Puzzle Mania

I devoured the original Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords. It’s a great game, and it’s rather well known for being challenging. I didn’t find it terribly difficult, but I did need to think to make my way through the game. Part of that may be because I played a Wizard, and I found they were quite strong. Challenge of the Warlords got a lot of buzz through word of mouth and good publicity.

Puzzle Quest: Galactrix’s biggest accomplishment is the way it managed to bounce me right out of the game despite being a Sci Fi hungry Puzzle Quest addict. I was forcing myself to play, but I never found the game I hoped was buried underneath the endless luck-driven timed puzzles.

Then Puzzle Kingdoms showed up. It completely slipped under my radar – I only heard about the game a few days before it shipped. That was unusual, because Galactrix got quite a bit of hype. Infinite Interactive’s site doesn’t even list the game as released, and I haven’t seen a single review despite it releasing two weeks ago. And yet it’s a much better game than Galactrix. I’ll describe the basic mechanics since it’s not as well known.

As another color-matching game, Puzzle Kingdoms relies on acquiring mana (power) to charge units in your army so they can attack the enemy army. Armies consist of four units. Each unit requires a specific kind of mana, and the first unit of that in your army receives that mana. Anytime you acquire mana that doesn’t go to one of your units, it goes into the hero’s generic mana pool.

Initially, attacking is strategic. If you attack with multiple units at once, they all gain a damage bonus. Sometimes you want to hold off to give yourself a little bit more damage to finish off the enemy in fewer attacks, but you make yourself vulnerable to the enemy killing off your charged units. As you level up, your hero stats increase the attack and defense of your units. The number scale is much smaller than Puzzle Quest, so the +1-3 damage you get from combos should always be useful.

Unfortunately, Puzzle Kingdoms bears too much resemblance to an area where the original Puzzle Quest was weak: item balance. About midway through Puzzle Quest, I found a few items that gave my character insane amounts of power. There were still some difficult fights, but I’d have to self handicap to make the average fight mildly interesting. Puzzle Kingdoms has the same problem, but it is much more egregious in its flaw. After an intriguing early experience,  I found two items early that basically ensure I win any fight after a couple rounds. Every fight is trivial. It’s pretty common to kill the entire army of a boss in a single attack. Enemies are so un-threatening that I routinely give them damage block combines just so I can match the kind of mana I want. There are a few factors that cause this:

1) Items. Early in the game, I found an item that increases my unit hitpoints by 3. Suddenly, even cheap 1 hitpoint glass cannons became effective front line units. Shortly after that, I found a weapon that gives me +2 red power everytime I combine red blocks. Combine that with a goblin (and later a wolfrider) who only needs 2 red power to attack, and I get 1.5 attacks for combining a simple block. Without that, you need 2-5 combines to charge a unit. Right now I use 3 wolf riders, and I charge all three by making two basic red combines (or a single 4 combine charges two instantly).

2) Heroes & Scaling. Your hero quickly gains power, but past the first few zones, the enemies you fight don’t scale up for a very long time. I’ve conquered a good 12 kingdoms, about half the game from what I can tell, and the creaures are rarely harder than the ones I saw by the second or third kingdom. Meanwhile, my hero increases the attack/defense of my units by around 5/3. That addition is stronger than most of the creatures I fight. And I outnumber them. And I have spells. And I have items. My cheap wolf riders have enough base damage (10) to one-hit everything I’ve fought short of some dragons, and they attack almost instantly. Meanwhile, I keep fighting creatures that have 2-4 hitpoints and insufficient damage to kill my “frail” wolfriders.

I’ve thought about self handicapping to play the game, but even when I tried that it wasn’t a challenge with an unequipped level 1 hero and basic units. My own skill has increased disproportionately to the difficulty curve in the game, which means there’s no real way for me to get a challenge unless I field less than four units. The heroes level up fast enough that I quickly gain strength on new characters and once again outmatch the enemy units.

I’m curious whether it’s just my experiences or if the game’s difficulty curve is ridiculously, horribly broken. It’s disappointing because I like the game so much otherwise.