The original Puzzle Quest, from 2007, is one of those games whose genius is already in the title. It has puzzles and you go on a quest. Its creators had a simple idea and executed it well: use a jeweled-style match-three puzzle gameplay engine for an RPG adventure where you fight enemies, level up and follow a story. This genre mash-up from Australian studio Infinite Interactive, designed by Steve Fawkner, was all the more inspired for its incongruous, caramelly clash of two flavors: gaming at its most casual, abstract and bite-sized, fused with a long-form storytelling genre , known for its depth and complexity. It just worked.
A tide—okay, maybe a torrent—of imitators followed, then slowed to a trickle before dying entirely. The world moved on. Fawkner’s discovery remained an alchemical brilliance, but the subgenre went out of style, as subgenres often do. Puzzle Quest just came too soon to earn hay on smartphones, where GungHo’s similarly themed free-to-play is Puzzles & Dragons cleaned up a few years later – but even that game is no longer available on the iOS App Store.
All that made the recent release of Puzzle quest 3 an oddity – not to mention a glimmer of hope for people like me who like combining colors and seeing numbers get bigger. But I’m sorry to say that Puzzle Quest has lost its way in the past 15 years.
Puzzle quest 3, available on Steam, iOS and Android, can no longer find the magic in this simple marriage of gems and stats. It’s a polished game with smoothly animated 3D characters unleashing flashy attacks on both sides of the board. But the core match-three action is unvarnished and simple, the pace of its interaction with the combat systems (you combine gems to charge up spells of the same color) feels sluggish, the story is dull, and the many layers of RPG crafting out there of the fight burden everything. It doesn’t help that this is a free-to-play game, with the attendant confusion of currencies and resources that you must view with suspicion if you try to track them and wonder when the other shoe will drop.
The feeling you get while playing Puzzle quest 3 is that the designers are more interested in RPGs than puzzles (and more interested in monetization than both). It was designed from the wrong side. In a good puzzle RPG, the puzzle gameplay is where the action takes place. The RPG is a superstructure that adds meaning and stakes to the puzzles and gives shape to your experience. But when puzzling is boring – and it’s in Puzzle quest 3 – the rest of the game will be too.
If you’re craving easy match-three puzzles that have a chaser with big numbers flashing on the screen, then I’d recommend the instantly more satisfying one Puzzles & Dragons instead, that has a decent enough new Nintendo Switch edition. But this subgenre has gone to much more interesting places in the last 15 years. Here are five of the best Puzzle RPGs to play today.
One of the first Puzzle Quest Clones from the Traps was this unlikely collaboration between Square Enix and 2009 Peggel Developer PopCap. It takes the gameplay from PopCap’s Bejeweled Twist and adds creature collecting and leveling along with elaborate artwork and a quintessentially Japanese RPG storyline. The game’s cleverest aspect is an elegant combat mechanic that draws all of its excitement and sense of danger from trying to solve the board without wasting moves, rather than waiting for a computer opponent’s turn.
Puzzle Quest 3 is available on PC (steamfree demo available) and Xbox (Xbox 360 backward compatible version).
Might & Magic: Battle of Heroes
For my money, that of Capybara battle of heroes – which first appeared on Nintendo DS in 2009 and then in a final “HD” version for PC and consoles in 2011 – is the greatest puzzle RPG of all time. Calling it a puzzle tactics or puzzle strategy game might be more accurate as its combat system can easily compete with such pre-wars for sophistication. The simple concept of stacking and combining color-coded units is extrapolated through a beautifully balanced web of rules across five factions and an extensive 30-hour campaign. It’s a shame publisher Ubisoft isn’t likely to fully re-launch this given it’s a stone-cold classic.
Might & Magic: Battle of Heroes is available on PC (steamfree demo available) and
You have to build a boat
If you’re in the mood for something more bite-sized and frenetic, EightyEightGames’ 2015 sequel to its mobile hit 10,000,000 is the tile-matching dungeon crawl stripped down to the bare minimum (with a bit of endless runner). Your character runs from left to right encountering monsters and chests as you frantically scroll rows of tiles to arrange sequences to form attacks, keys or buffs. You can’t lose, but you can get knocked off the screen, after which you’ll return to your boat to upgrade and regroup. You have to build a boat is funny, fast-paced and very grumpy.
Developer Capybara once again proves his mastery of form and genius for original puzzle mechanics with this color-matched, spooky 2019 dungeon dive. As in Gyromancer, your true adversary is yourself: in an exquisite game of risk and reward, you try to string together longer and longer chains of color-coded monsters, earning grindstones that allow for even longer chains. Grindstone is admittedly light on the RPG side of things, although it offers a deep item-crafting system to help you bend and break its rules, as well as daily challenges, meta-challenges, a boss rush mode, and more. The art and animation are grotesquely funny, and the design doesn’t need improvement. Nobody is better at it than Capy.
Gray Alien Games are true outsider artists, former casual games developers who have made an unlikely transition to Steam success with their delightful Jane Austen-inspired pastime. Regency Solitaire. old enemyThe brooding dark fantasy theme of isn’t quite as charming. But it makes up for that by crafting an elaborate, finely balanced RPG system around the simple act of clearing rows of cards, with the solitaire hand you’re dealt representing the rolls of the dice. That wouldn’t count so much if the tactile pleasure of clicking the cards that Gray Alien’s Jake Birkett has honed over many years and games wasn’t so compelling in itself.