Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords was quite possibly the biggest time sink to come out of the video game industry in 2007. A somewhat subtle release from D3 Publisher, Puzzle Quest didn't ship with any sort of fanfare. It just hit the market and quickly addicted player after player with good reviews spreading via word of mouth. In the time since, there have been sequels and spin-offs of varying quality (Puzzle Quest: Galactrix, Puzzle Chronicles and Puzzle Kingdoms among them), but no real successor to the game that started it all. D3 Publisher and Infinite Interactive aim to change that, with the aptly named Puzzle Quest 2.
Compared to the original Puzzle Quest, Puzzle Quest 2 updates a lot of things, but the puzzle-solving element hasn't changed much. Puzzle Quest 2 keeps a Bejeweled-style puzzle board at the center of the action, so the core game mechanics are easily accessible — even to novice players.
The biggest development in the sequel is the addition of weapons and full body armor to your character. In the original game, you could collect weapons and armor, but they only offered passive bonuses. This time around, weapons are a pivotal option during combat. Mana types and spell usage have also changed a bit, with the number of mana types increasing from four to five and the number of spell slots decreasing from seven to five. Experience and money bonuses no longer appear on the play field, though a new gem type, the action gem, is present to allow for weapon usage. While all of these changes are small, they have a noticeable effect on the way the game is played.
As a whole, the changes add up to a more tactical experience on the puzzle grid. Whereas the first game was something of a race for the skulls — with spells being little more than a nice supplement — the skulls are simply one way among many to deal damage to your opponent in Puzzle Quest 2. With a variety of choices at your disposal, combat is now a multifaceted experience. Depending on your hero class and play style, using the skulls to attack may actually be the poorest option in your arsenal.
For example, if you are playing a hero with a high strength attribute, then skull damage is going to be boosted and attacking in the traditional manner is a good option. Play as a sorcerer with few attribute points in strength, however, and those skulls really aren't going to do much for you. In that case, it is best to look to a combination of weapons and spells to maximize your damage.
Weapons are used in conjunction with the new action gem mentioned earlier. Shaped like a glove, the action gems are matched and banked just like normal mana gems, with one key difference: If the board locks and you suffer a mana drain, your banked action gems don't drain. Once you've collected enough action gems, you can use any item, shield or weapon that is equipped in your hands. Weapons do direct damage, shields boost your defense for a limited amount of time, and items can either cause damage or buff your character. Some of the more common item examples are mana and health potions.
Because they do direct damage, weapons can form a formidable offense. The stronger the weapon, the more action gems it requires to use, so if your play style lends itself to mixing it up with metal, then you'll want to develop your character's agility.
Individual spells may not seem that impressive in Puzzle Quest 2, but once you jump into the fray and learn how the effects can stack on top of one another, the offensive effects can be devastating. The assassin hero class is a great example of this. One of the assassin's early spells is Stealth, which allows him to toss up a mana shield and grants a secondary buff of doubling the effect of any strike spell. Another of the assassin's spells, Pressure Point, can be used to knock the opponent's defense down to zero. Force them to drop their shields, buff yourself to double strike damage, let loose with multiple strike spells and you're suddenly dishing out fairly large amounts of damage. The whole thing may take a few turns to set up, but the payoff is well worth it.
Balancing your spell book against your opponent's is another tactic that comes into play in Puzzle Quest 2. In the original adventure, tuning your spell book was mostly done for personal play style. Here, the enemies tend to come in groups, similar to the factions found in Galactrix, so you can best prepare as you move from area to area. A basic example would be the Orcs, who tend to use a lot of red magic. Before jumping into battle with an Orc, enable spells that either neutralize red gems or can use them for attacking. This way, you can counter any Enrage spells that come your way.
All in all, the AI opponents within Puzzle Quest 2 are nicely balanced. Each provides a challenge that must be countered and all play intelligently, but the problem of "cheating," which often plagued the first game, is no longer present. The occasional massive chain based on pure luck still occurs from time to time, but it is more the exception rather than the rule. It's a tweak that is sure to please just about everyone.
Visually, Puzzle Quest 2 is an improvement over all of its predecessors, offering nicely drawn worlds to complement the sharp character portraits. World perspective is an overhead two-thirds view, which allows the background art to shine. You're constrained to a preset path, though everything along the way is clearly identifiable, especially enemies. Prior games had small enemy portraits on the world map, but in Puzzle Quest 2, every creature is represented by a detailed, large portrait that is easily identifiable by sight alone. Never fear; this is nothing like Infinite's last release, Puzzle Chronicles, when it comes to looks.
Finally, there are the minigames. They've always been a part of the Puzzle Quest series, but as players learned in Galactrix, timed minigames can be more frustrating than fun. Infinite heard the complaints, and this time around, all of the minigames are turn-based. Additionally, all six of the minigames are available to play from the main menu, right from the start.
Despite all the fun, we did have a few minor issues with Puzzle Quest 2. The first is the odd UI lag whenever the game grants you a quest reward. As the reward notifications pop up on screen, you are forced to sit there and wait. Once the game gets going, it isn't as big a deal, but during the tutorial phase, it is extremely noticeable, especially because the path to the next screen doesn't open until after the notifications have stopped scrolling by. Impatient gamers aren't going to like it. Another complaint is the relative uselessness of the upgrade shop. No matter what we did, upgrading items always resulted in rather dull results that failed to best what we could find or simply buy in the shops. Give us the rune system of the original any day.
In addition to the single-player aspect of the game, Puzzle Quest 2 also offers up a healthy set of multiplayer options, both online and locally. Going online with Xbox Live, you have the option of playing a randomly generated hero against an opponent or facing off in a hero battle with your leveled-up character. Hero battle is a good way to see what other players are doing, but it isn't as easy to find a match this way. Locally, you can play hero battle or tournament mode. Oddly enough, there isn't an option for playing with random heroes locally. This is a bit of a disappointment because it means all local players need to have a stored hero to play mano a mano. There's not even an option to use the same hero, so if you just have a friend popping over for a round, it's tournament mode or nothing.
Tournament mode does away with the heroes and has each player pick four monsters from the game roster. It then pits the two teams against one another, with monsters dropping off only when their health reaches zero. Lose all four monsters first, and it's game over. Tournament mode is a nice take on multiplayer, so seeing it limited to local play is somewhat of a disappointment. Call us demanding, but just as we want to see the option for random heroes locally, we also want to see tournament mode playable over Xbox Live.
Hiccups aside, Puzzle Quest 2 is a fine sequel that is sure to please fans of the original as well as draw in plenty of new players. It doesn't reinvent the wheel, but it doesn't really have to. Combine the solid gameplay with a budget-minded retail price of 1200 Microsoft points ($15), and you have a game that's difficult to pass up.
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