For as often as developers attempt to marry distinct game genres hoping for a peanut-butter-and-chocolate-like result, they usually come out more peanut-butter-and-onion. Infinite Interactive's Puzzle Quest is one of the rare exceptions, and the way in which it integrates familiar puzzle gameplay into a traditional Japanese RPG format makes for an experience that is far greater than the sum of its parts. The way these disparate elements play off each other helps make it an incredibly difficult game to put down, and it finds a smart balance between accessibility, challenge, and variety that makes it an easy game to recommend to just about anyone.
The game's story and setting splits the difference between the Japanese and Tolkien styles of high fantasy, producing a world filled with knights, dwarves, a variety of elves, orcs, ogres, wizards, warriors, dungeons, dragons, and so on, but all portrayed with a distinctly anime art style. The main story concerns warring kingdoms, uneasy alliances, and of course, an ominous, creeping force of darkness that threatens to consume everything. As standard as the setup is, the writing in Puzzle Quest is better than you might expect, especially when it comes to defining the various characters that you'll fight with and against. There's a simple character creator at the start of the game that gives you four professions to choose from--druid, knight, warrior, and wizard--as well as a handful of different character portraits.
At the start it seems like RPG business as usual. There's a nicely painted overworld map dotted with castles, villages, and enemy strongholds that you'll travel about, taking on quests and fighting the random monsters that block your path from one location to the next. You'll get new weapons, armor, equipment, and spells; new characters will join your party; and once you establish your own personal citadel, you'll be able to capture creatures and use them as mounts, craft new items out of special runes found out in the world, and eventually lay siege on opposing cities. What makes Puzzle Quest so interesting is how it uses a familiar puzzle game format to perform these actions. The gameplay in Puzzle Quest is most analogous to Bejeweled. You're presented with an 8x8 grid of pieces that you can slide around one at a time. By lining up rows or columns of three or more identical pieces, those pieces will disappear, and a random assortment of new pieces will drop down from above to fill the gap.
If Puzzle Quest were just Bejeweled, it would probably get tedious quickly, but by applying several standard RPG combat conventions to the formula, it becomes something much more strategic. Standard, one-on-one combat is the most common game you'll play, and it's also the deepest. You and your opponent, each using the same board, will take turns moving pieces, trying to whittle down each other's reserve of hit points. Attacks are performed by lining up skull-shaped pieces, though you've also got several spells that you can use for both offensive and defensive purposes. The spells you'll start off with, as well as the spells you'll earn as you earn experience levels, are largely dictated by which profession you choose at the start of the game. Spells can require up to four different types of color-coded mana to use, and of course, you charge up your mana reserves by clearing out red, blue, yellow, and green pieces from the board. The back-and-forth dynamic demands that you think several steps ahead any time you move a piece, since you want to avoid setting up your opponent with favorable piece positions at the end of your turn. In addition to the mana and skull pieces, there are gold coin and purple experience-point pieces that can earn you extra postgame bonuses, as well as wild-card multipliers, which can make the pieces you clear out worth much more.