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June 5, 2007Glenn Turner

There's only one city left. One last, unclaimed, territory left flag-less at the bottom of my DS screen. Between that city and my avatar, there are about five monster encounters, five more battles to undertake before I siege that poor city. And then, I swear it, I'm done with this game.

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I didn't stop after I finished the primary single player storyline, I didn't stop when I hit the level cap (50, by the way), I didn't stop when I completed all of the side quests, but I have to draw the line somewhere. Because, despite all of these artificial endpoints, the game's certainly not drawing the line for me. Even when the credits rolled after defeating the 'final' boss, the 'final' primary objective, it hadn't felt like the game had ended so much as it simply screened an obligatory intermission.

Not that it needed an elaborate epilogue to succeed as a game; quite on the contrary. Puzzle Quest is an extremely engrossing puzzle game. Its combination of Bejeweled and role-playing elements like spell casting, hit points and leveling make for an addictive experience. However, Puzzle Quest, thanks to some odd pacing and a lack of drama, I'm feeling aimless and unfulfilled, and endlessly searching for more.

Normally Bejeweled is a pretty straight-forward game. You match three (or more) tiles until the timer runs out, or until you run out of possible moves and that's the end of your typical match. Puzzle Quest appropriates the Bejeweled engine as its core gameplay device – it uses the Bejeweled game grid not only for its battles, but also to forge new items as well as capture monsters. Apart from menu and map navigation, if you're interacting with this game, changes are you're playing Bejeweled.

But it's a bulked up, meatier Bejeweled; Two-player Bejeweled with upgrades. First, both you and an ever-changing opponent are working off the same board, each of you taking turns matching, so there's already an element of strategy: You want to align moves for yourself, but obstruct your opponent from being able to capitalize on your planning. You'd be a fool to set up five matching blocks only to have your enemy steal the 'five-of-a-kind' out from underneath you. Secondly, instead of dealing with dueling scores, each of you have a certain number of hit points (dependent on how much experience your character has) and matching three or more skulls on the board reduces your opponent's health. No one leaves the grid until someone's health has been reduced to zero. Lastly, just like matching skulls imparts damage, matching gems gives other rewards. Gold gems bestow money (used to buy mostly-useless weapons) and purple gems add to your experience. Match the remaining gems to power your spells and either heal yourself, damage your opponent, or affect gems on the grid.

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The sum of these parts give a surprisingly deep (if imperfect) puzzle game. Your options are endless and, as such, you'll rarely tire of playing the same game over, and over, and over again, no matter what type of creature you're battling. And as you're playing each and every battle over and over again, all on the same grid, against mostly the same handful of fantasy-based foes, wandering through identical cities, you get the feeling the game will go on forever, that your quest to free the generic fantasy lands of 'Etheria' from an evil menace will be unending, and that you'll be locked in battle with these forces forever. But you don't mind, because there are seemingly endless objectives, areas of terrain are constantly opening up in front of you to provide new challenges.

And then, all of the sudden, you slam into the 'last boss' and quickly conquer him, finding him as easily slain as the uninspired enemies that lead up to this 'ultimate' battle. The credits roll, and you continue on, searching for some real closure, a real battle or some sort of finality to the tale. And then you end up in my predicament: Endlessly roaming the monster-strewn lands, clinging to arbitrary landmarks like level numbers, town capture counts, et-cetera – constantly marching across the landscape looking for something of substance. I keep hoping that, finally, my character will have some complete and utter impact on the lands, that all those I've interacted in will pronounce the lands free of evil, free of conflict and that they can finally live their lives in peace.

That's the hope I held as I rolled into the final, unconquered town. The enemies between myself and the city were easily plowed through, minus the standard gambler's fallacy complaints that these sort of games draw. And while the town put up quite a fight, I still swiftly bested it with a minimum of ruckus. I hadn't even realized it was the final blow upon matching the last gem match, as I was already aligning up my next move when the grid fell away and the fight tally appeared on the screen. I drew my breath in slightly sharply before tapping the 'continue' button, wishing for something apart from the ordinary, some sort of closure to the forty or fifty some-odd hours I had dumped into this casually addictive game.

I managed to press the continue button and was greeted with practically the same landmark scene I had before the match: The lands are still burning, random enemies circulate through the town roads. The only difference was that I managed to hoist one last flag above this renegade area. Nothing to see here, time to move along. But move along where?

