Review: Puzzle Chronicles (Sony PSP)

Puzzle Chronicles
Publisher: Konami
Developer: Infinite Interactive
Genre: Puzzle RPG
Release Date: 01/28/2010

It’s kind of funny really. The genre “puzzle RPG” was created by Infinite Interactive back when they released Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords. However, they seem to be the only developers working on this kind of game. They made Galactrix, Puzzle Kingdoms, and now this game. Plus, they’ve also got Puzzle Quest 2 in the works. You’d think that with all of the publishers out there trying to earn a buck stealing other peoples work (i.e. EA Sports MMA), that SOMEONE else would make a puzzle RPG at some point.

Still, you can’t complain that Infinite is bleeding the concept dry by releasing roughly the same game with a few cosmetic upgrades. Galactrix was completely different from the first PQ and Puzzle Kingdoms took the concept in an entirely new direction.

This time, the Bejeweled style gameplay has been excised for a more real time combat scheme more akin to Puzzle Fighter than anything else.

Does the Puzzle RPG formula still work without the gem swapping action?

Story/Modes

As the game starts out, you are a member of a warrior tribe. In fact, the game’s tutorial is meant to be your day to officially become a warrior. Soon after, however, your tribe is attacked in the night by a group of slavers lead by a horned daemon. Your entire tribe is sold into slavery including you. As luck would have it, however, the mysterious sorceress Morgana decides to buy your freedom in exchange for a favor later on down the road. She serves as your guide as you attempt to free your tribe mates and take your revenge on the horned daemon.

The setup is a bit basic, but the story as a whole has a rather nice flow to it. It almost feels like something that would have been a great TV show in the vein of Hercules: The Legendary Adventures. Unfortunately, the plot isn’t as good as it could be due to a number of reasons.

For one, your character isn’t likable in any sense of the word. He is a barbarian through and through. Kill first and ask questions later. You do several dastardly things that no self respecting hero character would be caught dead doing. Worse off, there isn’t even a good reason for your character’s actions, so he doesn’t even make a good anti-hero. There are even several moments where the writers seemed to realize this and tried to correct it. For instance, at one point in the game your character decides the best way to raise an army is to steal a boat and become a pirate for a while. This requires him to murder all of the guards at the harbor, as well as slaughter the entire crew of the ship. To try and compensate for this, you find out that the ship you’ve captured is a slave ship and that you’ll be freeing a bunch of people. The problem is that your character didn’t know about this before all of the slaughter began. Basically, he’s an ass!

Overall, however, the plot is at least mildly entertaining. There were some moments, like the approach of a giant, that was done rather well. The comic book inspired cut scenes were also interesting choices. As far as stories in a puzzle RPG go, this is better than anything else Infinite has done. Granted, that isn’t saying much.

Beyond the story, you have a few other options at your disposal. You can free battle any opponent you’ve already defeated, manage your inventory, and play any of the minigames you’ve unlocked. There’s also a multiplayer mode that allows you to battle against a friend via an Ad-Hoc connection.

It’s a typical setup, but one that works.

Graphics

There are three different things to talk about in the graphics section.

First off is the overworld. It kind of reminded me of the old “find the object” books they had in the library when I was a kid. The towns and locales are full of little details such as buildings, pits, caves, etc. However, the style is kind of cartoonish in a way. It certainly doesn’t go for the realistic look in any way.

The cut scenes I mentioned before are very similar. These scenes are where the character designs are fully realized. Body parts are accentuated, costumes are outlandish, and it’s all done in a comic book panel style that will definitely be hit or miss with players. There were a few moments where it was hard to tell what was going on, but the style worked. Fully animated scenes would have been preferable, but I’m not about to fault the game for not doing something that so few games these days do. It is certainly better than the simple static portraits in the developer’s previous games.

Finally, there’s the battles themselves. The greater part of the screen is for the puzzle combat, while there is a good bit reserved on top of the screen for the characters to actually do battle. As you build up rage in the puzzle, you’ll deal damage. All of the attacks are played out by the models, and effects such as poison or fear are represented with glowing icons over the fighters. Seeing your barbarian charge in with a multiple hit combo after you’ve just cleaned house in the puzzle section is far more satisfying than merely watching an HP meter drain.

Overall, the graphics for this game are certainly not going to impress those who are used to games like Resistance Retribution or Soul Calibur: Broken Destiny, but they are far superior than has been seen for other Puzzle RPGs. It could go a bit further, but I was satisfied.

Audio

One huge change you’ll notice right away is that the game is chock full of voice acting. Every cut scene is fully voiced and the voices are surprisingly adequate. Compared to the horrific narrator from CotW, this is a blessing. It also helps breathe life into otherwise dull characters. The only reason I didn’t outright hate the main character was because his voice was so fitting for his character.

You’ve also got a fully orchestrated soundtrack that does a pretty decent job of heightening the action on screen. Most importantly, the tunes never become grating. Perhaps this is because your attention is completely focused on the real time puzzle action below, but it is yet another improvement over past games in the genre. I even found myself humming the victory tune every time I won.

