Wot I Think: Puzzle Quest 2

And again.

Puzzle Quest 2 is up on Steam for £14. The match-3 RPG madness shifts from top-down inbetweeny bits to isometric inbetweeny bits, with a few changes to the structure of the battles. Does it work? Is it as compelling? Does it still seem like it’s cheating? If you’d only read below you’ll find out Wot I Think.

I’ve been meaning to tell you Wot I Think about Puzzle Quest 2 for ages. But, well, I’ve been somewhat playing the match-3 battling RPG of Puzzle Quest 2.

This makes for something of a dilemma, because I’d like to argue that it has some signifflaws, but at the same time I’d just like to play one more battle before I do. Which means they can’t be significant at all, can they?

Oh good grief, I’m not kidding. I know this is a schtick, that thing where someone pretends they just stopped for five minutes and an hour went by. It was an hour and a half, about eight battles, three looted chests, a hidden object, then travelling back to town to trade in about 10,000 gold worth of loot, and upgrade my items, where I also discovered a bunch more sidequests were available and right now I’m fighting a zombie in the barracks and I remembered I’m supposed to be writing this.

Earlier this week Warren Spector was talking about the specific purposes of videogames, and he uttered these words: “Games are about the repeated action. Our job is to change the context around the repeated action.”

I can’t think of a better description of Puzzle Quest 2. Like its predecessor, this is an RPG based around the traditional match-3 puzzle that made Bejeweled and Zoo Keeper so famous. You slide tiles on a grid, lining up those of the same colour into rows of three or more, which makes them disappear.

Except Puzzle Quest had the magnificent idea of making this action competitive. It’s two-player match-3, you versus the computer. Lining up coloured gems gains you one of five types of mana, which can then be spent on spells to use in the battle. Spells that change the grid, attack your enemy, or gain you advantages. Then there’s the grids skulls, which when aligned issue damage to the enemy. Whoever’s hit points get to zero first loses.

Surrounding this core mechanic are very many excellent details, from being able to buy clothing that provides more defence and bonuses, to upgrading weapons for special attacks. Gone are the XP gems this outing, replaced by clenched fist icons, which gain points for unleashing your weapon, shield or item’s special move. For my Masterwork Glyphic Greatsword, I need an enormous 25 of these to unleash the extraordinary 34 skulls of damage.

Defence allows you a percentage change to halve the damage of any attack, meaning it’s another stat you want to keep an eye on, boosting it if you can, and taking out your opponents’.

So during battle you are doing so much more than playing match-3. You’re engaged almost in resource management, working out what mana you need, trying to harvest as many fists as you can, while preventing any opportunities for attack being left on the board at the end of your turn. With replacement tiles dropping in from above whenever any are destroyed, it of course becomes a combination of fine skill and mad luck. You either watch cascades of tiles dropping in and forming groups on their own, filling your mana and brutally attacking your opponent, or you see the grid set itself up perfectly for the enemy.

However, get familiar with it all and it very much becomes the same process each fight. For me it goes: Scan for four-of-a-kind possibilities (which give you an extra turn), then fill up on Blue, Green and Yellow so I can fire off Tribal Mark (increasing the damage of lining up skulls) and Triban War (boosting my defence). Then I’ll use Enrage to add 14 extra red gems to the board, which’ll be bound to give me at least one four-in-a-row, and leave me with enough mana to use Skull Crusher and stun the enemy for a few turns. By now I should have enough fists to launch a mighty blow from my sword, and then curse the seas and skies when he manages to block it. Repeat. Forever.

There’s a really dramatic change since the original. Gone is the top-down view of a map, covered in enemy icons and castles to visit. This time you’re in an isometric world of dungeons and caves, where rooms are guarded by orcs and wolves, and towns filled with tradespeople and quest givers. While it’s really an aesthetic change – you’re still playing match-3 for the most part – it refocuses everything, a smaller scale, a more intimate, personal experience.

And so you repeat that action. And repeat that action. And repeat that action. And even though the fights are getting ludicrously repetitive, you repeat that action. And despite it being 2am and your eyes aching with tired, you repeat that action. Because if you repeat that action here, and in the next corridor, and then in the next room, that will let you get to that action to be repeated but with a plot-changing enemy. This completed you’re afforded opportunities to repeat that action elsewhere.

