Review: Puzzle Kingdoms (Nintendo DS)

Puzzle Kingdoms
Developer: Infinite Interactive
Publisher: Zoo Games
Genre: Puzzle
Release Date: 05/04/09

When this game came in, a fellow staff member claimed that it left him wanting to yank off a certain part of his anatomy and gouge his eyes out with it. That description of hyperbolic self mutilation left me eying the game with suspicion. But then morbid curiosity took over, as it is wont to do, and compelled me to take the game in a move of potentially questionable wisdom. The fact that it was made by the creators of Puzzle Quest is a mixed blessing; Challenge of the Warlords was rather enjoyable and garnered many fans, but Galactrix turned out to be a disappointment (mention the word “leapgates” to anyone who’s played it and see what reaction you get). Let’s see which side this game leans towards.

The plot for Puzzle Kingdoms takes place in Etheria, where a famine plagues the kingdoms therein. The famines occur due to the influence of cursed boxes planted by the dark lord, which corrupts the rulers of these kingdoms. After discovering that destroying a box eliminates the famine in the protagonist’s own land, s/he (you can pick the protagonist’s gender) go around conquering these kingdoms in order to find and destroy the boxes there to lift the famine and bring those rulers to their senses. That’s pretty much all there is to it. Now, this course of action seems more akin to a tyrant than of someone looking to bring peace and prosperity to the land. But then, there is also that saying about the road to a certain place with an extremely warm climate being paved with good intentions, so I suppose one could look at it that way if that’s one’s preference. The story works decently as context for the gameplay, despite the questionable morality involved, but it’s not really an epic tale that’ll keep you glued to your DS.

Gameplay modes consist of the campaign mode, hotseat, minigames, and quick battle. Campaign mode is your story mode, wherein you go forth and conquer – for purely altruistic purposes, of course. Hotseat involves two players taking turns passing the system back and forth. Minigames is a collection of the different puzzle variations you encounter in campaign mode. Finally, quick battle allows you to play a single match against the CPU with randomly generated heroes and units. Overall, it’s a decent set of options, if somewhat shallow – while it’s nice you only need one DS and one copy of the game to play against someone, I find it hard to believe that they couldn’t fit in wireless support.

It’s plainly obvious that production values for this game received the short end of the budget. The map consists of crudely rendered landscapes with brightly colored buildings. It clashes and just doesn’t mesh terribly well, especially the kingdom battle maps. The sprites aren’t very impressive and contain only minimal detail, and the art style is rather generic. Cutscenes consists of two static portraits talking to each other or some stills, which isn’t particularly enthralling to watch. When attacking, the attacker’s portrait briefly appears on the screen, then a red number flashes on the unit receiving damage. The special effects for spells aren’t especially dazzling. All in all, there isn’t much in the way of aesthetics.

The soundtrack consists of music you’d expect to hear in a fantasy setting. While it’s inoffensive, it also won’t stick around in your head after you turn the game off. In fact, I have trouble recalling any of the tunes in the game when I’m not playing it, even after hearing them for a while, which goes to show just how nondescript they are. There’s also the standard sound effects of blocks disappearing, swords swinging, as well as a bit of voice acting in the form of a couple of narrated bits and attack cries and groans whenever a unit attacks, sustains damage, or gets killed (with different groans for either instance). They aren’t extraordinary but serve their purpose fine.

At first glance, the gameplay looks rather simple – match up three or more blocks of the same color to either deal damage or build up magic points for spells and troops until your opponent falls. The control scheme itself depends heavily on the stylus, unsurprisingly. You either slide a row vertically or horizontally or tap the sides to move the blocks. Sometimes the row will move in the opposite direction you’re sliding it, so using the latter method will probably save you some aggravation. The blocks don’t have to be in a row or column, they just have to touch each other. To have your troops attack or cast a spell, simply tap on the respective icon.

