Also available on: PSP, PS2, Xbox 360, Wii, PC, and some mobile phones, though reportedly not all versions are necessarily of the same quality. I have only played the Nintendo DS version, so I can only speak for that one.
Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords is an interesting puzzle/role playing game (RPG) hybrid where you create a character which is either a Druid, Knight, Warrior, or Wizard, and you take him or her through various regions as an Agarian Knight to save the world from the clutches of the evil Lord Bane who is building an undead army to conquer it. You must stop him!
Puzzle/RPG Hybrid? How does this work?
In Puzzle Quest, the main gameplay takes place on an overworld map, where you can journey from one town to another which you discover along the way. As you travel from one location on the map to another, each of which are represented by icons, you will sometimes see enemy creatures. As you run into these, you activate a battle sequence. Also, most quests involve battles of some kind. Each battle rewards you with experience and gold, with some quest related battles also granting you special items. Quests can sometimes award you with party members or attribute bonuses, too.
All battles, item forging, spell research, creature upgrades, and other things, take place on the other main screen, the battle screen. Each battle is a Bejeweled-style puzzle where you and your opponent take turns matching three or more similarly colored board pieces, after which they disappear from play. There are seven different types of pieces in play: gems of four colors (red, green, yellow, and blue), purple stars, gold coins, and finally skulls. Each piece, when matched, has a different outcome. When matching each of the four primary colors, you receive mana in that color. When you match coins or purple stars, you gain extra money or experience points respectively. And finally, when you match skulls, you do damage to your opponent. When you match more than three at a time, you get a bonus, which for four at a time is an extra turn, while five is both an extra turn and double effect, so instead of say five additional mana, you would receive ten. If matching one set causes a combo, you get credit for the whole string. If it's long enough, you can get a Heroic Effort and gain bonus experience points, but you won't gain an extra turn unless you get four or five in a row.
Each character in a battle has a certain number of hit points and various spells or other skills which take mana to perform. While some spells do direct damage to your opponent, most perform some other action to aid you in battle. Some will change one or more of the pieces in play. Certain spells have predictable results, like turning one color into another, while others are unpredictable, changing random play pieces into something else. There are also spells which affect your enemy by preventing spellcasting, losing turns, draining his mana, and more. You can also increase the damage you do, increase certain skills, and much more. Spells definitely add a welcome layer to what could otherwise be a rather simple puzzle game.
Not only does each character class naturally learn spells or abilities as they gain levels, but as you grow your empire, you can capture beasts and other creatures after you defeat them a few times. Some creatures can act as mounts when captured, which grants you a bonus similar to items mentioned below: they grant you a permanent bonus effect. These can be raised levels by clearing a puzzle with some parameters like shortened time limits, and others. Other creatures, when captured, offer you the ability to learn their spells from them, which you can choose to equip along with your spells. Depending on the power of the spell, learning them can be quite difficult. After capturing a beast, you have to learn the spell at your citadel. Some of the more powerful spells require you to match several hundred of various colored gems as well as scrolls which are received from four or five in a row matches. Failure occurs when there are no more matches available. You also do not have spells available to help you out, so success is often much more difficult than it seems. Nevertheless, this adds yet another layer of depth to an already deep puzzle game design.
If spells weren't enough, there is also equipment that you can buy or even forge (which also has a puzzle minigame you have to complete for success). You have up to four pieces of equipment each of which can have some permanent effect. Some reduce the damage done to you, while others help you do more per attack, increase the effect when you match four or five at a time, or many other creative things. Some items are really quite powerful, especially some of the ones you can forge.
As you gain experience, you can also gain levels. Each level you can raise your character's attributes by four points, with each attribute costing different amounts depending on the character class. There is Earth/Fire/Air/Water Mastery, Battle, Cunning, and Morale. Each one not only affects damage (for Battle especially), but also your maximum mana of each kind, as well as how much you start with each battle and the bonuses you receive when you match them. You also have a small chance of getting an extra turn when matching any three, and having a higher skill in that type increases that chance.
You can also join up with a few party members throughout your quest. Some of these characters make interesting side quests available that would not be otherwise. They also help in battle against certain types of creatures; one person may help against undead, while another against wild animals, and so on.
