Game Pile: Puzzle Quest

I don’t so much review games in the Game Pile as I look at them. One of the things I Consider when I look at a game is whether or not that game is itself, worth your money, but I like to think I’ve moved towards using this as an opportunity to just talk about videogames. Not just a list of things the games has in it, but the ways the games were put together, or how these games fit into a greater, more coherent setting. It is one thing to play Bioshock Infinite but it’s another to examine it in the context of its history, and how interestingly it reflects on other games like Shadow Warrior.

Puzzle Quest as a game is almost completely unremarkable to discuss. It’s a one-dollar purchase on an app store somewhere, a throwout rack NDS title, and on Steam, as it was when I bought it, it was a single dollar to purchase. There is basically nobody in the world who does not have access to this game if they want it, and it’s barely worth recommending it be purchased or not. I’m reasonably certain that Puzzle Quest is now a sort of digital coathanger, cloying up people’s back closets and being stuffed away in DS collections in the hope that some day they’ll return to it.

The actual game as a purchaseable entity isn’t interesting is what I’m saying.

Despite this, Puzzle Quest is an interesting game in one of three ways, and that’s what I’d like to talk about now.

Cutting The Fat

Every time I want to work myself up about Puzzle Quest I keep coming back to a problem in design that I have in RenPy games. Quite a few videogames have mechanics that aren’t actually very fun, and we’ve either inherited those mechanics from earlier times, or come to attach those mechanics to the types of game, so they’re now part of a genre. Consider how many JRPGs use menu-based combat poorly, with their combat essentially being ‘hit, bigger hit, biggest hit’ and almost never any actual interesting decisions coming from that system. Consider how even Final Fantasy 6, which pushed menu-based combat to one of its far edges with the variety each character could have, eventually broke down to ‘Sabin Always Bumrushes,’ or ‘everyone always Ultimas.’ I used to think ‘Menu Based Combat is just bad,’ but then I reflected on how strong the combat system is in Pokemon – and it is a simple menu-based JRPG style combat.

Puzzle Quest has a simple, but fantastic idea at its core: What if we took an element that isn’t very interesting, and replaced it with an element that is? What if instead of choosing a correct sequence of attack moves and targets in a little animated plane, you played Bejewelled against your opponent? Then, to spice that up, what if you had special moves, fed by resources you earned by making the correct moves on the board? The spell system, and how it interacts with combat is just fascinating when you consider that it’s replacing and representing every classic bit of RPG combat.

Puzzle Quest‘s decision to change a core part of its type of game, which resulted in a totally different game, or a game with an interesting framing device. That framing device then leads into the next remarkable thing about Puzzle Quest, which is…

One More Turn

I have harped on the topic of conveyance in the past, mostly to complain about Gateways a little more, but here I’d like to talk about how Puzzle Quest has very solid conveyance turned to an evil purpose. What really befuddles me is just how this game has any conveyance at all – I’m really not sure how Puzzle Quest keeps you taking one more turn beyond the fact any individual turn is relatively easy. Much of most RPGs is travelling around between points and dealing with random encounters – combat that typically is tedious rather than interesting, and which rarely rewards you. Puzzle Quest, however, makes transit between encounters very quick, and makes those encounters directly engaging – which means, most of the time you’re playing Puzzle Quest, you’re playing a turn, or watching someone else’s turn.

Any time you finish an encounter you can almost immediately move on to do another one. That’s it, that’s the game. The question that follows is What am I doing this for and that’s harder to answer. Each puzzle encounter gives you opportunities to contro how much you earn in experience and gold, and both of those things have different value outside of the game itself and have no value within it. If you want new, different spells, experience is useful. If you want to expand your stronghold or upgrade your equipment, you want gold. Therefore, there’s winning, but there’s also degrees of winning. If you buy things on your stronghold, you can ride around on monsters, which gives you advantages in encounters, sometimes specifically about how the combat starts. You zip to another encounter, and then you’re back in that stratified honeycomb of turns. Turn after turn after turn.

You can take another turn, always. Just one more turn. On a mobile game this seems initially insidious, but I think it’s actually safeguarded by mobile gaming typically occurring outside. Sure, you can get lost in Puzzle Quest for hours on the train, but it won’t hold your attention if there’s someone you actually want to talk to sitting next to you.

Luck Over Skill

The most insidious aspect of the whole design, however, is how easily, in the early game, everything can go Just Right. That can chain into a four-of-a-kind. A move that you maybe predicted scoring two brings in a whole row of extra tiles from above and that includes a perfect mix of extra tiles that cause a chain reaction, which causes another chain reaction and suddenly you have full mana in all the types you like, and bonus XP for your Heroic Effort. Heroic Efforts irritate the hell out of me, because ‘effort’ implies that I did something – not that the game decided to just roll the dice and give me candy because two sixes showed up.

I am not saying that Puzzle Quest is a game without skill in it. What I’m saying is that skill can only carry you so far. Eventually, you will encounter an enemy who can do something outrageous, or who has a blistering, lucky early turn, and the game pays out to them rather than to you. You will win encounters you had no business winning, because a Heroic Effort chain happens, but through no effort on your part.

I think these factors are related. People are exceptionally pliable when interacting with random chances. What it reminds me of is not a game of skill, but games of chance – poker machines, slot machines, other pull-lever, forms of ‘entertainment.’ You have some agency in Puzzle Quest, it isn’t entirely about randomness, but that randomness plays far too much of a part in how the game plays out. Some randomness in a videogame is good, it keeps plays somewhat fresh. Too much randomness, however, and players stop being able to control their outcomes.

These are the elements that blur together, though, to create an experience that is addictive, compelling, and not very fun. I can’t remember actually enjoying a single moment in Puzzle Quest. There are no elated laughs, no excited moments when a cascade saved me at the best moment. It’s all just a mixed-together slurry of skinner-box excitement elements, designed to keep me playing, regardless of what I feel about it.


One final note is that while I have Puzzle Quest Galactix, and played it alongside Puzzle Quest, the two games are not different enough for my tastes to warrant a separate review. They’re the same basic thing, with the same basic problems, except Puzzle Quest Galactix happents to crash a lot and focuses its quests on really annoying, boring stuff.

Puzzle Quest is available from Steam, and probably other places too.

Buy it if:

  • You want a challenge-free game to run in the background while you work that can distract you for a few moments at a time.
  • You can play it on a portable device with a lot of interruption to keep yourself from being trapped in it.
  • You want a game with no manual dexterity and no timing involved.
  • You enjoy random and luck-based play experiences, and don’t feel cheated by it.

Avoid it if:

  • You dislike randomness as a core game mechanic.
  • You have any better alternatives.
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