There’s actually a good amount of micromanagement and strategy involved, though the in-game tutorials and manual don’t do a very good job of elaborating on some of the nuances therein. In battle, rather than using one main character like in the Puzzle Quest games, you use troops to do the fighting. You assign a hero (or heroes, though only the most expensive hero counts towards the point limit) to a kingdom you have under your control, up to four troops (the leftmost units will be the ones to power up and attack/get attacked first, so arrange them carefully), and relics, which grant various bonuses such as more experience gained from battle or a discount on certain colored troops. You equip the heroes themselves with up to four items, which has assorted effects in battle like randomly granting extra turns when a condition is met, and four spells. Each kingdom has a set amount of recruitment points, meaning you have to balance what you assign to that kingdom to make that kingdom as powerful as possible while remaining within the given parameter. The color of the kingdom determines the penalty or bonus for the troops; if the troops are the same color, you get a discount on the point requirement, but if they’re the opposite color (red and blue are opposites, as are purple and white and green and yellow) they’ll have a higher point requirement.

Heroes have four stats: attack, defense, power, and leadership. Attack raises the attack power of your troops, defense does the same for defense, power increases the chances of gaining more magic points from a match that does not power up your troops, and leadership increases the amount of gold earned. I’d recommend focusing on the first two stats, as being able to dole out and absorb more damage will reap the most benefits (ending a battle earlier and being able to take hits equals less causalities, which means less money spent on replacements), and I’ve never really noticed much of a difference when boosting either power or leadership, rendering those stats a waste of points. Considering you get only a limited amount of points to allot to stats, you need to pick what you put them into carefully. If you become proficient at chaining matches, manage your spending, fight a lot of battles, and raid the ruins, you won’t run into magic point or money deficiencies.

On the world map, an exclamation point indicates a place where you can progress the game, while dungeons and taverns are marked with a question mark. You can scroll through the map by dragging your stylus up and down the screen to see which places are unlocked and where you need to go next. It can get annoying trying to scroll around finding a specific place, and I wish they’d have included some sort of minimap that you could tap on to zoom right onto a specific area. Being able to center the view back on your character is a bit of a saving grace in that regard, but it doesn’t completely make up for the iffy map navigation.

During a kingdom battle, you walk around fighting enemies in any building that’s not blue. To finish the battle, you have to defeat any opposing heroes present, which are indicated by a little figure on a building. At any buildings you have conquered, you can purchase new troops if any fell in battle or station them there. There’s no real utility in keeping any troops in a stronghold except if you wanted to take out a unit and use more of a certain type, since enemies never move.

There are three possible types of attacks troops can have: normal, ranged, and magic. Normal hits the top enemy, while ranged hits a random target. Magic also hits the top enemy, with one difference: any leftover damage carries over to the next one in line. This means that given enough attack power, you could wipe out your opponent’s entire army in one attack. Of course, units with that much attack power take more recruitment points to put in your troops, and they also take longer to power up, so trying to fill your party with them will get expensive and leave you a sitting duck as you gather magic points and powerups. You also get an attack bonus if you have two or more troops powered up: +1 if you have two powered up troops, +2 for three, and +3 if all four are able to attack. So it’s a matter of deciding whether you want to attack right away or wait until all of them are powered up for a stronger attack and risk one or more getting killed before you can execute the attack.

You’ll run into a few different puzzle variations as you proceed through the game. In taverns, which is where you unlock new heroes and troops, you’re tasked with matching up a specified amount of each color before time runs out. In dungeons, where you can acquire new spells, items, and relics, you clear the board within a limited amount of moves; as you eliminate colors, they’ll vanish from the sides, making it easier to clear away the remaining blocks. Naturally, the harder the puzzle and the more you have to pay to enter, the better hero/troop/item/relic/spell you’ll unlock. At shrines, where box destruction takes place, you do basically the same thing as in dungeons, except you have an unlimited amount of moves (meaning you can take as long as you want) and colors don’t disappear even if you dispose of every block of a given color. While it’s nice that they added tried to add some variety, it does still get repetitive after a while, especially the dungeon and shrine games due to the similarities between them.

Conquering every kingdom will take a while, so in that sense you do get your money’s worth. Even after you officially complete your objective, you could always go back to shrines and taverns to unlock anything you haven’t yet. You can also build up any heroes you haven’t used or used only sparingly, as well as experiment with different troops and spell and item combinations. So you could theoretically keep playing this until you’ve maxed everything out, which helps extend the longevity of the title. Note that going back into a kingdom after you finish the story battle in it will net you stronger opponents to fight. This, combined with the fact that once you go into a kingdom battle you can’t leave until you beat all the enemies, makes leveling new heroes somewhat difficult since they start with no abilities or spells. If you lose a battle, you could either start where you left off at the cost of half your gold gone or start the battle again, losing any progress you have made.

