Puzzle Quest 2 marks the first official follow-up to the 2007 smash hit Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords. A few clones have come and gone, mostly from the same developer responsible for the first game, but none have managed to capture the original's charm and wow factor. Puzzle Quest 2 looks to rectify that by sticking to what made the first game so addictive, mainly the simple Bejeweled style that propels the in-game combat while sticking to a fantasy-themed story and characters.
Puzzle Quest 2 has abandoned a lot of the elements from Puzzle Quest: Galactrix, the space-themed title that introduced a new movement system and grid layout for the puzzle sections. Puzzle Quest 2 goes back to the traditional rectangular grid with five colored gems to match in groups of three or more. It alsointroduces minigames to perform tasks — such as bashing open doors, opening locks, looting treasure, etc. — to give more variety to the basic puzzle mechanics. A heavier emphasis on gear and weapons makes this title feel more strategic than the last, so you can't simply rely on matching up skull gems to damage your opponent.
If you've never touched a Puzzle Quest title (or a game called Puzzle Chronicles), then I'll try to fill you in. In Puzzle Quest 2, you choose a main character from a variety of classes, including role-playing game staples like Assassin, Barbarian and Magician. Each character class comes with certain starting attributes and spells, which can be used during battles to turn the tide in your favor. Once you've selected a character and chosen an appropriate name, it's time to begin the quest. Puzzle Quest isn't a small affair to undertake, either; in the sequel, you'll spend over 10 hours with the game, especially if you explore every nook and cranny of each location and take on the optional side-quests.
As the game begins, you're introduced to the simple movement mechanics. The original title featured a large map view where you moved a character icon from location to location, but the entirety of Puzzle Quest 2 takes place in one dungeon with multiple floors. This time, you have a sprite-based representation of your character, and you use the stylus and touch-screen and stylus to move from one point of interest to the next. Everything is seen from an isometric viewpoint, and all locations consist of a single screen, or room, where you can move between various exit points to access different parts of the dungeon.
While moving around, you might encounter non-player characters (NPCs) who have World of Warcraft-like question marks over their heads to signify that they have a quest available. All main quests are denoted by gold question marks, but you'll also encounter silver question marks, which indicate optional quests. You can tackle them later or skip them altogether; the side-quest's difficulty level scales to your statistics, so if you revisit an early side-quest later in the game, it won't be a cakewalk. However, the rewards don't seem to scale, so if you wait a long time to tackle the side-quests, the experience and gold that you earn seem disproportionate to the amount of effort you'll expend.
When you notice a monster in the same room, you tap on the creature to start a battle, and this brings up the addictive Bejeweled-style puzzles. A grid display is filled with five different colors of gems, skull gems, and small fist icons, which fill up your battle points and allow you to use your weapons. The first game heavily emphasis on matching three or more skull gems to damage your opponent, but in this outing, the spells and weapons become the most effective ways to quickly hurt your foe.
To use spells, you need to match the colored gems, which fill up your character's mana pools with points for every matched gem. On the left side of the screen, you have five spells (many more are obtainable over the course of the game), which have certain mana requirements that need to be met before they can be used. Once you reach the requirements, the spells light up to indicate that you can use them. Each spell has a unique effect, but a few spells seem redundant in that they do the same thing, only with a different color trigger. For instance, the Assassin has four different spells that tally up a certain colored gem and do damage equal to that amount. I'd have preferred to see more variety, but that's really a minor complaint on my part.
You and your enemy have a certain number of hit points, and once you defeat your foe, you'll gain loot and experience to level up your current character. The loot items are generally supplies that can be used to craft new weapons. Puzzle Quest 2 has a weapon system that's similar to popular RPGs, where each weapon is color-coded to give you an idea of its rarity and power. You can also encounter special treasure chests and piles of gold to initiate a loot minigame, which replaces your normal gem layout with treasure icons, such as silver chalices and copper, gold or silver coins. Matching four or more of these items will reveal chests, which you can then match to unlock additional items and gear.
The minigames are pretty inventive and can be accessed separately from the main game if you want to check them out. They don't hold much appeal if you're just playing them by themselves, but in the game, you can use a minigame to bash open a door, pick a lock or other story-specific variations, so the gameplay is certainly more varied than in the original title.
From a visual standpoint, Puzzle Quest 2 looks pretty decent, in part because they decided to go with a sprite-based presentation instead of 3-D renders. The character portraits are usually the best-looking thing in the game; in particular, I thought that the monster designs are really great takes on traditional RPG monsters, such as ghouls, goblins, ogres and wraiths. The music, on the other hand, got on my nerves pretty quickly, and the small bit of voice acting sounded wooden and unnecessary.
For a quick comparison, I also played the Xbox Live Arcade version of Puzzle Quest 2, and I prefer it to the Nintendo DS iteration. Both versions automatically save your progress a lot —after a quest, battle or even when a menu option is explored. On the DS, this takes a little more time than I'd like, and it makes the game feel a little sluggish compared to its console brother. I'm not sure if the handheld's technical limits were being pushed, but there was a noticeable time difference when it came to loading and saving the DS game. If you're strictly going to play the game on the DS, though, you probably won't notice.
Puzzle Quest 2 plays great, the touch-screen controls work well, and it's a pretty big improvement over the original without straying too far from the mark. If you've been itching to play some more Puzzle Quest, then this game is totally worth checking out. I look forward to seeing what the developers do with an inevitable third entry, as they're definitely back on the right track.
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