From the folks who gave us Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords and Galactrix comes the latest from Infinite Interactive. Puzzle Kingdoms is built upon many of the fundamental elements of Puzzle Quest, but the developer has managed to once again carve out another unique twist for the genre.
There’s no customization for your specific character, other than merely picking a male or female to play as, but the focus of the game doesn’t really call for it, either. A famine has spread across the land, and you take it upon yourself to offer relief to the people. Of course, in order to bring salvation to the world, you’ll have to conquer kingdoms along the way. The presentation is typical fare from Infinite Interactive – that is to say it’s sparse – but the story is surprisingly decent and does a fine job of giving you a reason to push on.
One of the few problems you’ll encounter with Puzzle Kingdoms, however, is that it does a pretty poor job of teaching you the ropes. Even with the tutorials turned on, there’s so much left unexplained, and since the game is heavily based on strategy, it’s a notable issue indeed. You’ll have to engage in a fair amount of experimentation and pay close attention to what certain gems do when matched up.
Yup, this is a match-three puzzle game, if you’ve haven’t already figured that out. However, Puzzle Kingdoms definitely puts its own spin on the formula. Rather than swapping gems to make matching rows of three, you’re moving entire rows of gems, either up or down or from side to side. You’re not required to create straight, matching rows; your gems only need to be directly touching in order to be utilized. Lastly, you can see the next gem of each row outside of the frame, and this approach opens up a whole new element of strategy for fans of this type of puzzler.
Another notable difference from Infinite’s other puzzle RPGs is that chaining gem matches don’t stack to create extra turns (except in multiplayer). You can fill more gem slots by matching more than three gems at a time, but the game’s more simplified approach seems to really cut down on some of the cheapness we’ve experienced in the developer’s other titles.
Though the story revolves around your character, you’re not the one actually going into battle. You’ll form parties comprised of a hero and up to four units. Heroes can cast spells, but it’s your units that will do most of the representing during combat. For example, if you have a party made up of one peasant, two swordsmen and an archer, they will take the damage inflicted by the enemy, as well as dole out the hurt. Your party is stacked from top to bottom, with your top guy generally acting as the front line and recipient of whatever attacks come your way. Once that unit is defeated, then the next one takes his place as your party’s shield, so to speak.
In order to attack, your units require a certain number of gem slots to be filled. Matching three of a certain gem type fills one slot; matching more than three gems fills additional slots. Once you have enough slots filled, you can either swipe the Wii Remote sideways or merely press a button to attack. Your party members each have a damage rating and a defense rating. Once the defense for a particular party member reaches zero, they’re dead. Party members don’t revive after battles, either, and you’ll need to recruit new ones from one of your bases. Units aren’t free, and in that respect, the game encourages a methodical approach to each battle. Additionally, if your entire party is wiped out, you’ll lose your hero. If you have additional heroes, you can choose to have one of them take a fallen hero’s place or donate half your current gold to revive your hero.
The battles and progression of conquering new realms in Puzzle Kingdoms is undeniably fun and addictive, but the campaign, as a whole, does have a handful of frustrating elements that hold it back. For one, there are mini-games thrown into the mix, and you’ll need to play through these “quests” in order to gain new types of units, spells, and other assorted goodies. Problem is, the mini-games can be quite tedious, and ultimately, you’ll be forced to trudge through them in order to progress the story and build up your kingdom.
The game also has a few other quirks and bugs that can be a real sore spot from time to time. For one, you have to pay to play each of the mini-games, and if you lose, well, you’re out of luck – literally. You also can’t exit a mini-game or battle once you’ve started it; there’s simply no way to back out other than pressing the Home button on the Wii Remote. Another oddity we experienced was random lock-ups that occurred regularly throughout the game, causing us to not only have to manually shut down the system, but also lose hours of progress in the campaign.
On the production front, Puzzle Kingdoms is a fairly bare-bones package. The visuals are plain, though they get the job done. We’d really like to see Infinite Interactive beef up their presentation a bit. They’re a development group with seemingly endless ideas for making compelling puzzle gameplay, but they also put fairly little effort into the front end. It’s difficult to complain too much about what you’ll see during combat, since the focus is on matching gems. But the story for this game could have had much more impact if we had some decent animation to accompany the gameplay.
The aural complements on offer here, however, are much more entertaining, and there’s little doubt that much of the satisfaction in matching gems comes from the feedback you receive when you align symbols and hear the cries of battle. Whenever one of your units attacks or takes damage, you’ll hear your party members wail from the Wii Remote (which works surprisingly well), and your enemies can be heard from the right side of your audio system. Gem and attack sounds are equally satisfying, and the music has a very moody, almost cinematic quality that sits perfectly in the background during skirmishes. On the downside, there’s no audio or rumble feedback coming from the Wii Remote when you initiate your attack by swiping the controller.
Puzzle Kingdoms from Zoo and Infinite Interactive is, surprisingly, another very interesting match-three puzzle game. The developer seems to have plenty of ideas for how to exploit the design, and we look forward to seeing what they come up with next. That said, this particular game has quite a few nagging issues and bugs that mire down the experience. The variety of gameplay is also a bit meager, even for a $20 budget title. The story may be lengthy, but the process remains mostly the same the whole way through. It’s still a good game to veg out to, so long as you don’t mind a few rough patches presented on a bare canvas.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 2.6 Graphics
Nothing necessarily looks bad, but it’s a very basic style that would perhaps make a better fit on the WiiWare platform. 3.6 Control
It’s pretty much a point-and-click affair, and for the most part, it works fine. Gesturing to attack is a neat idea, but without feedback from the controller, it’s an empty and unnecessary addition. 4.0 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
A really strong soundtrack that helps to make up for some of the shortcomings of the visual presentation. Themes segue seamlessly, and the sound effects are really satisfying. 3.4
Though it’s only $20, it’s a package that isn’t really justified as a retail product. Tack on a host of technical and design flaws, and it’s an experience that’s somewhat disappointing.
3.4 Overall Rating – Fair
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.