Setting up rows or columns of four or five pieces is of critical importance during combat, as it gives you an extra turn, and any time you can buy is useful, because even just a few hours into the game, the enemies you'll face in Puzzle Quest can be downright merciless. Their spells are potent, they have a lot of hit points, and they have a knack for setting up lengthy strings of attacks that leave you depleted before you even get a chance to retaliate. As easy as it is to get into Puzzle Quest, it can be damn frustrating too, and there are times when it seems as though the computer is stacking the odds in its own favor. Still, even when you lose a fight, you earn a small amount of coin and XP, and the only punishment is that you have to fight that enemy over again. The other activities you'll perform via puzzle proxy tend to be a little more evenhanded, and are just different enough to keep them interesting. Training a mount is similar to straight combat, except that your turns are time limited. When capturing enemies, you're presented with a carefully placed board that you have to clear completely, leaving no extra pieces behind. Learning new spells and crafting items introduces specific types of pieces that you'll need to clear to succeed.
When you gain enough XP to level, you're given points that you can distribute between seven character attributes. The air, earth, fire, and water masteries will determine how effective you are at using the different types of mana; battle determines how much damage you do when you clear skull pieces; cunning increases how much gold you'll earn; and morale increases your hit points. All these factors, along with your gear, your mount, your party members, and your spells, can have a profound effect on how Puzzle Quest plays, and it's what helps keep the game fresh. Even if you stick strictly to the main quest, ignoring the numerous side quests, the item crafting, the sieging of towns, or the numerous other activities you can get into, Puzzle Quest is truly epic in size. If you consider all of the content on offer in the single-player game, along with the inclusion of local, two-player multiplayer, there's easily 100 hours of gameplay to be had here.
Both the PlayStation Portable and DS versions of Puzzle Quest have their quirks. On the PSP, loading issues can cause the game to hang for a second. These disruptive pauses can strike at almost any time, whether you're scrolling across the overworld map or casting a spell during combat. They don't really ruin anything, but they're annoying nonetheless. On the DS, the problems with the presentation are much more severe and end up impacting the gameplay. The graphics aren't as crisp and clear as they are on the PSP, and there are barely any flashy special effects. Most significantly, the puzzle playfield appears cramped on the lower screen of the DS, and it's difficult to discern certain pieces. Because of the size of the pieces, it's also easier to make mistakes with the game's mandatory stylus controls. The content is still good, but these problems make the DS version harder to recommend. While the presentation can be uneven between the two versions of Puzzle Quest, both feature some really great, sweeping music that fits the tone of the straightforward adventure quite beautifully.
The appeal of Puzzle Quest for fans of either RPGs or puzzle games is quite obvious, as it does a great job of scratching two distinctly different types of itches simultaneously. What's most remarkable about Puzzle Quest, though, is how a simple change of context turns some tired genre conventions that have been done to death into something that's suitable for just about anyone, regardless of your interest in the components.