There is actually quite a lot to do in this game, as the box mentions that there are over one hundred and fifty unique quests available, and with four different character classes (though only two save slots) there is a lot of replay value here. It would not be difficult to rank up forty hours in this game.
How are the graphics?
The graphics are all 2D, and look pretty decent. I have not seen this version compared to the others, but after talking to others, I understand the PSP, Xbox 360 and PC versions look vastly superior, but for a DS game it's simple and effective. The top screen shows you your opponent and various stats, and the touch screen is used to interact with the playing field. There are artistically drawn, anime-inspired characters and backdrops that do look really nice. The game playing field looks all right. It's a puzzle game and you match pieces - it succeeds there. The map screen is in a pseudo 3D overview that looks nice. I can't complain too much, but it won't wow you very often graphically.
What about the sound?
There are decent sound effects and a few musical scores that are nice and fairly memorable. The only problem is that there aren't very many different musical themes during battles, so often I would just leave the volume down. I usually find it hard to enjoy the whole experience of a game without listening to its music also, but I didn't find that to be the case here. I found it funny that a few times while having the sound down, I started a battle, had a version of the music stuck in my head, and turned it up to find I was right. There are three or four different battle themes that are used somewhat randomly throughout the game. I often found myself playing it around the house and turning it up for the storyline sequences, where a different set of themes are used. In general, the music is of high quality, but not too much variety. It does get repetitive, though not annoyingly so.
How good is the interface, and is it stable?
I found nothing wrong with the interface, though it did take a little getting used to. Instead of what I thought at first, you tap the first icon on the playing field and then the one you want to swap with; dragging does not work. I occasionally did make mistakes, but it was my fault - the stylus interaction is pretty accurate for the most part. For detail-oriented players, you can hold 'L' or 'R' to swap screens, where you can tap on the enemy character to see more details about their statistics. When traversing the map, you can scroll either via touch dragging or by using the arrow buttons. You can simply touch your chosen destination and you will walk there, though I was sometimes frustrated because it does not always choose the shortest path to get from one place to the other; occasionally it would walk you quite far (and into extra battles) to get where you were going. In those cases if you travel node by node you will be fine.
Unfortunately, this game is not perfectly stable. I have actually had it completely lock up a few times, requiring a power off of the DS. A few other times I saw some graphical glitches in battle, but that usually went away after the battle. Some people have reported similar sound glitches as well, though I don't recall experiencing them. While the stability problems are also troubling, at least the game automatically saves after pretty much every action or battle so you rarely lose progress.
How appropriate is this game?
If this game has a critical failure, this is it.. which is rather unfortunate, and wholly unnecessary. The major problem here is that one of the opponent characters, called a Medusa, is pictured topless with full frontal view with green 'things' that are probably nipples. I didn't discover this until I was around half way through the game as well. While in a battle, you have a still picture of your opponent on the top screen, so you will see this the entire battle as well. It's really frustrating as it means that many who otherwise might not mind other aspects of its content have to be wary on this point. There is also a Harpy with little clothes, though that is obscured with her hair. Some of the females you meet in the storyline sequences have low cut clothing, but nothing obscene (except for what has been mentioned already).
There is also some mythical content as well. There are the four classic elements, earth, air, fire, and water, for each color of mana. You and your opponents cast spells, though it's not animated in any way, so it's really just a device to modify the playing area or affect your opponent. One of your main enemies is a 'God', and in order to defeat him you must reconstruct another 'God' who is apparently not as bad as this other one. Also, many of your enemies are undead, while others are mythical creatures like dragons, griffins, giant spiders, ogres, and so on. You also fight a few humans along the way. Though not animated in any way, your opponents do die.
There are a few places in which you can choose to follow your word or do otherwise. Depending on these decisions, some side quests can change, as well as character party members. You also occasionally say things in your conversation that I personally would not, in that the main character sometimes appears rather angry.
Overall & Conclusion
Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords is a really engaging puzzle/RPG hybrid that is unfortunately brought down from the accolades it deserves with really unnecessary appropriateness issues. If the Medusa was not in this game, I probably would have recommended it to anyone who does not mind the fantasy setting or the mythical gods or other references and wants a great puzzle game. Instead, I am forced to not recommend it.. which is a real shame.
Sexual Content/Nudity 5/10
Appropriateness Total: 36.5/50
Game Play 17/20
Game Score Total: 41/50