I shall banish thee from this plane with this holy five-of-a-kind!
Puzzle Quest 2 is essentially an acknowledgment, if not a downright apology, that Galactrix – otherwise known as “hex-based puzzle something what was that?” – didn’t work. This doesn’t mean that the idea for Galactrix 2 isn’t still floating somewhere out in space, but it does mark the return of the Puzzle Quest franchise to the familiar and successful Bejeweled-inspired square grid from the original. In fact, it’s classic.
[image1]This time around, the good-ol’ gem-switching puzzler is structured within the recognizable frame of Diablo, with you saving one town from the monsters crawling from the bowels of a cavernous castle dungeon. As you move through dank hallways and dusty corridors, in an extremely linear fashion, you will battle all manner of foul beasts – goblins, ogres, vampires, and wolves – in your mission to slay the ancient evil lurking at the very bottom of the dungeon. Yeah, the story might as well be copied from “Fantasy RPGs for Dummies”, and the throwaway ending is hardly worth the effort for as long as it takes to get there.
Of course, an epic tale of good versus evil isn’t the point here. It’s all about the addictive (and delicious) match-3 puzzle battles that have you staring at the screen until you realize two hours have gone by. Like the original, you and the computer opponent take turns switching gems to make a three of a kind. Matching colored gems gives you mana that you use to cast magical spells and matching skulls deal direct damage. Four-of-a-kinds award you an extra turn and five-of-a-kinds add a wildcard on top of that, so keeping your eye out for them naturally becomes your first priority at the beginning of every turn.
That means there will still be times when opponents have the
incredible luck "heroic effort" to match a cascade of games seemingly out of their ass nowhere. It may feel unfair at times, but in reality, the gem drops are completely random and your skill with spells and weapons can always trump luck.
Two new gems add another strategic layer to the board, replacing the experience and gold gems from the first game: purple and fist-emblazoned action gems. Purple gems represent a darker side to magic and come coupled with a new attribute called morale that increases spell resistance. Action gems build your reserve of action points that you need to use equipped weapons. Two-handed greatswords and staffs deal crushing amounts of damage, but aren’t as cost-efficient as shortswords and maces. Either way, action points allow you to suspend a turn to deal damage and to store enough points up for a series of finishing blows.
[image2]Which class you choose determines your general strategy. Barbarians focus on skulls and powerful weapons, wizards on spells and mana manipulation, assassins on spell combinations, and templars on defensive shields. Each class learns new abilities as the character progresses, either through leveling up or learning them from side quests, but their overall tactical focus doesn’t change very much. Companions can also help you out by offering an additional spell, though there aren’t many companions and their spells are usually not worth it.
Like Final Fantasy Tactics, opponents are automatically matched to your level, which keeps battles challenging and makes it easy to level up. The flipside is that it dampens the feeling that you’re actually getting more powerful: Why is this rat swarm gnawing my face off right now? It also artificially lengthens battles that are already long because of how many hit points and how high in defensive power some opponents, like skeleton warriors and trolls, can have. Diligence in clearing out each room leads you to reaching the level cap too quickly.
When you’re not busy battling foes, you’ll spend time playing quick mini-games and purchasing or upgrading your equipment. Everything from picking locks and disarming traps, to looting chests and searching a room for ambushes and secrets, is represented by nifty mini-games which break up the pace of constant battle. But by the third area, the experience awarded for doing some of the mini-games is negligible to the point that the mini-games become a nuisance.
Following the Diablo mindset, you have multiple slots for armor, weapons, and accessories, most of which don’t have any special effects beyond their basic attack or defense stat. It’s not until you gather enough resources, like metal, wood, and rubies, that you will be able to upgrade your items to the legendary and epic level. Doing so usually imbues them with better stats and effects, especially those that increase the damage you deal whenever you match skulls.
[image3]Unfortunately, the graphical interface for the Nintendo DS version of the game are extremely rough. The world and the character modeling are rendered all right, and the puzzle gameplay is strong enough that the unpolished lines, fonts, and textures in the menus eventually meld into the background. But that's still no excuse for poor presentation.
Though there is local multiplayer that pits you against a live opponent – that’s the only option – you can only use your own characters without any level matching. It would have better if there was an option to select from an evenly matched pool of characters.
Puzzle Quest 2 is helped more by the return to the classic Puzzle Quest puzzling than the classic Diablo dungeon crawling. The linear exploration, weapon and armor systems, mini-games, and graphics are all passable, but don’t shine nearly as bright as its addictive (and again, delicious) match-3 gameplay. The repetitive nature can wear on you if you play Puzzle Quest 2 for more than a few hours, but it’s still one of the best pick-up-and-play, zone-out-for-a-while titles the Nintendo DS has to offer.