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Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords
Score: 95%
ESRB: Everyone 10+
Publisher: D3
Developer: Vicious Cycle
Media: UMD/1
Players: 1 - 2
Genre: Puzzle/ RPG/ Adventure

Graphics & Sound:
This is a great puzzle game. The idea of combining a puzzle game with quest gameplay is hardly new. After all, Capcom's Quiz & Dragons came out in 1992! The idea behind that game was tied to the Trivial Pursuit theme of questions with multiple-choice answers. It was a great formula until 15 years passed and most of the questions (Ralph Macchio for five points!) became hopelessly out of date. The Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords model strives for something more enduring and succeeds. 15 years from now this will still be an interesting game.

The game screen contains a lot of detail and works in special effects from time to time when you manage to cascade combinations or pull off magical attacks. I noticed slowdown frequently... strange, considering how non-taxing this stuff must be for the PSP hardware. Chalk it up to some quirks in development, but when you've been working on a tough puzzle and it freezes for even a second, you kind of freak out. There are nice illustrated segments during the game where you accept quests and see character pictures with dialogue. These segments reinforce the story component of Puzzle Quest. During exploration of the world where the game takes place, you'll see small representations of your character and enemies or places. Selecting an enemy for battle will bring up an illustration of the enemy with a brief description. There is lots of good art in the game that changes depending on the character you choose and the locations you visit. The sound is limited to some brief dialogue and the effects from magic.

Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords has more depth than almost any puzzle game I've played before. It is the perfect outlet for someone with not enough time to devote to a full-blown RPG or adventure game that doesn't want to give up those elements of exploration and character building. A game where you build experience, outfit your character, and have interesting story elements isn't usually in the puzzle category. Puzzle gamers may be a little baffled by Puzzle Quest, but they may find themselves backing into RPGs after playing this game.

There are options to play a quest as you begin the game or jump right into a battle. During the quest, you can break away to fight individual battles with stronger opponents for training purposes. You can also jump in and play a multiplayer battle. These are typical puzzle games that will appeal to you in those moments where you don't even want to think about anything but finishing a few quick challenges. The neat thing is how the single-player modes still allow you to accrue experience for the main game. In the Quest mode, you'll be asked to choose a character and roll your attributes, much as you do in classic D&D games. After choosing a class and distributing points across a list of magic abilities and character qualities, you'll be thrust into battle.

The mechanics of battle are simple enough, but you'll need to win on the game board to complete objectives in the game. There is a substantial element of chance in Puzzle Quest that will have you groaning as you get close to an objective and get trumped. The good news is that strategy plays a major role in winning. The main modes are competitive, turn-based, and pit you against an opponent using the same board to make combinations of gems and other objects. Matching three objects will cause them to disappear and if you match colored gems, you'll add those colors to your spell inventory. There are various magic spells you can learn throughout the game, depending on your character type. Your enemy also uses spells. When you embark on special quests or undertake challenges, you will see different rules. Sometimes you won't be against an enemy, but just trying to solve a puzzle on the board by shuffling pieces around until everything disappears. Timed battles are included, as are puzzles that involve collecting specific amounts of each object before running out of moves.

The best thing about Puzzle Quest is how each puzzle is wrapped around an activity that fits into the classic RPG/Adventure genre. You start the game with an itinerant hero, long on nobility but short on cash and rep. After a few quests, you collect money and can purchase items to upgrade your character. After battling for a bit, you find that you can capture enemies and force them to reveal their magic to you. Some enemies can be captured and used as mounts. Mounts help you move quickly around the game world and sometimes grant additional powers. There are multi-part quests and the rewards are typically money and experience. Each quest drives the story forward and you can even duck into local pubs to hear juicy rumors. The overarching story I can take or leave, but at least we have a coherent story in a puzzle game. Eventually you can invest in a castle and capture other resources that grant you more gold. It would have been nice to see a real mode that offered online competition instead of just local play. The other thing that we'd like to see is a resource management element in the game that goes beyond each puzzle. Capturing cities is a nice touch, but doesn't play as important a role in gameplay as it could.

As mentioned earlier, there is a considerable amount of luck at work here. You can't get too frustrated with luck - good or bad. To keep calm during an extended session of Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords, just remember that you will get your own breaks. Playing with a human is rewarding after you've been competing against the CPU. There aren't any bones left lying around when the computer is at the wheel. The enemy A.I. is very strong and the odds are generally stacked against you, depending on the hit points of the monster or character you are battling. The type of magic used can make a big difference if it happens to be something that appears frequently on the board. Because the magic is all driven by the colored pieces of mana you collect by matching multiples on the board, it stands to reason that in a random presentation of objects, there will be some imbalance. Wait for your time to roll around and put all your customization into hit points at the beginning of the game. I pumped way too many of my points into magic upgrades and regretted it later...

Game Mechanics:
Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords is about as complicated to control as a button push here and there. The Menus can be a little tricky to navigate, but there is a nice feature that ties the triangle button to a hint feature. Move the cursor over something you want to investigate and you'll see a brief description of the object. This saves you from a glossary or separate Help Menu. Getting into the Character Menus requires that you land in a town, so you can't change equipment on the fly before a battle or anything. The magic you use is connected to some upgrades in your equipment and you can adapt the style of magic you use to special effects from clothing or just change your clothing and items to match your magic of choice. The option to do this creates some neat depth in the game and tremendous replay value. You can stack up new spells by learning them from enemies and you can train your mounts once you capture them. All this is done through the interface of the puzzle and I think that is a neat thing. Gamers not interested in puzzles may find Puzzle Quest gimmicky, but the puzzle fans will recognize a novel approach that has plenty of depth. The story feature is unusual but welcome in a genre with limited opportunities to enjoy dialogue or interesting art. If all puzzle games could move more in this direction and RPGs could become more a bit more cerebral, we'd be all set. Until that day, just go get a copy of Puzzle Quest and enjoy yourself.

-Fridtjof, GameVortex Communications
AKA Matt Paddock

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