The effects are still a bit disappointing. The tinny explosions of gems being destroyed are usually followed up by stereotypical attack sounds that do get a bit old after a while. Still, that big combo is a bit more satisfying when your character yells as he plunges his blade right into the enemy’s heart.

Like the graphics, the audio is simply better than other games in its genre, though it doesn’t hold up as well to other games on the platform.

Gameplay

First off, I’ll reiterate that this is not your typical gem swapping affair.

The playing field has been flipped on its side so that pieces fall from left to right rather than top to bottom. You’re given a group of three gems at a time that can be rotated and placed on the field. There are several types of gems that have a variety of uses. Rage gems take the shape of colored skulls that build up your rage meter when they are destroyed. Wildcard gems can be used for any color they’re adjacent to. Multiplier gems double the power you gain from a destroyed colored gem. Battle gems are what actually destroy gems on the field. If they touch a gem of the same color, all connecting gems of that color will be destroyed. There are also blank gems that merely serve as one of the four colors. The final gem type is the power gem. These don’t fall, but rather must be created on the field by creating 2X2 blocks of the same color. The creation of this gem grants you the benefit of any of the gems used to create it. For instance, if you used a rage gem, you’ll gain the equivalent rage in your meter. More importantly, the power gems represent special pieces of your equipment. Red power gems represent your weapons, green represents your shield etc. If you destroy a power gem, you’ll gain the ability of the item it represents. For instance, the great sword power gem would grant you bonus rage, and the great shield power gem would make you invulnerable to damage for a short while.

The point of battle is to build up your rage meter so that you deal damage to your opponent. However, neither of you has HP that must be depleted. Instead, there is a line that divides your side and your opponent’s side of the field. As you deal damage, this line moves in the direction of your opponent’s side, causing your playing field to become bigger and your opponent’s field to become smaller. The goal is to push this line so that your opponent tops out, giving you the win. Of course, they’re dropping gems on their side of the field trying to do the same thing. It ends up being a kind of tug of war mechanic. When the bar moves towards your opponent, any gems it passes are added to your side and you can gain their effect once they are destroyed. The same holds true for your opponent, so you have to be careful about how you set up combos. Rage is generated by destroying rage gems and using special abilities. You have around eight or so equipment slots you can fill to boost different aspects of battle. For instance, I used a belt that increased my red power as well as blue whenever I destroyed blue gems. There are also various status effects like poison and fear can affect either player. Poison slowly causes the white bar to creep forward, stun makes it so you can’t rotate gems for a while, and other abilities have other such adverse effects.

You also have a warbeast that can learn various abilities through training. By destroying gems, you build up the power for these abilities. For example, if you teach the warbeast an red ability, you need to destroy red gems to power it up. When it’s charged, you can unleash the beast so to speak to grant that ability’s effect. The skill tree for this isn’t all that deep, but you can mix and match them as you see fit. Basically, if it weren’t for these powers, the blank gems wouldn’t be all that useful. That tug of war mechanic can make battles tense and exciting, especially playing against another person.

The only real problem I have is that the combat doesn’t go at a fast enough pace for a gem dropping mechanic. There’s a slight delay in nearly every action you take, which can really effect you if your field gets too small. When you’re used to games like Tetris, Lumines, and Columns, the delay is really annoying. Still, the differing strategies, chances for combos, and thrill of shooting that white bar forward several spots at once makes the combat quite enjoyable. If not for the slower than average pace, it would be simply awesome.

The setup for the game is pretty much similar to any puzzle RPG you’ve played. You move around the map examining points of interest to gain quests, fight battles, etc. You can visit shops to buy new items, unlock dungeons to fight endless waves of enemies, craft new items, train your skills, train your warbeast, and even search for treasure. There are a couple of sidequests in each location that you can either perform as you go or save for later. Generally, however, you can pretty much stick to battling and moving the story forward. New locations are unlocked as you progress the story and places where there are quests available are highlighted on the map. It’s nothing all that special, but it works.

Put simply, the setup is like any other game in the genre, but the real time gem dropping combat is such a refreshing change of pace that it manages to make the game feel brand new. With a few tweaks, it could have been simply awesome. As it is, it is a very enjoyable experience.

Replayability

Because of the nature of the gameplay (i.e. not being turn based) battles tend to be shorter. Thus, the game doesn’t last nearly as long as other puzzle RPGs. Still, expect the basic run through of the story to last somewhere around fifteen hours or so. If you chose to to go about collecting all of the items or work on maxing your stats, you can add several hours onto the total. The game does have a awards system in place to keep track of your accomplishments. These don’t really add anything, but completionists will get something out of it.

Beyond that initial first run through however, there isn’t really a reason to play the game again. There are no character classes to chose from nor even branching storylines. Everyone who plays the game is going to get the same experience. Your character will always be that Conan wannabe with the gruff voice.

Thankfully, that first playthrough is more than likely going to get you your monies worth and the option to play at four difficulty levels should mean the chance to play it again on a harder difficulty.

