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Joystiq presents

Gaming to Go: Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords

The premiere Puzzle Quest title debuted to generally positive reviews, many of which praised the unexpectedly compelling mix of Bejeweled gem-swapping puzzles and standard RPG elements. Any gamer who has given the title a whirl knows the critical claim doesn't come unwarranted, even with a few niggling things like cheating AI and a complete lack of closure. Those minor complaints are more than made up for with the mind-boggling amount of depth the developers crammed into the cartridge, transforming what could have been just another puzzler into an addicting little package still worth playing over a year since its release.

With the space-age sequel rumored to land sometime in October, now is as good a time as any to take a look back at the sword and stone puzzler that started it all. If you never bothered to pick it up, consider yourself thoroughly shamed -- but don't let the weight of your emotional guilt bring you down. Come along with this week's edition of Gaming to Go for one last reminder that sliding colorful stones around a board is a perfectly viable way to wage digital war.

Gallery: Puzzle Quest

That ultra-clever nod to Bejeweled up there didn't come needlessly. Puzzle Quest, for all of its fancy RPG trappings, is essentially a glorified version of its jewel-swapping predecessor, complete with the addictiveness and relatively simple gameplay Bejeweled staked a reputation on. Where Puzzle Quest separates itself, however, is in the unique take it offers on such a well-known formula.

Instead of focusing purely on lining up at least three same-colored stones, Puzzle Quest throws spells, skulls, and character classes into the mix. The most significant addition is the four mana pools your character carries into every battle, one for each color of stone that is available on the board. Lining up at least three stones of the same color will add mana to that particular color's pool, so a good amount of emphasis is then placed on building up the right pools of mana to cast the spells or skills your character has learned. There's also an element of strategy in knowing what color of mana your opponent needs, as matching up the stones they'd have to go for to boost their own pools is an excellent way to keep them from using their often very dangerous skills.

Some character classes focus exclusively on spells -- and, with some specialization, certain colors of mana -- while others focus more on straight melee. Skulls drop randomly onto the board during every match, and lining up at least three of them will score a direct hit on your opponent, dropping its health points by a number appropriate to your character's stats and equipment.

Yup, statistics come into this. Let it not be said that Puzzle Quest simply dabbles into the RPG world, as it's clear that its developers spent quite a bit of time tweaking all of the equipment, skills/spells, and stats to make most character classes play pretty different from one another. For the sake of my sanity, I won't go into an in-depth discussion on every nuance of Puzzle Quest's gameplay, though let it be known nonetheless that the game has a hell of a lot of them beyond any Bejeweled comparisons. A proper review should speak of the mounts you can collect, the monsters you can capture, the towns you can lay seige to, the weapons you can forge, and so many other things you can do throughout the course of the game, some of which even eschew the typical board for genuinely different types of puzzles that help mix up the gem-swapping goodness.

What I will discuss, however, is the main reason I still like to play the game to this day: it's fast, it's fun, and the very nature of the gameplay invites gaming on the go. Simply matching up gems all day long could grow tiresome after awhile, but throwing in levels and the advancements common to RPGs provide just the right amount of incentive to keep playing. It helps that most battles don't drag on, too, provided you're appropriately equipped -- or just pretty damn lucky.

The fact that luck factors in can serve to be quite the nuisance, especially when everything goes horribly wrong right at the end of an epic battle. The inclusion of spells and mana do seem to remove some of lady luck's power, though, as clever use of a skill can easily turn the tide of a seemingly hopeless match. Still, it should be noted that fighting with higher-level monsters -- and the occasional boss battle -- can lead to lengthy matches, especially if you come in unprepared. Sometimes switching out spells or rethinking your battle strategy will be all it takes to succeed, though battles that don't go as quickly as you would like will still probably occur. And there will always be the enemy who clears the board three times and slaughters your character before you have a chance to do anything, though the complete lack of any kind of death penalty means that most cases of "cheating" AI aren't hard to forgive.

Alternatively, you can drop the campaign entirely and just just choose the Instant Action option, which will drop you into a battle with an enemy close to your character's level. It's a great way to skip any plot elements and get a quick match in, as your character will keep any gold or experience points gained from the battle. You can also choose your opponent if you want to control the challenge, as you'll typically be able to select from a range of foes both lower and higher level than you. Again, everything you earn from battle stays with your character, so getting in a series of quick matches is an excellent way to take a break from progressing through the campaign while still advancing your character.

All in all, Puzzle Quest represents some of the best of what gaming on the go has to offer: a title well-suited for short bursts of play, but one with an enormous amount of depth beyond that for players with more time to sink into it. If you haven't picked up Challenge of the Warlords yet, consider this an official recommendation to do so. A PC demo is even available for the unsure, just in case the thought of Bejeweled plus sweet loot doesn't immediately capture your attention. And if it doesn't ... shame on you.

Stat time!

Sleep time: Puzzle Quest doesn't pause if you close the lid, though that particular feature isn't really vital when you're playing turn-based puzzle warfare.

Load time: A little over twenty seconds to get into the Instant Action mode, though you'll have to go through at least double that if you're creating a new character to play with. The campaign mode comes with plot sequences and the like, so expect even more seconds to go by if you sit through them.

Play time: This one's a little harder to gauge, as it depends a lot on who you're fighting, what your current stats are, and so forth. With few exceptions, though, it probably shouldn't take you a lot of time to get through a fight, provided you're at a comparable level to your opponent. And even if you're underpowered by comparison, don't fret -- the occasionally omnipotent AI will take care of you quite quickly.

Tick tock of the clock ringing in your ears? Tell your timepiece to shove it! We live busy lives, but remember this: there's always time to game. Check back with Gaming to Go every week for the latest and greatest titles you should spend your precious few minutes with.

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