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Puzzle game/RPG hybrids seem to be a going thing lately. Between Might and Magic: Clash of Heroes and the first Puzzle Quest, it seems like this is a market still ripe for the picking- it just needs a really amazing, five-star game to really push it into the spotlight. Is Puzzle Quest 2 finally that game? I was determined to find out.
At first glance, Puzzle Quest 2 has a lot going for it. You start by selecting one of 4 different classic fantasy classes for your character, and selecting a male or female portrait. Each class has a brief description that pretty accurately describes how they play, and these differences become fairly pronounced as your character levels and gains access to more and more powers.
After a brief introduction, you start out doing some tutorial quests in a small town. These involve a string of pretty easy learning fights, a welcome change after the unforgiving vorpal rat swarms and skeletons of doom that would annihilate you in the initial stages of the first Puzzle Quest. Once you've learned the ropes, though, the difficulty ramps up quickly. The beginning sections of the game are really well balanced and a lot of fun, though with some very frustrating exceptions. One side quest involves killing a zombie in town. It's a tough fight and once you think you've finally killed it, it gets back up. Again and again.
This goes right to the heart of the game: there's a lot of love put in, and some really neat ideas (such as the puzzle lock picking) but these are balanced by some really frustrating design flaws. As you get deeper into the game, it starts taking a very long time to do anything. In a recent foray into the catacombs of the Necromancers it took me 30 minutes to make my way through 3 rooms. No bosses fought, no treasure looted. Just a room searched, a trap disarmed, and two regular enemies fought. I didn't even fully clear the rooms. It feels like they were going for the “this game will devour all your time!” kudoo, without understanding that this is only a compliment if what you're spending time on is fun. Regular, vanilla enemy fights that can take 10-15 minutes seem more likely to inspire you to turn off the 360 than come back for more.
A lot of the fault of this lies at the level of the basic puzzle game underneath the RPG. The best puzzle games are built almost entirely upon the player's skill, with deceptively little randomness. All of the puzzle games within Puzzle Quest 2 are predicated upon setting up combos to award extra turns, more damage and more resources for your abilities. This is well and good, but in practice these seem to almost always involve setting up combos that continue using pieces that haven't even been seen yet, turning what should be brain exercise into more of a calculated gamble.
This randomness is exacerbated by the uneven intelligence of the computer controlled enemies. You'll quickly realize that even on normal difficulty the computer enemies are far, far too good at setting up combos with pieces you can't even see yet, setting up combo after rage-inducing combo. The designed balance seems to be using your powers just to compete with the apparently cheating AI. This leads to some extremely uneven results; some boss fights will be easy, and some regular enemies or side quests frustratingly difficult. There is a help system which will auto-highlight an available move and helps even the odds, but also tends to recommend moves that will set up your enemy for a devastating combo attack.
Too often you'll find that all of your effort defeating enemies seems wasted when the time comes to claim your loot. While there are a few quest rewards, there are treasure chests all over that supply the bulk of the rewards you'll see. The treasure mini-game just clearly feels like you have to re-earn the loot you just killed an enemy to get. The combo system is firmly on display here, and getting multiple long combos is your only hope of getting real items. The process will generally involve setting up the best combo you can, and then basically pulling the lever and seeing where the slot machine of falling tiles drops. This randomness really detracts from the thrill. You'll fight to get one usable item from a major chest, and there is a very good chance it can't be equipped by your class. Your best chance to get quality loot is to use the previously mentioned help to highlight the best moves in this mini-game, but here especially using this feels more like helping the computer play solitaire than anything else. If you're like me you'll soon find yourself consciously trying to avoid chests just to stay away from the experience.
These design flaws unfortunately mar what is otherwise a strong effort. The graphics are basic but well employed to create a strong atmosphere within the dungeons you're exploring. The game's music is also pleasant and has some nice touches, such as the change in tune whenever an enemy is getting close to death. The item upgrade system is also very enjoyable, and partially atones for the horrendous treasure looting process. Additionally, the game auto-saves after every encounter so there's at least no chance of losing your progress and having to spend 30 minutes killing the same enemies again. Most of all, the way the classes feel to play is fantastic. The Assassin's strikes and moves really feel like you're carefully setting up your target , going into the shadows and then unleashing a rain of death upon it.
In all, Puzzle Quest 2 is not the five-star game I hoped for. While the game can be a lot of fun in the beginning, the sheer grind of doing puzzle after puzzle, enemy after enemy, chest after chest, door after door is likely to kill the joy of all but the most ardent fan. That said, the game delivers a lot of value for 1200 Microsoft points, and may serve better when you've got a thirty-minute puzzle game itch. It's much less fun when approached like a traditional RPG, as playing hours of the game at a time will leave you a broken, sobbing mess.
Platform(s): Xbox 360 (reviewed), DS, PC
Developer: Infinite Interactive