Balance

Speaking of difficulty levels, I can’t help but mention how easy this game can wind up being. I started off on normal difficulty and switched over to hard about halfway through because I was getting bored. As it turned out, the items I’d equipped and my strategy for using them was so useful, I only lost twice throughout the entire story. One of those times was really early on before I had a full complement of equipment. The second time was the first time I came into contact with the poison status effect. For that first time, I had no answer to it, but afterwards it was no problem. Point in case, I defeated the final boss in about thirty seconds without him so much as landing a hit on me.

I did go back and try the game on “deathbringer” mode from the get go. This was nearly impossible. The way it works is that the rage bar starts off halfway closer to your side. In addition, the enemies deal damage far more often. I couldn’t even beat the first battle because all I had was a sword and not even a warbeast yet. The best bet for someone who wants a real challenge is to start the game on hard and then move up to “deathbringer” after they’ve had a chance to level up a bit. Then the game should prove quite challenging.

Basically, the game can become a bit easy once you have enough equipment. If you up the difficulty before you get too far in, the balance is just perfect. Still, any game where you need to manage the balance like this doesn’t deserve the same score as a game with a proper curve.

Originality

At first glance, the puzzle combat might seem completely original, but there’s actually some precedent for it. Puzzle games have long had versus modes where you attack your opponent by making chains that drop junk on them, forcing them to top out. Also, the versus mode in Lumines involved moving a dividing line around to give yourself a larger field of play. The groundwork was there. All Infinite needed to do was add in some RPG elements and they had a unique battle system. Again, it isn’t wholly original, but you can’t play anything quite like it.

The rest of the game is stripped straight from CotW. The customization options, the overworld, and even the various mini games are straight in line with the genre’s roots. Even the story feels like your typical action movie plot. I might has well have been playing The Scorpion King.

Addictiveness

I had a surprisingly hard time putting this game down. While playing, I told myself that I could stop anytime I wanted to; that the only reason I was continuing was because I wanted to finish the game quickly. However, the fact that I was playing for two or three hours at a time speaks volumes about how hooked I actually was. What can I say? Puzzle games are almost universally addicting because they are simple to pick up yet offer enough depth to keep you satisfied. Throw in a battle mechanic that works, and it is almost like crack.

There are a few elements that keep it from being as addicting as it could be, however. There are rather lengthy load times for any time you want to open your inventory and even longer load times before battles. At one point, the battle took less time to finish that it took for the game to load the battle and load back to the map when I’d won. It got really annoying.

Also, the main character is just so unlikable, you’ll find yourself not wanting to press onwards simply because you won’t feel he deserves his revenge. That might sound a bit out there, but it is simply true.

So while there was so much this game did in terms of presentation and combat that was above the norm for puzzle RPGs, the addictiveness just isn’t as high as those other games.

Appeal Factor

On one hand, I can easily say that this game can pretty much be enjoyed by anyone. On the other hand, it doesn’t appeal to nearly as wide a base as it could have. This is mostly due to the fact that you are shoehorned into using the main character and there are no classes to chose from. It still boggles me that developers haven’t realized that creating your own character is what a good RPG is all about. It’s why games like Diablo are so huge. True, you can customize your equipment, but it isn’t on the same level at all.

This game is also probably going to have a harder time on the market than you’d think. Most people don’t realize that all of these games are made by the same people, and I’ve seen a good number of them think that this game was an attempt by Konami to cash in on Puzzle Quest‘s success. There isn’t even the little tag that Puzzle Kingdoms had to remind players of who made the game. That could definitely hurt the game’s chances of selling to the average consumer.

Still, the game is accessible and fun enough that anyone can get some enjoyment out of it. Also, this is only the second puzzle RPG to make it to the PSP as well as the first in nearly three years. That alone should help ramp up the interest.

Miscellaneous

I mentioned the annoyingly long load times earlier. What bugs me is that this could have been solved by a simple option to install the game on your PSP. We’ve seen this work wonders for games like Dissidia and Soul Calibur, so why not do it here as well? It just seems lazy not to have it.

There’s nothing really in the way of specials. I can’t really think of any suggestions right now as to what they could have put in, but nonetheless the lack of any sort of bonus is a bit disheartening.

Worst of all, the game’s plot leaves the game open for a sequel. That’s not so bad you say? It does this at the expense of a major plot line not being properly resolved. It can almost take the sense of accomplishment out of beating the final boss.

Overall though, the game leaves positive vibes. It just didn’t reach its potential is all.

The Scores
Story/Modes: Decent
Graphics: Above Average
Audio: Enjoyable
Gameplay: Enjoyable
Replayability: Mediocre
Balance: Above Average
Originality: Decent
Addictiveness: Good
Appeal Factor: Decent
Miscellaneous: Mediocre
Final Score: Above Average Game!

Short Attention Span Summary
Puzzle Chronicles on the PSP is a bit of letdown in terms of what the game could have been. The main character isn’t likable, the gem dropping isn’t fast enough, and the load times can be killer. Still, the puzzle combat is fun, the journey is lengthy enough, and the game will definitely hold your attention from start to finish. For PSP owners looking for a fun puzzle RPG, this game will fit the bill, even if it doesn’t hook you quite as well as Puzzle Quest did. I’m hopeful for an eventual sequel, because with a few tweaks, this could be something truly special.

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3 Comments
  1. Matt Yeager

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