Review: Puzzle Kingdoms (Nintendo Wii)

Puzzle Kingdoms
Genre: Puzzle
Developer: Infinite Interactive
Publisher: ZOO Games
Release Date: 05/19/2009

A few years ago Infinite Interactive surprised everyone when they released the digital form of crack known as Puzzle Quest. The game successfully blended puzzle and RPG mechanics into an incredibly addictive experience. Recently they followed that up with Puzzle Quest: Galactrix, another puzzle hybrid with a sci-fi theme. The reception for that game was not quite as positive. Galactrix had some great ideas and the basic puzzle structure was fun, but it had some glaring flaws to the game design. Even mentioning the word Jumpgate will give Galatrix fans negative flashbacks.

Infinite Interactive delivers yet another puzzle hybrid experience with Puzzle Kingdoms, returning to the fantasy theme of the first Puzzle Quest. Instead of blending traditional RPG game elements like Puzzle Quest, this game is structured more around commanding armies and conquering territories.

One of the first things you’ll notice when Puzzle Kingdoms loads on the screen is the fact that the graphics, to put it bluntly, suck. The extremely simple menu graphics and the in-game graphics aren’t any better. I’m exagerrating when I say that I’ve seen better looking DS games than the Wii version of Puzzle Kingdoms. In fact, I only ever played the original Puzzle Quest on the DS and that game looked much better than Puzzle Kingdoms. The sprites are simple and the map and menus feel bland and generic. During the puzzle portion of gameplay, there aren’t many effects for when you pull off a move or attack. There’s an animation that shows up on the screen for attacks, but it is a nearly identical sword blade thrust for all of the troop classes, save those that that shoot arrows. There are magic spells to use as well, and the animation for when these are activated are plain when compared to the animations of the other puzzle games created by the same developer.

The score is comprised of generic fantasy music with some decent sound effects, including groans of the dying through the Wii remote speaker. That was a nice touch.

The cut scenes are still frames with text bubbles. The story itself is Lord of the Rings, except with boxes. A dark lord sends out magic boxes to the leaders of different lands, and the powers of these boxes corrupts these leaders and leads the lands into starvation and war. At the beginning of the game, the main character is in a town that is facing starvation through drought. The different towns are fighting amongst themselves because they’re angry and hungry. The main character decides he (or she, depending on the gender you choose at the beginning of the ga,e) has had enough, and with the aid of an older soldier who was their father’s friend attempts to end the recent bloodshed by…well, by conquering all of the local towns. When the character discovers one of the boxes and what how they’re harming the land, s/he decides to find and destroy all of the boxes.

The only problem is the fact that the other kingdoms don’t want the main character’s help, since they’ve been corrupted by the power of the boxes. So it’s up to the main character to invade their lands, take them over by force, and destroy the boxes in their possession for their own good. Combine that with the fact that you hire new troops from taverns and raid tombs of different kingdoms for cash, it’s sort of difficult to think of the protagonist as a good guy. I get that the whole point of the game is supposed to be taking over kingdoms, but in a situation such as this, it might’ve been a better idea to let people play as a bad guy taking over the world Overlord style. Looting tombs and conquering kingdoms by force even if they’re in the middle of starving or disease just doesn’t seem like something a good guy would do.

Not that the story matters much, because other than cut scenes the main character doesn’t make much of an appearance in the game. It’s hard to feel connected to the story of the main character when they’re not a part of the actual gameplay. Unlike Puzzle Quest, you do not choose a class to play as, and there’s only two different character portraits, male and female. You can’t even choose a name for the main character; all you can do is scroll through pre-made names. There’s much less focus on creating, building, or caring about the main character.

Of course that has much to do with the change in gameplay style for Puzzle Kingdoms. There’s much more of a focus on controlling different troops. At the beginning of the game you will only have access to one Hero and a couple of different classes of troops. There are two map screens in the game, the World map and the Kingdom map. On the World map you can move around to different kingdoms, taverns, temples, and other areas that have been unlocked. From the World map you can also arrange your different Hero’s troop layouts, equipment and so on. Once you choose a Kingdom to invade you’ll select a Hero and the troops that you have chosen for them. You’ll only start with one Hero but you can unlock more along the way.

Once on the kingdom map, there will be different paths with towns and castles along different roads. At the beginning, the hero you chose will only have 100 gold and the troops that they were outfitted with. Every hero can have up to four troops. After selecting a town to attack, the game will go into the battle/puzzle screen.

