Wot I Think: Rune Masters

By John Walker on July 17th, 2012 at 8:00 pm.

Looks a touch too familiar.

Here’s what I find interesting about an average puzzle-game/RPG: I spent all morning playing one. An awful lot of games pass over my screen of a week, and many don’t really grab my attention. I’m really not sure that CodeDaedmonsRune Masters should have, but I can’t deny that I played it from 9am to 12am without stopping. And in the end, it proves itself a very useful measure of what this peculiar sub-genre can get so right and so wrong.

The odd thing is, Puzzle Quest did it first, and got it most right. Even its own sequels have failed to capture that same perfect brain-kidnapping midpoint between match-3 puzzling and RPG progression. While the latter was definitely somewhat perfunctory, its battle mechanism for fighting via Bejeweled, while worrying about gathering mana for spells, smashing skulls for maximum attack, and then balancing your skills to best use all these abilities, managed to make something disposable into a compelling quest. Daft, certainly, but enormously engaging. And there have been so very many pretenders since, and none I’ve seen that have matched it, let alone bettered.

So obviously Rune Masters does neither. But it does improve on one of the mechanics. And completely arses up others. Which at least demonstrates that there is still good room for improvement in the whole idea, and the potential for a game to steal away PQ’s dominance. But let’s point out where RM goes so horribly wrong, first.

Er, yeah. Not exactly a map bursting with potential. Greyed out can't be played.

The premise is pretty similar. You’ve a large map of locations containing enemies, unlocked as you progress, and fights take place around a match-3 game. This time it’s the sort that slides an entire row or column to match up a line of matching gems, which is at least a tiny variation. Enemies take their turns too, and you attempt to wipe out each other’s hitpoints for victory, using lots of magic along the way. Although, very oddly, here mana isn’t defined by the coloured blobs matching up to the four magic types, but rather bottles of mana in the grid. Spells are cast by right-clicking on a tile of the colour of the skill you want to use, but are drawn from the same central mana reserve. Which may sound normal enough, unless you’ve played enough PuzzQuest to know that’s a dumb idea. It means enemies can keep casting the same spell over and over, and defending against a particular ability is no longer a neat part of the tactics – taking out all the reds, for instance, to prevent that big attack. And that works the other way too. By investing an enormous amount of my XP into one particular spell, I’ve discovered a way to spam my way through most fights by hammering the same ability over and over, only restricted by a large mana pool, aided by an item that regenerates mana for me each turn. A technique that works until a boss enemy starts doing the same back.

Then for reasons I cannot think of, the game fails to give you any information about either you or the enemy you’re fighting. You can’t see his range of spells, nor your own, and the amount of mana required to cast them is unexplained and pretty arbitrary. If you level a spell up, you’ll not know how much mana it needs until you use it, and then you’ll only receive the spoken message “You have no mana”, no matter how much you actually do have. On top of this, there are far too few enemies meaning you’re forced to re-do the same fights over and over and over (and over) to level up enough for later ones, there are no quests – proving just how essential they are to PQ’s mythos – and the whole look is dated and half-finished.

BUT. But it does one really interesting things within that. How the order of attacks takes place. Here, you can only take your next turn when your meter is filled, the enemy the same, and if you invest points into Agility you can speed up how quickly it fills. This not only determines who goes first, but also can shape the pace of the combat. If you’re significantly faster than your opponent, you can get even sometimes get two turns in before his one. And with this in place, you start planning how you’ll play based on how soon his turn is, or just was. It’s extremely fast-paced at times, but making that decision to drop a giant bomb down rather than gather more mana certainly improves the dynamic nature of a fairly dull puzzle element. When you’re both going to fill the meter at the same time, getting the timing of your attack correct, or even deciding between attacking or using the green spell to improve your health, becomes very crucial.

In the end though, it’s hard not just to want to see that much more dynamic attack take place in a far better game. This one’s so dumb that you don’t even know what mysterious spells the enemy’s casting on you half the time, and the grid’s so tiny that most fights are decided by luck rather than skill. As much as people liked to convince themselves that PQ was cheating, it was always just the element of dumb luck, what happens to drop into the grid. (So fair when it happens in your favour, so unfair when it happens in the enemy’s.) But here that dominates battles, meaning you can lose battles in a couple of turns if it turns on you. The lack of quests makes it meaningless, the half-told story entirely unmemorable, and the sparsity of stuff to do leaves things feeling hollow. But seriously, the pacing of the combat – it’s interesting!

