Last Friday, after a long and stressful week, I decided to comb my Steam library for something mind-numbingly enjoyable. You know? Just something I could play on autopilot to unwind and refresh my mind for the weekend. The solution that I thought I found was the silly RPG from my childhood: Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords.
Puzzle Quest has an immediately engaging core concept. It’s a fairly typical RPG with leveling, loot, crafting, base management, and some light dialogue choices, but everything is built upon a puzzle-based combat system. You match colored gems to gain mana for your spells, skulls to deal damage directly, and purple stars and gold to receive experience and, er, gold, respectively. It’s a simple idea that is executed fairly well. Why, then, does the title of this article contain the word “disappointing”?
Unfortunately, the rest of the game (the “dressing” for the puzzles, if you will) does not hold up particularly well. The leveling system is poorly balanced, to start. Your “morale” and “battle” stats are by far the most useful, and are inexplicably also the cheapest skills to spec into. Other stats might seem interesting, but since you can increase your health and direct damage so quickly they have to fall by the wayside. Additionally, the game piles your quest list high with optional objectives right from the start, which feels overwhelming for such a seemingly casual experience. As a kid these quests were exciting; when I got less than one new game a month any additional content was welcome. Now, when I have substantially less free time, the side quests just serve as something to irritatingly occupy the back of my mind while I’m dealing with the meat of the game.
Even if the structure of the game didn’t hold up, I was sure the story would at least be tolerable. I remembered it being an interesting and fairly serious fantasy tale about a band of adventurers taking on the lord of death. Except when I write it down it’s plain as day how uninspired and rote that premise is. The characters are all extremely predictable and cliche, and none of the quest lines have even a hint of originality to them. Perhaps if I got further into the game I would have found the intrigue and quality in the writing that I remembered from my youth, but it’s definitely missing from the first few hours of the game.
Finally, the combat is not as well-crafted or tactical as I remember it. Most of your time will be spent matching gems that could possibly summon more useful one from above, or avoiding matches that will set up an easy hit for your enemy. The problem is, you can’t reasonably predict what the gems will do after more than one or two matches. They could start a large chain reaction completely out of your control, putting you in a dangerous situation that you could not have foreseen. You have tools to deal with these scenarios, but for the most part your fate is in the hands of lady luck. This is definitely to be expected to a certain extent in what is essentially Bejeweled, but it’s disappointing when your powerful character is taken down by a lucky sewer rat.
It’s always valuable to revisit old memories from our youth. We can learn a lot from what we used to spend time with, as well as what we considered to be a high-quality experience. Sadly, those experiences don’t always match up with the expectations of the present. Revisiting Puzzle Quest was a neat nostalgia trip, but I don’t plan on taking any further of a trip down memory lane.