The game does have a fair progression of difficulty as you get further in, though it can take a while to get the hang of everything. However, there is always some imbalance inherent in any game with a random factor at work. If you encounter a board that’s more advantageous for your opponent, you can always reset until you get one that’s in your favor. On the other hand, it’s entirely possible to end the match in one turn just by getting lucky and having enough damage blocks match up that it kills the enemy. The difficulty does get capricious with luck of the draw, as either you or your opponent could get in a lucky chain of matches and obliterate the other. Just know you will have to spend a good portion of your gold replacing troops, because some will get killed. The opponent also has an irksome habit of taking the matches you need, even when it can’t actually do anything with it (as it, it have neither coordinated color troops nor spells) or going right for matching damage blocks – essentially, it’ll do all they can to screw you over (naturally). So you do have to watch how you move blocks, lest you inadvertently give them a boost, have them take the match you needed, or or get dinged by a match of damage blocks.

While this game was meant to capitalize on the success of the Puzzle Quest games, it also introduced some new gameplay mechanics that makes the game feel like less of a rehash of those games. The micromanaging of troops, relics, and heroes is an interesting system, although it can take a while to set up everything. There aren’t many games that have this particular style of gameplay, so in that sense it is unique. The story’s something you’ve seen many times before in one form or another, though.

There’s something innately addictive about matching different colored blocks and making them disappear, which would explain why there’s so many variations of this type of gameplay out there and how games like Bejeweled – and the Puzzle Quest games – became so big. Even so, I was surprised at how much I got sucked in the game. I’d find myself going “Just one more battle” or “Just let me unlock one more thing in the dungeon/tavern”. Of course, that draw had limits, as eventually I’d start needing a break from the game. But game can be hooking in short bursts.

The fact that this game was created by the Puzzle Quest creators works both for and against it. On the one hand, Puzzle Quest fans will be more likely to flock to this game, figuring that it ought to be good because of their involvement. Plus, anything involving matching like colored items tends to draw a good sized crowd. On the other hand, those who didn’t like Galactrix or are expecting this to be just like the other games may look at this game, see it’s a budget title, and avoid it out of the belief that it might be worse or be disappointed upon finding that it doesn’t resemble the other games as much as they were expecting. The learning curve involved and the lackluster graphics may also turn people off. Nonetheless, the game will likely still find a decent audience, given the price point and the Puzzle Quest name on the cover.

I did notice some oddities that give me the impression QA wasn’t as thorough as they should have been. For example, whenever you unlock anything, it automatically gets assigned on the kingdom you’re currently using, even if doing so exceeds the limit. On the positive side, you could use this as a way to have more items/relics on a kingdom than you’d normally be allowed. However, if you try to change any of your configuration, the point restriction reverts to normal, so there’s limits as to how much you can exploit this loophole. Sometimes the points meter will show up as half full even though the numbers on it say “99/100”. Switching to another kingdom and back again fixes this, but it still shows up randomly while flipping through different kingdoms. There were also instances where even when the board was cleared, the game did not register it as such. I had to clear another clusters of blocks before the game let me move on. Granted, this happened sparingly, but it’s something that should’ve been patch up before release. In addition, even when you choose the female avatar, the characters will still refer to you with male pronouns. I suppose there should be points awarded for the attempt at providing options, but either go all the way or don’t bother; the inconsistency just looks sloppy.

The Scores
Story/Modes: Poor
Graphics: Bad
Sound: Poor
Control and Gameplay: Good
Replayability: Enjoyable
Balance: Decent
Originality: Good
Addictiveness: Above Average
Appeal Factor: Above Average
Miscellaneous: Bad
FINAL SCORE: DECENT GAME

Short Attention Span Summary: Judging this game purely by its cover, most would dismiss it as just another meager attempt at cashing in on the popularity of Puzzle Quest. But there’s actually some fun gameplay and fairly deep strategy underneath the unseemly graphics and steep learning curve. It’s hindered by some small bugs that should never have made it past QA, but none of them are gamebreaking. While it doesn’t surpass Challenge of the Warlords, it’s a step up from Galactrix, so it’s not a bad investment of $20.

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