So no, it’s not particularly great, and in many ways it’s very bad. And yet, as I started saying, I spent all morning with it. It’s open in the background now, and I can’t help but think I’m going to play it again. It’s currently on Desura, unfortunately at £9. At something closer to £4 I’d be tempted to say it could fill a dull evening.

(Yup. I had another go.)

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16 Comments »

  1. GrimDestruction says:

    Never been a fan of this style of game but I think I’ll make an exception this time.

  2. SirKicksalot says:

    Well, I just bought the original Puzzle Quest after reading this.
    So, uh, thanks for the review.

    • saturnine says:

      Puzzle Quest 2 improves on the original in every way but art style, if you ask me. A pity it’s not on sale like Puzzle Quest is, but at 9.99 USD it’s a steal.

      • Arathain says:

        OK, now this one’s confusing me. I’m nearly always the sort of chap who is happy to recognise that everyone has different tastes, and just because I like or don’t like something you like or don’t like doesn’t mean you’re wrong but…

        PQ2 being better than PQ1? I can’t help shake this guilty feeling that you’re wrong, and also possibly a bit mad.

        In the transition from 1 to 2 everything got made more bland, and less fun and interesting.

        The world goes from varied fantasy setting to a brown, white and grey villiage, with a brown and grey and black dungeon. The art, as you mention, is not as good. The change in items to be usable with specific gems had good intentions, but in practice is a series of bland, mostly linear upgrades, with none of the interesting effects items had in the first- getting the right gear set up used to be part of the fun. You can’t build your own castle anymore. You can’t capture creatures- learning abilities is limited to talking to a character in the dungeon to get the puzzles. You don’t have a mount, so no riding around on a griffon or a giant scorpion feeling awesome. Monsters abilities don’t seem that interesting, not least because monsters are pretty unaggressive about using them. Fights are longer than they need to be, and are consequently less dangerous or exciting. The gentle humour of the quest text is gone.

        What you get to replace all that is a bland crafting system,, and not much else. Oh, I do really like the puzzle you get when you loot a chest. There’s that.

        Honestly, Galactrix was, I felt, much better than PQ2, and Galactrix was a disappointment.

        • Strand says:

          These are all of the very same points I would have made if you hadn’t already done so, and eloquently I might add. (Apart from the bit where you postulated that the previous poster was mental.)

          In summary, it’s comforting to know that someone else thinks as I do: Puzzle Quest > Galactrix > Puzzle Quest 2.

  3. Chris D says:

    I think my main issue with both Puzzle Quests (Although I did buy both of them so obviously it wasn’t that big of a deal.) is that in many ways the difficulty curve is backwards.

    At the start of the game you don’t have a lot of options so you need to learn how the game works, get to recognise the patterns and not leave large chains lying around for the AI. Fast forward to the later stages of the game and by and large all of that becomes irrelevant. Games become about grabbing a few points of the right colour mana to unleash the unstoppable combo of death.

    Granted, the middle section of the game is still quite enjoyable but it does seem odd that you, the player, have to acquire all those skills early on and then gradually work towards making them all obsolete as your character acquires all of theirs.

  4. kalirion says:

    9am to 12am? That’s 15 hours right there, you lost a whole lot more than just a “morning.”

  5. ANtY says:

    Hey there, RM’s developer here.

    Thanks for the review, now we have a legit piece of feedback and now we can see a lot of place for improvement in possibly RM2.

    Glad you played it!

    • MadTinkerer says:

      While Puzzle Quest remains the gold standard for the genre for reasons Arathain mentioned above, I’d like to add in my two cents:

      Make it more like the Puzzle Quest PC demo. The full version of PQ is an excellent game, and not too difficult to get at the assets, but there’s no modding scene because nobody seems to realize how easy it is to mod. (Just make a copy of Assets.zip, then play around with the files in Assets.zip, and there’s your mod! Easier than Minecraft modding!) The demo, on the other hand, didn’t obfuscate anything and you could freely change dialogue with Excel and play around with the graphics as much as you liked. The only thing we never figured out with either version was how to change the maps, so we were stuck with the same basic areas and storyline.