There are, in fairness, a few other mini-games. Picking locks involves lining up tiles to match those at the bottom of the screen. Searching requires you to line up tiles to change the colour of those grid squares. Looting asks you to line up lines to match particular icons for rewards. And learning new spells is about lining up icons in very few moves.

It’s easy to tease it for that. But there’s so many tiny details that demonstrate intuition and empathy on the part of the developer. The “be-boop” at the end of your turn, the “be-beep” at their end of the enemies’. Such a small thing to do, but so effective at saying, “Your turn!”. The animations are gloriously silly and overblown, and the storytelling is all pleasingly daft.

However, it’s a bit disappointing that the same stupid AI bug from the first game appears here too. The enemies are smart, and won’t usually ignore a chance to four-in-a-row or take out some skulls, which means you know you’re going to get at least some challenge. But for some reason they’re still incapable of noticing a potential match of skulls if they drop in from the top in the middle of their own turn. While it’s clearly to your advantage, it’s a strange defect that should likely have been fixed.

Also remaining from the original, and a lot more fun, is the extraordinary mental battle involved in not thinking the game is cheating.

It isn’t. It clearly isn’t. But it’s so hard to believe that. When good fortune happens to you, you tend to think, “I deserve this, for I am a true hero.” But when it happens to the pack of rats you’re fighting who sees a run of luck you think, “This is SO UNFAIR! Why does he get ALL the best matches! GOD! It’s SO cheating!” and then flounce off for a strop. Then you remember those occasions of being annoyed far more clearly than those when what you thought you rightfully deserved happened to happen, and your memory tricks you into thinking it’s ripping you off.

I do have a couple of minor complaints. First, the speed. For a seasoned Zoo Keeper player, I find it very frustrating having to wait to take my turn, because there’s some left over animation trails on screen. It would be great if it would let you click past such things to continue chipping away at the grid at your own pace. It would also be nice for shops and the inventory to automatically compare stats for an item with the one you’re holding. It’s not a huge deal in a game like this, but it would have made an excellent interface close to perfect.

It’s ridiculous that after playing it for days, just repeating those same actions again and again, that I know as soon as I’m done writing this I’ll go back and play some more. I’m quite certain what it offers can’t justify the interest I have in playing it. But I shall not stop. I don’t want to stop. I want to repeat that action. And repeat that action. And repeat that action. And I’m almost disinterested in whether the context changes.


  1. TotalBiscuit says:

    Should be mentioned that things like crafting weapons, stealing spells, training mounts, sieging and taking cities are all gone, which is a fairly major dumbing down (unless that comes much later, I’m about 6 hours in so far), plus the equipment ‘upgrade’ system is distressingly linear and lacks all semblance of choice and customisation.

    • Daniel Rivas says:

      Crafting is definitely in it, or at least it is in the DS version.

    • Arathain says:

      Ah. See, those are the things that made the first one so good for me. Big world, lots to do, a ton of interesting character customisation. Perhaps I’ll give this one a miss. Shame, I had hopes.

    • Simon says:

      The lack of craftable items is annoying but my God you could make some hideously broken items if you had the patience to grind the bastard crafting puzzles. Like a harp that gave you +4 to all mana reserves every time you got 4-of-a-kind or something like that.

      And I think I trained a mount precisely twice. Stealing spells was neat as hell, though, I wish they’d kept that in.

    • Arathain says:

      My main PQ character only had one crafted item that I felt was better than the stuff you got from the rest of the game. It did have the mana-generating component you mentioned, though, and a chance to poison my opponent.

    • Daave says:

      Maybe it is a step back, I sure do miss capturing enemies and then torturing them for spells in my castle, but the actual combat is much better (aside from the inability to drag one gem over another to match them).

  2. Tei says:

    The bar is very high with the original title. I have not read your article, but If is any good, somewhere you have to comment if this one mantain the high level, raise it, or lower it.

  3. zeebob says:

    Sigh, I’ve steered away from buying this game. The first one cost me my marriage, my job and my best friend. Oh wait, that was the heavy abuse of prescription drugs. Guess I’ll buy this one after all.