Here is where the most significant differences lie. In Puzzle Quest there would be different spells listed on the side of the screen, along with the cost to cast them. That’s gone. Instead the troops are placed on the lefthand side of the screen, with the cost to activate them as well as their attack and defense stats. The enemy will have the same thing on the right side of the screen. Most of the screen will be taken up by the puzzle. The puzzle is another match 3 style puzzle, only this time it doesn’t matter if the matching blocks are in a row or not as long as they’re touching sides. You also can’t move individual pieces around; you can only move an entire row either horizontally or vertically.

So for example, if in the game you want to use your knight with an activation cost of three white crosses, you have to try and match the white cross blocks three times. When that happens, you’ll have the option to attack with that troop, or wait and attack later. Waiting is sometimes beneficial because if you have another troop that is close to being activated then both will get bonus points to their attacks for attacking at the same time. There is something satisfying about managing to activate all of your troops and then unleash them all at the same time. Of course the same goes for the enemy troops. Each of the troops will have a shield with a number in it, which equals how many hit points of damage they can take. Unless attacked by an archer, most of the time the first troop will take the damage, which means structuring your line up correctly. Having the most valuable troop in the first spot also exposes them to the highest chance of being killed first. When your troops die, they stay dead. During a battle this means one less chance of getting an attack via matching icons, and once all the troops on one side or the other are dead the fight is over.

You know how I said a Hero gets 100 gold coins when you first enter the kingdom map? Money management is important in the game because if you lose a troop, they’re gone. You have to purchase them again, and most of the troops in the game aren’t cheap. You gain a little gold each time you beat a town, but it’s also important to try and choose paths that go near tombs. Different monsters guard tombs, but if you beat them then you gain more cash to help you buy new troops when one kicks the bucket.

You will lose a LOT of different troops throughout the game.

There’s a ton of strategy involved with this set up. Which troops to chose, what order to put them in, what path through the kingdom to travel. what troops are your opponents using and how to keep them from getting the blocks they need, and on and on. There is definitely a steep learning curve because of the amount of strategy, and also because how poor the tutorial and manual for the game are. The first hour was frustrating for me until it all started to click together, and it’s been a satisfying experience ever since.

Outside of the battle puzzles, there are also different variations of that same puzzle used for recruiting new troops, discovering artifacts, or for destroying boxes at a temple. The recruiting puzzle is sort of the same as jumpgates in Galactrix. There’s a set time limit for you to clear different amounts of the colored blocks, but these aren’t required puzzles in order to advance the game so it’s not nearly the hassle it was in the other game.

All of this is controlled by just the Wii remote. It’s a simple set up, outside of puzzles you point and press A to move to a different part of the map or to scroll through menus. In battle you point the cursor over the piece you want to move then hold down the A button and move the remote either vertically or horizontally. When a troop becomes active you can select battle by either selecting the crossed swords button, or by slashing horizontally with the remote. Spells, when active, can be cast with an up/down movement, but it doesn’t appear to be sensitive enough. It’s simple and works well, but for longer gameplay sessions holding your arm up for a long length of time can get annoying.

There is a ton of content in Puzzle Kingdoms, mianly revolving around several different kingdoms to conquer. Each of these can last an hour or more to clear. There are different troops and heros to unlock along with a ton of different spells and items to discover. This game doesn’t have the replay value of something like Puzzle Quest where changing your starting class can change how the whole game plays out, but there are a number of different troop formations and tactics to try out.

Because of the cliche story and budget look and feel about the whole game, along with the poor tutorial, it might be easy to dismiss the game shortly after trying it out as junk. Underneath the sloppy presentation is a game that is a great addition to this odd genre Infinite Interactive has created. It is tactical and has fewer moments where the computer seems to magically get all of the right blocks in a row. It’s a shame that nothing more was done to make the game look like less of a budget title because Puzzle Kingdoms could’ve been the game that everyone hoped Galactrix would be.

The Scores:
Story: Poor
Graphics: Bad
Sound: Decent
Control/Gameplay: Great
Replayability: Above Average
Balance: Above Average
Originality: Great
Addictiveness: Great
Appeal: Bad
Miscellaneous: Bad
Final Score: DECENT GAME

Short Attention Span Summary:
Puzzle Kingdoms is a fun, addictive and tactical puzzle hybrid game, but you wouldn’t know it from looking at it. The learning curve is steep and it’s ugly, so people picking the game up for the first time might not even give it a chance to shine. If you can put up with the poor presentation and difficulty level then the game is worth the price of admission.

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