      So:

      1) Make it more like Puzzle Quest. Specifically in the ways mentioned in the article as well as what Arathain said, because he’s 100% right about Puzzle Quest 2.

      2) Play Gyromancer. It’s also not Puzzle Quest, but it’s another good example of a PQ-like game that had some interesting ideas and didn’t quite live up to PQ’s standards (in spite of being a team-up between Popcap and Square Enix).

      3) Make. Rune Masters. Super. Easy. To. Mod. That will really make it stand out from the crowd.

      • ANtY says:

        Okay, we’ll think about the modding thing, thanks.

        Actually I played Gyromancer and I think it sucks, it has great graphics but the gameplay isn’t fun IMO

        • Arathain says:

          Gyromancer is my second favourite puzzle-RPG. I’m still of two minds as to whether the twist thing really works as well as Popcap were hoping, but there’s a lot the game gets right. In particular, each creature has a very distinct personality obvious in how it plays out; an impressive feat, given the somewhat limited pallet of rules. For example, the tree-creatures have little damage early on, but they rack up poison, and get stronger as the fight wears on, whereas the dragons seed the board with smaller explosions and wait for the critical moment to chain as many of them as possible, for a one-shot kill. Meanwhile the earth-types hit really hard, but build up inconvenient rocks on the board, so you don’t want to drag things out too much. Also, the lovely creature art helps.

          It’s a much more focused game. A lot of Puzzle Quest’s charm is the variety of things it allows you to do. Gyromancer concentrates mostly on a fun combat experience, and delivers quite well. I can see why it wouldn’t be to everyone’s taste. You do have to take the time to let your eyes get used to finding the twists. It gets a lot more interesting when that becomes easier.

  6. SandmanXC says:

    I finished Puzzle Quest 1 on the PSP twice. While playing mostly during toilet sessions. Best game ever.

  7. Yglorba says:

    Puzzle Quest was amazing. I’m still shocked by how completely every imitator since has failed to live up to its legacy, since at first glance the things that made the game so good seemed like they wouldn’t be that hard to imitate.

    Part of the problem is laziness (Puzzle Quest actually had a huge amount of stuff in it, from the huge list of skills you could learn and items you could collect, to the item crafting and city-conquering, to the lengthy sidequests, and most imitators are just halfassed bejeweled clones without any of PQ’s depth.)

    But only part, since even PQ’s own successors failed to live up to it, and most of them showed a lot of work. I think part of the problem was that other games worried too much about balance — Puzzle Quest was utterly unbalanced, and it was easy to find strategies that broke the game. But that was part of the fun, too (and it would generally make up for this by throwing outrageously hard optional enemies at you, like the rune guardians.)

    Most successors don’t give you as many options to customize your character (less equipment, fewer or no spells, etc.) That’s a bigger deal here than for most games, because a huge part of the fun of Puzzle Quest was how completely your loadout would change the game — you could go for utterly different strategies depending on what you brought with you. And Puzzle Quest had a lot of ways to customize things. Your stats, your spells — including your class ones and the ones you learned from enemies — your mount, which came with a ‘bonus’ spell, your companions, your equipment (much of which had unique ‘triggered’ powers that could change your goals in the game.) And making it even more interesting, most enemies had their own loadouts that changed how they were playing the game, so you’d have to vary your strategy based on what they could do.

    Most of the imitators were lucky to provide even one or two of these, and generally with much less inspired options.

    (Puzzle Quest also had decent writing that usually didn’t take itself too seriously, which was nice.)

    I thought Puzzle Chronicles came the closest, though. Partially because its puzzle game was based on Super Puzzle Fighter Turbo II (which was just a more fun puzzle game than Bejeweled, if nothing else), partially because it offered decent customization options.

    • Arathain says:

      I think this is a great summary. The basic match-3 system is very simple, and on its own, kind of dull. But look, there are a ton of games, in particular board and card games, that owe their success to having simple, almost dull systems, but allowing the game and the choices of the player to alter those rules in interesting ways. The strength is in having emergent complexity from sets of simple rules that the player feels they have a strong influence over (but occasionally throw the player a curveball instead, like a challenging boss encounter).

  8. trjp says:

    Just updating this to say your wish came true – tis’ now £3.49 on Desura – and I’m off back to the demo :)

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