  4. rxtx says:

    The first game on the DS drove me into a rage when the computer would have fantastic runs of whipping my backside. When you get down to it, a big part of this game is luck and once you realise that it becomes a lot less fun

  5. Quintin Smith says:

    I agree completely, especially about the animations hampering the pace of combat.

    And I like your character’s name.

    • qrter says:

      The animations that drove me mad (on the DS, I have to say – I’m guessing it’s the same on the PC) were the intro ones, every battle – showing you all the spells everyone has, etc. When you have to do battle every few steps, it gets really, REALLY grating.

      In general I felt battles took a bit too long, I’d like them to move faster, be over faster.

    • D says:

      Not seen that in the PC version. Only between turns, when you know it’s your turn and things are just fading out (damage etc.) you still have to wait for the “be-boop” to go before you can move. It’s like a fifth of a second most of the time, but often.

  6. Qjuad says:

    Do the enemies still level with you? That always annoyed the hell out of me in the original.

    • D says:

      Yes. It’s good because you don’t have to do the subquests with specific timings, to get the most out of them.

  7. Arathain says:

    Ah, Zookeeper. I still play it, years later. My top score on the 6 minute mode is 5.9 million. That was a great game, but it wasn’t perfect. So I know I can get 6 million, but I’ve never managed it. I can’t even get close. I’m not sure my soul can leave this world in peace when my life ends unless I have that 6 million.

    • DrGonzo says:

      Zookeeper is amazing. My favourite DS game I think. I still remember playing the multiplayer with my girlfriend. She wins the game in around 3-5 seconds usually before I’ve even made a move.

  8. BaronWR says:

    Oh god. The first one of these took up way too much of my life. I simply can’t buy this. The lack of mounts and sieges is disappointing, though,

    And why is your character named after a thoroughly inoffensive chemical compound?

  9. Gothnak says:

    The problem with PQ2 compared to PQ1 is that you get a set list of actions to choose from and you can’t add any new ones from weapons or items. This makes customising your hero almost impossible, so if you are playing as an assassin, you have to play the way they want you to.

    PQ1 was great as you could find an item that changed how you played completely. Sure, it was broken with some of the combos (I got an infinite combo) but i expected PQ2 would be a balanced PQ1, not a bland PQ1. The graphics are nicer, the mini games nicer, it’s all presented in a much more polished way, but when it comes down to it, your playing tactics don’t evolve as you play the game, which is imo is far far too repetitive…

    PQ1 – 8/10, PQ 2 – 6/10.

    • DrGonzo says:

      Considering each character has 30 abilities and you can only take a small amount into battle I think that there is quite a lot of customizing allowed.

      I must be in the minority here. I haven’t played that much of it so far so I suppose I could change my mind. But I think it is much better than the first. The first was over complicated if you ask me, this cuts most the crap out and makes the actual game, as in the connecting 3 in a row bit, better for it.

    • Dave says:

      I agree with Dr. Gonzo, I think this is better than the original. There are a couple minor nags (my impatience has more to do with world travel than waiting for animations in the actual match-3 part) but overall, I like it.

      I like the small amount of variety added by the looting/lockpicking/searching minigames, even if the looting one usually annoys me because those rare chests inevitably are eaten by the creeping floor of doom.

    • Morph says:

      I found my tactics change with what equipment I’m using, plus you get the 5 spell choices (and it is quite a hard choice when you have well over 20 to choose from later on), and sometimes with what the enemy spells are (do I let them get green for their awesome spell, or take it even though I don’t want green?). I’ve already noticed that I’ve been considering my moves much more than in PQ1.

      Since the first took an awful lot of time out of my life I’m getting quite worried what’s going to happen to me now….

  10. tomwaitsfornoman says:

    “Flounce off for a strop.”


    • Premium User Badge

      Hodge says:

      He had me at ‘signifflaws’.

      Also: your username wins the Internet.

    • qrter says:

      Really? No offense to tomwaitsfornoman, but It’s a pretty obvious joke, popping up on fora all over the net (maybe it’s the same person, but I don’t think so..).

    • Pani says:

      Should it not be Timwaitsfornoman or maybe Tomwaitsfornorman?

