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Wot I Think: Puzzle Quest 2

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.

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