle Kingdoms introduces the use of individual units that you can recruit from towns and castles that you've subjugated, along with heroes who will join your side after certain events (some of which are even hidden). They work a bit like friends in the two Puzzle Quest games, but they're more like identities that you can switch out to give you different powers. Magic doesn't seem to play as major of a part as it did in Puzzle Quest, but you'll still come across some useful skills from time to time. Each hero can level up, and you'll get bonuses for attack value and other stats that'll have an effect on the people you recruit.
Since the game incorporates units to do battle for you, you'll have to do a little team management from time to time. Certain heroes will be back line characters, who can dish out a fair amount of damage but have little health, so you'll want to adjust your front and back lines accordingly. Most enemy attacks will go straight for the first person, but certain enemies, like archers, can target anyone. As you advance through the sections of the game, you'll come across new units that you can recruit.
When the game begins, you only have a couple of basic units, and if you lose one of them, you can re-buy them at any property or location that belongs to you. However, if you end up getting wiped out, you'll have to give up half of your gold to continue from where you were, or you'll just have to end the game. The issue with that option is that the game doesn't automatically back up or give you any lenient checkpoints. If you go into one section of a map, clear out all of the sections, and die at the end fight, you better take the half-gold option. Otherwise, you'll lose all of your progress on that particular part of the map, unless you were diligent with the saving. Saving is a bit of hassle in the game, as the only option is "Save and Quit," instead of being able to save and continue playing. I'm not sure why there's only one option for saving, but it's definitely a bit of an oversight.
The puzzles in Puzzle Kingdoms play out in a similar fashion to the two previous Puzzle Quest titles, but with a small twist. You still have the grid format and the colored blocks — heck, there are even the attack blocks that'll damage enemy units if you connect them. The general idea of connecting like-colored blocks in rows of three or more to clear them off the board is even the same, but the method of switching them out is a little different this time. Along the edges of the board, you'll see colored symbols, which represent blocks that haven't made it into the playing field just yet. Instead of being able to move blocks anywhere on the board, you're actually using the stylus to shift an entire column up, down, left or right. You also don't need to get your three-of-a-kind match in a perfect horizontal or vertical shape, so long as the pieces are adjacent.
Since the game doesn't put a heavy emphasis on spells, the colored blocks you match up aren't being used to charge up mana or shields. Instead, each of your units will have a certain number of icons that need to be filled in before they can attack. For instance, the Knight has three gray spots that need to be filled, while the Archer will have two green spots. Once you've charged up the desired attack, you can tap the attack button to initiate combat, which is generally one-sided unless your opponent has a character that's also been charged up. You can attempt to overpower the stronger units all at once by letting multiple characters charge up, and you'll get an extra bonus to your attack value for every additional unit that's attacking. It's not a particularly useful strategy early on, as most of your foes can be knocked out with one hit, but you'll definitely get some use out of it later on.
Infinite Interactive seems to be riding around on a one-trick pony with all of these puzzle titles, and at this point, I suppose you could ask for more from them, but as I mentioned earlier, I found this title to be a far better effort than Galactrix. The only place that this game disappoints is in the visuals, and while the series hasn't exactly been known for classy visuals, Puzzle Kingdoms is a definite step backward in design, with some awful fantasy cover-style characters populating the entire game and some really harsh-looking pixel work on the overworld map. It's a minor complaint for a game that's not particularly visually intensive, but it does come off as garish. Also, the music fails to have a single memorable track as opposed to a couple that I could pick out in Quest and Galactrix, so that's certainly a disappointment.
If you've enjoyed the Bejeweled gameplay style of the previous titles, there's more of that here (albeit with a few modifications), and you won't have to worry about the annoying jumpgates from Galactrix. The story mode can last you quite a while if you're looking to complete all of the hidden sections and mini-games, and it's certainly addictive. Definitely check it out if you're a fan of Puzzle Quest but felt a bit burned out by Galactrix, as this game is a huge improvement over the previous follow-up.
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