  11. Schaulustiger says:

    Oh man, I was madly in love with the first Puzzle Quest, completing it on three different platforms (Symbian OS, Playstation Portable and PC). But I have to say that I found it far more compelling on a smaller screen such as the PSP’s, because on a 24″ screen the grid is way too big to quickly find matching opportunities.
    So now I’m waiting for the iPad version (I know, I know…) that is coming out later this year and then I’ll happily spend hundreds of hours repeating my actions. Repeated actions have never been more fun for me.

  12. Tacroy says:

    It sounds kind of like Gyromancer, that game that PopCap made in cooperation with Squeenix. I’ve been playing it on and off, and it’s pretty neat – standard Squeenix “mysterious figures talking in shadows!” plot, with PopCap gameplay.

    I have yet to ‘mance any gyros though, so on that front the name is very misleading.

    Despite that failing, it sounds like it’s quite similar to Puzzle Quest 2. It’s also very addicting, and ISTRM that Penny Arcade (the Gabe half of it, at least) liked the game a lot.

  13. Sleepy says:

    Yeah, Gyromancer. “How much money did Puzzle Quest make? Oh shit let’s crank one of those out!”, says an anonymous sqeenix manager.

    • Tei says:

      After Dune 2
      “lets make one of these, and call it War—something… Warcraft!”

    • Chris D says:

      You’re forgetting “How much money did Bejewelled make? let’s crank out one of those and call it Puzzlequest.”

  14. rocketman71 says:

    The computer IS (still) cheating.

  15. Evan says:

    This game is boring.

    I bought the first PQ twice. Once on DS, and once on PC. Played through it on both platforms.

    It amazes me that the developer hasn’t been able to recapture the magic of that first game. I am seriously disappointed.

    Oh well … lots of others have caught on to the Puzzle/RPG thing at this point.

  16. Sen says:

    I’ve played PQ2 played it on the 360 and i found it far too repetitive. I completed the game in one playthrough and that was only because of the achievements. Towards the end, it was just the same battle repeated over and over. I don’t think I would have done the same if I wasn’t whoring for achievements then.

    What i don’t understand is why steam gets away with charging 14squid or 20 american dollars on a game which only cost me 1200ms points on xboxlive.


    There is one battle though which is quite fun – the one where you take on the green dragon.

    • Fumarole says:

      Does playthrough = sitting in your comment? Because, damn, I’ve played over 20 hours and am nowhere near the end.

  17. RiptoR says:

    The AI bug you’re talking about isn’t really a bug if you ask me. I’ve seen enemies use skulls that just dropped in from the top.

    Also, in my experience with the game it seems that some enemies are more prone to use the skulls to damage you, while others ignore them for the most part and focus on collecting mana for their special attacks. I’ve even noticed the enemy trying to prevent me from filling up my mana bars by deliberately matching gems I need for a spell, even if they don’t have need for the ‘color’/mana themselves.

    But then again, I could be completely mistaken here and the things I’ve noticed might be purely random.

  18. innokenti says:

    It’s almost like they’ve legally sold me an endless supply of crack.

    Damn them!

    (At least I’ve resisted installing it on my computer at work to protect the sanctity of the lunch-break from the desecration of PQ)

  19. dr_demento says:

    Soren Johnson’s column talked about the problem of the AI ‘cheating’ in PQ – it’s pretty interesting, he reckons that people thinking the computer is cheating is so bad that it’s worth coding the game to cheat on behalf of the player instead.

    The AI ‘bug’ you mention is probably, at least partly, the developers’ way of doing that – you can’t whinge about the computer getting 4-inna-rows from the top of the screen that ‘it totally knew were up there’ if it never takes advantage of them

  20. Kradziej says:

    About the computer “cheating”…
    You are absolutely right, but I my view of the problem i different. I am the one playing the game and I am the one that feels emotions, NOT my PC/console. And because of that, I think in-game opponents should never be lucky. The gamer, sure, can, but not the NPC. Games are abotu entertainment, not non-existing characters’ rights.

  21. karry says:

    “Except Puzzle Quest had the magnificent idea of making this action competitive.”

    Ever heard of Puyo Puyo ? Back in the 90’s ? No ?

    And yes, AI is a cheating bastard, which is seriously hampering my game enjoyment.