As huge fans of Infinite Interactive’s original Puzzle Quest, here at Console Arcade we’ve been watching the upcoming sequel with interest. Puzzle Quest Galactrix wasn’t received as well as it should have been, while the recent spin off Puzzle Chronicles was nowhere near the standard set by its bigger brother. Now that the true sequel has arrived, the question is whether it’s a return to form, or if the original was lightening in a bottle?
There are elements of Puzzle Chronicles that have been folded into Puzzle Quest 2, but thankfully they’re some of the better aspects and have received some fine tuning along the way. Gone is Chronicles’ woefully amateur art style, in fact gone is the Anime leanings of the original Puzzle Quest, replaced with a grittier appearance that’s reminiscent of Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone’s Fighting Fantasy gamebooks. It’s a nice evolution of the series and certainly different enough to make the characters and environments instantly stand out.
Another hangover from Puzzle Chronicles is the change to the map. There’s no longer a sprawling world layout, peppered with various locations. Now it’s replaced with a much more zoomed in view of your character that explores inside locations like villages and caves in a more intimate fashion. Bringing back memories of the 90’s videogame adaptation of the HeroQuest board game, unlike Puzzle Chronicles’ attempt at this style, it works because it manages to provide the illusion of a more cohesive world. Areas can also be moved between using warp points and, with the abhorrent loading times that plagued Puzzle Chronicles now sorted out, it certainly feels like a more joined up experience rather than a series of sectioned off levels.
What’s disappointing is how, despite the refinements, this approach still manages to end up as a missed opportunity. The environments are visually detailed and seem to have had a lot of thought poured into their design, so it’s a major oversight that there isn’t that much to do. Only certain areas or objects like chests can be searched and it would have been much more rewarding to provide the player with greater freedom to explore each location. In that respect it feels like a step backward from Puzzle Quest, where almost every location along the way had at least one thing to do.
The puzzle element of the game remains the same, so at its most basic it requires three or more coloured gems to be matched in order to charge attacks. The player can still match skulls to deal out damage directly, but these are now supplemented by your selected weapons. Instead of just adding stat modifiers, these are charged by matching the fist-shaped Action Gems and used in the same way as magic spells and abilities to deal out heavy attacks, or even increase your defensive capabilities.
Puzzle Quest 2 uses a number of mini games to try and keep things varied, centring on activities like searching for treasure, picking locks, bashing down doors, or disarming traps. Each one limits the player to completing certain gem combinations within a set number of moves and, much like the spell research and monster training mini-games of the first, successfully break up the combat puzzles (even if they do boil down to the same basic gameplay elements).
Those who struggled with the annoyances of the first title will find little has changed to try and entice them back. It’s still entirely possible to run into problems with enemies repeatedly clobbering you in the earlier stages, a particular issue if you pick certain classes of character with under-developed defensive skills.
Since the AI makes full use of the new mechanics for attacking and blocking, starting off with the Assassin or Mage classes can be an exercise in frustration and even a lowly pack of rats can be enough to cause numerous, infuriating defeats. This isn’t helped by the fact that enemies do not regenerate on the map, so it’s no longer possible to go away and level up before returning again to tackle a particularly troublesome adversary.
The answer to whether Puzzle Quest 2 is an improvement over the original doesn’t have a straightforward answer. While it’s undeniable that it offers some improvements, there are areas where it feels as if, in the wake of Puzzle Quest Galactrix, they were afraid to make too many changes in order to appease fans.
Arguably the sequel’s biggest hurdle was to overcome the success of its forerunner. Considering the generous length of the first game, Puzzle Quest 2 certainly won’t offer a fresh experience for those who’ve played the first to death. There’s no question that people who loved the original will like this, it’s just that despite trying its hardest, it doesn’t offer enough to feel like anything more than another expansion pack (albeit with a grander looking exterior).
While it shouldn’t be dismissed as a poor game by any stretch (since at its heart beats the basics of the original Puzzle Quest) those hoping that Puzzle Quest 2 would recapture the full joy of the original, will probably end up being a little disappointed. Conversely those who were left hungry for more will be in their gem matching element.