There’s a good reason why Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords has been ported to practically every major gaming system, from portables, to consoles, to mobile phones–it rules. This was one of our favorite games of 2007, and we liked it so much that we ended up buying it on three different platforms! Well, the iPhone version of the game makes four, if you’re charitable enough to include this mess of a port with its cousins. While technically playable, Puzzle Quest: Chapter 1–The Battle of Gruulkar’s bloated price tag and slapdash implementation reeks of opportunism.
Puzzle Quest takes two proven kinds of gameplay–the story-driven RPG and the Match-3 puzzle game–and fuses them into a dangerously addictive whole. The game is set in a classic fantasy RPG tableau that hits all of the genre’s major points like clockwork. You play as heir to a kingdom suddenly beset by undead. As you journey all over the overhead map plying the hero’s trade and shaking down evil creatures for clues, you grow in power while zeroing in on the terrifying source of the taint. There are eight different character classes to choose from, all of whom have different strengths to exploit, weaknesses to compensate for, and abilities to master.
The game’s free-form structure affords a great deal of choice over the pace of the adventure; depending on which quests you accept and where you go, you can travel in a nearly straight line to the end of the game, or spend lots of time leveling up your character and collecting rare items. There are also a myriad of ways to grow in power besides simply completing quests. For instance, the game allows you to domesticate mounts, build your own magical artifacts, and even extort revenue from captured cities, if you feel like it.
All of Puzzle Quest’s combat (and other major actions like deciphering spells and forging artifacts) runs through a Match-3 puzzle game that’s superficially similar to Bejeweled. The game grid is sewn with four different colors of “mana,” as well as skulls, purple stars, coins, and bonus multipliers. When you match three or more of these elements, you trigger a specific effect–collecting mana for spells, dealing physical damage, earning experience points, and gaining gold, respectively. When fighting, you alternate turns with your opponent and attempt to bring its hit points to zero before it can do you in.
This part of the game might look like Bejeweled, but that’s like comparing checkers to chess–there is a level of strategic depth here that blows other Match-3 games out of the water. There are literally dozens of viable ways to defeat bad guys. You can assault them with physical attacks and direct-damage spells; you can control the board by switching one mana type for another; you can freeze them in their tracks and nullify their attack powers; you can outlast them by replacing your own life points; you can even turn every skull on the board into a death-dealing super skull and squash them flat with a single huge combination. The computer-controlled enemies are clever and aggressive, and no fight plays the same way twice. This lends the game that kind of “just one more quest!” level of engrossment that can keep you up all night playing.
Or it could, anyway, if this version of Puzzle Quest wasn’t so obviously messed up. For one thing, this is only the first third of a game that came out in early 2007, and it was a budget game to begin with. You’d think that a discount would be in effect by now, considering the game’s available on XBox Live for $15, but no–getting this janky port will (ultimately) run you $30, assuming the price point doesn’t change for the next two chapters.
And a janky port it is. It looks like the developer chose to model the iPhone Puzzle Quest on the XBox Live version of the game, which has HD graphics, new music, and a few other tweaks. Ordinarily, this would have been the right choice… but it definitely isn’t here, either because the developer ignored the platform’s limitations or is just technically incompetent. The game’s initial loading period takes a good 30 seconds–long enough for you to wonder if your iPhone’s frozen up–and the once-sharp graphics are marred by unseemly blurriness and an absymal frame rate. The game’s touch interface relies on tiny, poorly defined buttons that are difficult to use with any degree of accuracy. This is a big problem during combat, because you are penalized for accidentally making illegal moves. And, worst of all, most of the game’s text is so small that it’s practically illegible. Not a good attribute for a heavily text-based game like Puzzle Quest.
Sadly, Puzzle Quest: Chapter 1 looks like a classic case of ambition beating out common sense. Someone up the business chain probably ordered the developer to fit the entire feature list onto the iPhone, while also reusing all the old graphical assets. They pulled it off at the expense of making the game playable. As a result, we can’t possibly recommend Puzzle Quest: Chapter 1 until it receives a lot of major fixes, drops dramatically in price, or both. It’s a tragedy that iPhone gamers won’t get to experience the full majesty of Puzzle Quest until these guys get it together.