Puzzle Quest for the DS, PSP, and Consoles was a game that changed how the match-three puzzle game worked considerably by making it competitive – leading to a variety of clones that took that framework and attached various licenses to it, and released the games on Steam, Mobile, or both as free-to-play titles. I’ve had an opportunity to play two of the licensed Puzzle Quest games, and one clone, so here’s an opportunity to give my thoughts on Marvel Puzzle Quest, Magic Puzzle Quest, and WWE Champions.
Marvel Puzzle Quest
Marvel Puzzle Quest is almost the closest to the classic Puzzle Quest style. The game tasks the player with assembling a party of heroes to take on either PVE matches against various opponents, or taking on other teams in multi-player. Each hero has a selection of three powers, each tied to specific color gems, and each character deals a different amount of damage based on what gems are matched. When a player matches gems, the game makes the lead character the one who would do the most damage with that color.
The flip side of this is when the opposing team has a turn, whoever is active at that point is the one who is a target for damage from their characters – be they heroes or villains. However, the player can select which of the opposing team of heroes that they fight. Also, when a player pulls off a combo, whatever character would be activated by the first match is the one who is active at the end of the combo, even if other members of the party also get matches as part of this combo. So, combat becomes prioritizing what member of the opposing team is the biggest threat, and managing the active characters in their party so they do the most damage, while also keeping the more squishy members of the party protected.
PVE combat can take the form of two different kinds of matches. Character vs. Character matches play similarly to PVP and classic Puzzle Quest combat, with the two opposing teams taking turns matching tiles. Character vs. Mook combat has the player taking on a variety of unnamed “Mook” opponents, who do not match tiles. Instead their power gages for different colors of energy charge up over multiple turns, and once they have enough power to trigger their abilities, they’ll activate them. Those abilities can be very powerful, but operate on a count-down timer, where they create a tile on the board with a countdown before the ability takes effect. This gives the player an opportunity to avoid the attack. These matches serve as something of a form of training, giving the player an opportunity to learn how to set up teams for PVP, as well as learning how to set up combos.
PVP combat is asynchronous. The player puts together their teams for PVP events, and takes on teams put together by other players. They control their team in fights they select, but when opposing players do their fights, their opponents are controlled by the AI. Thus, party selection for PVP requires the player to not only put together the optimal party to take on the opposing team, but also putting together a team that the AI can use effectively.
After completing a match, you get a “drop”, either of ISO-9, or boosts for particular gems, or of new cover draws, selected at random from a list. For PVE story fights, getting a draw strikes that item of a list of possible draws, so if you play that fight again, you won’t necessarily get the same draw (unless there are multiple possible results of the same type for that fight). For PVP fights, since you’re generally never initiating a fight with the same person twice, there isn’t the same opportunity to chawk an item off the list. Instead, based on their performance in the PVP event, you get ranking points to move up in the rankings, which in turn determines what rewards you get at the end of the event.
This leads to the problems with the game’s AI – once the AI has enough power to trigger an ability, it uses that ability, even if it’s not the optimal ability for that situation. This means that while in PVE events you can double-up on different colored powers, doing so in PVP events can lead to disaster.
On how the game handles free play, the game’s “free-to-pay” curve is what I’d describe as a bell curve. You can spend money on additional XP or “ISO-9” crystals, on general cash-shop currency to spend on random-draws for various heroes (described as “covers” – due to featuring covers of various Marvel Comics that show that hero) and to get more slots for heroes, and to re-stock on medpacks. However, the game does a pretty good job of giving you a bunch of those for free. I never really had much of a problem getting Iso-9 by playing through the game on its own. On the medpac front, the game gives you a very good regular stock of medpacs (10), and those replenish regularly, with one medpac per hour – and events generally give covers as rewards, either based on ranking in the event or based on completion of the event.
Where you’ll want to start spending money for cash shop currency is getting additional slots for covers. When you start the game, you have a limited number of covers, and progress through the game will get you some additional cash shop currency that will get you further slots. However, the more slots you buy, the more expensive the next slot gets, to the point that currency won’t come in fast enough and if you want to get each new character that becomes available to you, you’ll actually have to spend money.
