Review: Value-priced Puzzle Quest is holiday sleeper hit

225_pq_wallpaper1_800.jpgA couple of years ago I sat in an unremarkable restroom stall at my old office building playing a pretty unremarkable — yet surprisingly addictive — game on my old cell phone. The game was Bejeweled, and even though much of the game revolves around luck — will the right gems fall from the sky or will you be left with no more moves? — I found myself regularly playing the title anyway (pardon the pun).

Fast forward to last week when I was finishing up some holiday shopping at the local Target, when what to my wondering eyes should appear but a value priced, dirt cheap copy of Puzzle Quest. It was next to some Hannah Montana ripoff titles no less, which was a travesty, because this game has held my attention each and every night for the past 10 days for at least an hour or two per night.

Now, perhaps you’re saying I’m a little late to the party on this title. I mean honestly Jack, if Penny Arcade already has a comic up about this game, who hasn’t heard of it, right? But that’s not the point. The point is this is exactly the kind of title that generated little buzz when it was first launched, then generated a cult following after sites like PA said it was cool, but people still didn’t buy it; perhaps because classes or work or finances or some better title was available at the time. Well guess what? Frickin’ Target has this displayed next to all their registers for $15. There’s an impulse buy and then there’s whatever black magic voodoo trick I did last week to grab this thing off the shelf in less than a second while simultaneously piling wrapping paper onto the conveyor belt.

But there’s me talking about myself and then there’s the game play, which takes that unremarkable Bejeweled idea found on cell phones circa 2005 and adds in level building, an average story, magical items, runes, mounts and magic. For a guy like me, with a pretty geeky past in tabletop gaming, Lord of the Rings, RPGs and whatnot, this title clicked. The music was somewhat hokey but unobstrusive; the effects the jewels and skulls make when three or more are aligned served their purpose well enough; and leveling up and item management do actually affect the outcome of your battles. This game was also released for the PSP, but I can’t imagine playing it without a stylus. Touching is definitely a plus while fighting two-headed ogres and giant rats, and the dual screen kept things clutter free (although I will concede that the PSP’s visuals are much sharper in comparison).

The scenarios were pretty straightforward, but that was expected for a game whose title included the word “puzzle” and centers around lining up shapes into rows of three (you’ll do your fair share of patrols; rescue a bride; and fight dozens of orcs and undead, etc.). Side quests like building up your citadel and securing lost runes fill things out well. Go into this title expecting a puzzle game with RPG elements and I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Cons: Puzzle Quest was the first and hopefully last DS cartridge that froze my system. Unacceptable. This has never happened before so I’m wondering if it’s an issue with my system or the game itself. Hopefully it’s the latter and hopefully it never happens again. The other is the fact that when you fight an enemy of equal or slightly greater level, you will lose a few battles due to chance. Sometimes the gems and skulls just don’t fall your way and you’ll get your butt handed to you. The good thing about this scenario is that you don’t lose the game; you’re merely chased away, and you get to fight the enemy again if you so choose.

For the price, there are few DS titles to match Puzzle Quest this holiday season. It’s definitely my surprise gift-to-self stocking stuffer for 2007. That and Super Mario Galaxy.