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The country hadn't been healed by my conquests – not really – and, in fact, it seemed like just another day. Monsters were still creeping in along the pathways, caves and other obscure areas of interest were still burning. And I was still free to commit random acts of 'match three' violence on the streets, perhaps capture a few of the trickier enemies, or repeat a few never-ending missions.

But, again, none of feels as terribly satisfying, as the amusing battles now lack substance or direction. While I can't say I was surprised to see that nothing had changed upon completing the final battle, I was slightly disappointed. I don't like putting down games because of apathy or attrition. I much prefer doing so because the game knows better. The creators draw a line in the sand and say 'You won't get much more from here on out. It's time to let go.' But Puzzle Quest instead simply piled on side-quests and menial objectives, hinting at something more, something that might bring the lands together or weave all of the subplots together in a brilliant final scene, or even simply transform the map in some manner.

Now I have no choice but to peter along, double-checking each village to absolutely make sure I didn't miss an objective. That I didn't overlook a town or enemy. Perhaps if I just listen to all the citizen's rumors or repeat a few missions, I might just find closure in this world. I might just locate that final match that will let me move along.


This piece was written in response to the Nintendo DS version.

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7 comments for ‘Puzzle Quest - Matching for Closure’

#1 Servo Jun 5, 2007 10:55am

Very interesting sounding game, despite the apparent lack of any real ending. Makes me want to pick up a DS.

#2 Chibitofu Jun 5, 2007 02:03pm

You know about the upcoming sequel and the space spinoff that are both planned right?

#3 Glenn Turner Jun 8, 2007 04:25pm

Chibitofu wrote:
You know about the upcoming sequel and the space spinoff that are both planned right?

I read that they were already working on a sequel, but I hadn't heard about the space spinoff. Unless they do something REALLY special with them, I doubt I'll pick either up. I think I've had enough.

#4 4_point_maverick Jun 11, 2007 06:42pm

I had fun with the PC demo that was released a while ago. Didn't find it too addictive mainly because i have other games that i could be playing on my PC or just doing something else in general.

#5 Soup Jun 13, 2007 11:34am

perhaps this is an inherint flaw in trying to overlay a narrative to a puzzle game? Stories usually have a set ending point (which clearly hasn't been fleshed out here). On the other hand, puzzle games by nature are intriguing for their replayability of the single gameplay element.

Would the same frustration have been felt had Final Fantasy VI dropped you off at the world map again after defeating Final Kefka? Would Freecell elicited such emotions if the card-shuffling gameplay been constructed around the story of a prisoner breaking out through a series of locked doors?

#6 R. LeFeuvre Jun 14, 2007 03:59am

Well I think you could provide both - a clear ending of the narative does not neccesarily imply that you can't allow the player to close up misc. loose ends beyond that event. Many platformers (athough not known for their great plots are at least comparable in quality to Puzzle Quest) have a clear ending, and then allow you to return to the game and finish off all the option quests and 'collect-a-thons.' Racing games can have a Final Cup that shows you victorious above all other racers and then still allow you to re-enter old races. Hell, they could have just unlocked some sort of "Free Mode" if whatever they wanted to provide plotwise did did make further gameplay implausible.

I re-killed giant living stone colossii by standing over their dead bodies and recalling their memory -- complete with an 'Olde Timey' post-effect!!!

There's plenty of viable choices -- I think that it simply did not occur to them that it was important. I think they figured that just by providing any narative at all that they were giving players a lot (which is true, in a way) but the danger is that when you do that you really should also provide closure...

Or.... they simply might have banked on the fact that only something like one-fourth of players ever get to the end of video games anyway....

By the way, Soup, your Freecell example made my instantly think of the old Breakout cabinet art:

I used to imagine I was busting out of prison.

#7 Mjb May 9, 2009 09:22pm

I just went through the exact same process (PC version), except I had to obtain and level up for a "very hard" spell to defeat Bane. Now his city's been captured like all the others, every quest is done, and I found this old article while trying to find out if there was a definite ending. It just feels so wasteful that they made a huge map and only filled up about 1/3.

Now I guess I'll just capture the last monster in my way, return to the city where it all started, and close up.