Where the bell curve comes in is related to the fact that some covers are more common than others, and getting duplicates of characters allows you to boost that character’s abilities, and with it their level cap. Once those characters (of two-star level or more) hit max level, you can spend a bunch of Iso-9 to make them become “Champions”, where each new cover just levels up the character further, and provides new perks like additional cover draws, more Iso-9, or other benefits. Once you hit this point, you’re going to end up needing to buy additional slots less often, as you’re either feeding your duplicate covers to other cards or selling them for more Iso-9.
There is a Console version of Marvel Puzzle Quest, which is not a pay-to-play game, and generally doesn’t quite play as well. The fundamental mechanics are the same as the mobile and PC versions, but how you get covers is changed considerably. Reaching certain points in the game and beating certain opponents gets additional covers. Further, in the Free-to-play version, you have a pool of Iso-9, which you can spend on whatever characters you feel like leveling up. In the console version, character are leveled up based on use. This makes the game considerably more grindy. Also, new characters have been introduced to the console version much more slowly.
Marvel Puzzle Quest is available on Steam, Android, and iOS platforms – along with Playstation Network, and I believe Xbox Network.
Magic: Puzzle Quest
Magic Puzzle Quest is based on Magic: The Gathering, if it wasn’t clear from the name. You put together a deck of 10 cards, based on a variety of planeswalkers, each with different elemental affinities, and a selection of special abilities. Each card has a mana cost, and how much mana you get from matching different colors of gems is based on your planeswalker’s elemental affinity and level. There is a sixth type of gem in addition to the gems for the five colors of mana in Magic, which doesn’t generate mana but does charge up a planeswalker’s abilities.
You deal damage not by matching gems, but by summoning creatures to attack your opponent and, if they have defender (or similar attributes) to defend you. Some planeswalker can also activate abilities to directly deal damage to their opponent. The focus of strategy here is, as in the actual card game, building the best deck with the cards you have available, and which fits with the strengths of your planeswalker.
The problem here is that some of the cards in Magic just don’t adapt well to this format – I’ve encountered cards on multiple occasions that were just broken. There is one card in particular which heals the caster for 20 health (which can be a fifth of a planeswalker’s health), and generate 30 mana, which potentially could allow the player to cast that card again.
Part of it is due to how deck construction works in Magic compared to how it works in this game. In Magic, you have a 60 card deck, with no more than three duplicates of any one card (that is not land) in the deck. When your deck is exhausted, that’s it – you’re done. You lose. Indeed, “milling” your opponent – forcing them to constantly draw or discard cards from their deck until they run out of cards – is a completely valid strategy in magic, and has been since the beginning.
In Magic; Puzzle Quest, on the other hand, you just cycle through your deck at random endlessly, with the player potentially getting a hand completely full of one kind of card. The game tries to manage this some by having multiple creatures stack on top of each other, increasing the power and toughness of that creature, and multiple “Support” cards (which work like Enchantments), extending the number of matches a support can withstand before being cleared from the board. However, this doesn’t fix some of the real balance issues in the game.
At the end of a PVE event, depending on whether you complete certain goals, such as only casting a limited number of spells, or not killing any enemy creatures, you can get certain rewards, either of Mana Stones or Mana Crystals (the cash-shop currency). This encourages you to replay matches using different tactics or different decks to complete those goals. In PVP events, there are similar goals which can boost the number of ranking points you can earn. However, you don’t know them in advance of the match, and you can’t necessarily replay the fight to get all the goals. At the end of the event, depending on your ranking you can get a reward of Mana Stone or Crystals, or additional booster packs.
The good news is that you really don’t need to spend any money on this game. Daily pickups frequently provide Mana Stones (XP), and some cash-shop currency, and you get one basic (3 card) booster pack draw per week. Playing 21 days over the course of a month will often also get you a “fat pack” – 3 booster packs of a particular expansion, with each pack getting you 5 cards each. Further, duplicate cards can be sold back for more Mana Stones.
While you have a cap of 5 health refills, leveling up your character will automatically refill their health, giving you another play. Further, you get additional Mana Stones even if you lose a game, so you still feel like you’re making some progress. Still, the balance issues in the game cause enough frustration to make parts of the game rather obnoxious.
Finally, there is WWE’s take on the Puzzle Quest game. Unlike the other two titles, this game does not bear the Puzzle Quest name, and is not put out by that game’s developers, though the gameplay is very similar.
You select a WWE wrestler, each with a variety of affinities to different color coded “styles”, and put them up against other wrestlers. As with Marvel Puzzle Quest, each character has three special moves, which are color coded, and matching gems of those colors will charge up those moves. Also as with Marvel Puzzle Quest, matching gems deals damage, with gems that are the same color as the ones that are connected to the special moves dealing more damage.
Where things get changed up is with the momentum meter at the bottom of the screen. As characters deal damage to each other, the more the momentum meter will shift back and forth. When one player is able to push the meter all the way to the opponent’s side of the screen, their wrestler will attempt pin their opponent. The opponent then has three turns to match enough gems to score points equal to however much damage lead to the pin attempt. If they fail to do that, then they are pinned and lose. If they are pinned when they are at zero health, then they are immediately pinned.
After the end of the fight, the fight is given a rating on a three star grade based on how quickly you won the match, and how much damage you took. Unfortunately, aside from unlocking advanced difficulties, star ratings don’t really do anything.
As with Marvel Puzzle Quest, there are possible item draws you can get at the end of the bout by matching Item Chests. For each bout there are three item thresholds you can meet – 3, 6, and 13. Hitting each threshold gets you a draw from a better pool. Depending on how many health segments you have at the end of the match certain stones will be randomly converted to item chests, which can increase the amount of item chests you match. However, unlike in Marvel Puzzle Quest, getting a draw from a particular pool does not eliminate that item from that pool. Additionally, because the conversion of stones to chests is at random, you can still do incredibly well in a match, and not get any further chests. This is incredibly frustrating, particularly since sometimes getting just one move at the end of the bout could net you a bunch of chests, taking a bout from no draws to two or three.
Additionally, the rate of gain of new Superstars for your roster is rather slow. Some events will give superstars as rewards, but the cases (blind boxes are done as Money-In-The-Bank style suitcases) that provide Superstars are generally limited to the higher tier cases, which normally cost Bucks (cash-shop currency), or Superstar Tokens (which are awarded through PVE events). Also, in bouts, if you are pinned or submit, you continue at full health (while your opponent retains however much health they had before) with the cost of just a few Bucks. Often, this means that you are in a position where you can easily turn a match from a defeat into a three-star match instantly. This also creates the situation where the game can literally become pay-to-win, at least in PVE. I have not, as of this writing, played enough PVP to make a reasonable judgement over how that works.
You level up your characters through three different routes. You spend Coins to level up your characters, boosting their stats. You level up their moves by spending “posters” for move classes (technical, aerial, powerhouse, and so on, all mapped to the different types of character and gem colors) along with duplicate versions of the character. When a character reaches the cap for their character rank (one star bronze, one star silver, and so on up), you can spend a selection of item types (connected to the character type) to rank the character up. This ups the level cap by 10, and usually the maneuver level cap by one. You then start the cycle over.
Visually, what the game has going for it are 3D animated versions of your wrestlers who will duke it out as you go through the course of a bout. The more damage you do with a match or a combination of matches, the more impressive the attack animation is. Special moves and Finishers have a specific animation attached to them, and performing a successful pinning attack on an opponent who has no HP will move directly into the animation for a character’s finisher.
WWE Superstars could be really good, with some refinement. Letting the player move one gem at the end of a bout in order to potentially match some item boxes would help mitigate some of the grinding. As an alternative, tying the item thresholds you get to the number of stars in your match would have a similar effect.
Further, the game does not give Cases or Superstar Tokens as PVP event rewards, only upgrade Items. While this is still useful, it makes taking part in PVP less valuable as a way to increase your pool of wrestlers you have to play with – meaning that if you want to get more wrestlers, you have to spend Bucks – one way or another.