I loved Puzzle Quest. I loved the sequel, PQ: Galactrix. I really like Bret Airborne, though I found that I was a bit frustrated by the campaign’s limited “lives” (though the core of the game is really great).
So, when I caught wind of a new Puzzle Quest, I had to investigate.
Specifically, it’s Marvel Puzzle Quest. It’s on Steam, but I’ve been playing on my phone thanks to Google Play.
It’s… different. Some really good parts, some… less so. At its heart, though, it’s still Puzzle Quest, and I do recommend it. (For an entertaining video review, check out TotalBiscuit’s one over thisaway.)
It’s match three combat, with bonus abilities powered by matches. That’s the heart of PQ, and it’s strong here. There’s a twist or two, though:
It’s three-on-three combat, with each team fielding three units. This is a nice expansion of the mechanics, as you can shuffle around your team by making matches strategically, allowing you to have a “tank” that keeps itself healthy and “DPS” units that hang back and use damaging abilities. There are even healer units. Yeah, it’s a weak trinity design in some ways, which can often be kind of trite, but it’s a nice expansion of the PQ systems. Building around the trinity isn’t necessary, either, but it’s there if you want to use it. Smart planning of overlapping abilities and specialties can make for a strong team, and figuring that out and then executing smart play is the heart of the game, I think. That said, if your team isn’t all about at the same level, your weakest character may never actually step to the front of the team to take the hits. That might be a good thing if that’s your damage dealer, but this isn’t always ideal.
It’s fast. Faster than PQ has been before now, at least. That may not be good for everyone, but I like it. Every single match you make does damage. There are no “skull” tiles that are alone in their ability to damage. Every move you make helps you somehow, and that’s a Good Thing. Certainly, making matches in colors you can use for abilities or that your characters do more damage with (usually the same thing, though not always) is usually the right decision, but even if you’re forced to make a subpar match for defense or to set up a combo, it will still help out a little.
It’s fairly pretty. Yes, it’s a match-3 game, so it doesn’t need a lot to look good, compared to a Gears of War or Kingdom Hearts, but it has clean, readable UI and an overall good design. Character portraits and action shots are static images that get a little Flash magic applied to them, and it works pretty well. There’s a bit too much rim lighting for my taste, but that’s a rant for another day. Overall, it’s a nicely presented product.
It’s Marvel. I like some of the Marvel characters, so their IP is a nice touch for me. The characters have abilities that fit their theme as well, like Captain America’s tactical shield strikes that “boomerang” back to give you more power for a repeat strike, or Thor’s pure, unadulterated beatdown, with all three of his special abilities doing direct damage. The flavor of the characters and mechanics going together is a nice touch, and in its way, more interesting than the generic fantasy abilities of the original PQ. Yes, you had four classes in that game, but their unique abilities were often superseded by found abilities. That’s one of the strengths of that game, to be honest, but in this PQ, being limited to the three prebaked abilities (albeit of different power levels depending on your cover build) per character isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as it allows for more experiments to see which characters synergize best for your playstyle. It’s not too far removed from the original game in that you’re effectively fielding a team with a handful of abilities, where in the older game, you’d have a single character with a handful of abilities. Making smart choices of what to bring to the fight when you’re limited is a big part of the strategy of the game. Limitations aren’t always a Bad Thing. And yet…
The progression is… dumb. (TotalBiscuit’s video covers it well, but I’ll also expand here.) The experience system in previous PQ games was great, as you could build your character or skills just by playing (experience gems were part of the combat board). This cover-and-ISO system is far too random and finding rarer covers (presently there are four levels of rarity) makes the rarer characters far less useful than common characters. You’ll have a very difficult time acquiring all the characters and once you do, it’s going to be very hard to make them all competitive. It may be exciting to get an Invisible Woman cover, as I did rather unexpectedly, but when she’s limited to level 30 until you get more covers, and your Uncommon team is nearly maxxed out at lv. 85, she’s a bit underwhelming for a character that should be special, because she’s rare. (It’s a bit like Magic: The Gathering in that regard, if all the rares were big, splashy, overcosted creatures, except there’s no secondary market to take the edge off the sting, and the present Legendary characters all have big power costs, meaning quick Uncommon or Rare characters would make short work of them anyway while the Legendaries scrape together enough energy to use their abilities.)
Characters with two skill colors can max out their abilities. Characters with three skill colors can only power up 13 out of a total 15 slots (five levels of each power). I get that game devs think that “decisions should matter”, but this is inconsistent. There is also no way to respec your character if you build it in a way that you don’t like. If you don’t like your choices of those 13 (and there’s no way to look more than one power level ahead, so you must go to a wiki to properly plan ahead, a twinkie denial condition in my book), you have to just build the character all over again, with new covers and more ISO-8. (Apparently, the devs are looking into a respec system, but this is the sort of thing that should have been designed better far earlier than now.)
ISO-8 is how you actually level up your characters. The covers level up the powers and raise the character’s maximum level, and ISO-8 expenditure is how you actually have the character grow in their basic attack power and health. ISO-8 is earned fairly easily from fights, events or redoing fights… but it seems to come at a slower pace than experience in older PQ games, and trying to grind out ISO-8 by replaying old missions is a VERY slow process.
Common, Uncommon, Rare and Legendary characters have disparate power levels… too disparate. Beside the trouble of finding enough covers to fully realize the rarer characters, if you do happen to get one of each tier to their maximum level, you’re probably looking at a level 40 character, a level 85 character, a level 141 character and a level 230 character. This difference in power is absurd. I’d have made them all have the same power caps and let special ability and playstyle synergy keep things interesting. As it is, if I were to have the two existing Legendary characters maxxed out and a Rare character at level max, there’s almost no way that any different team would be competitive against me. The Rare character’s lower power would be so small a part of my team’s overall power that it almost doesn’t matter who is in that slot, aside from absurdly strong abilities that might be on offer, and a team of Rare characters would have a tough time beating the Legendaries, even with their slower powers, just because of the massive power difference in basic match attack power and health pools.
PvP is weird. It’s not actually against other players, it’s against their team, but the AI is driving. Since the AI is a little flaky (it plays too offensively, with too little defense or disruption, and doesn’t seem to see cascade opportunities or right angle “five” matches), it’s a less than satisfying proposition if you really want to test your skills. The matchmaking system is rather annoying as well. And the “progression” rewards for winning matches, well… they are more of a tease than anything to really aim for. You’ll almost never get more than a few tiers in, just because of how the scoring system keeps pulling you back down when your AI-controlled team loses.
Health packs are… not cool. Damage your characters take is persistent between matches, and while your characters do heal naturally over time, it’s very sloooooow. Health packs are consumables that restore a character to full health, but they are throttled over time as well. I’m not sure if there’s a limit to how many you can carry (I think the limit is ten, but I haven’t verified that), and they regenerate over time as well, but they are slow to regenerate (35 minutes or so each), and if you spend all of yours, the natural regeneration only regrows so many. You’ll usually only have the five that the automatic regeneration gets you (you can pick up extras as rewards). It seems designed for mobile gaming, with long breaks between play sessions, but it’s a troublesome throttle. It’s a monetization vector, but it’s one of the more annoying ones.
Finding covers is a gamble. You win or buy “recruitment tokens” that are an awful lot like coins. You then put those in a sort of slot machine and hope you get something useful out of it. You’ll get a cover each time, but most of the time it will be something that you don’t want, and have to sell for a pittance in ISO-8. This is better than a box full of useless Magic: The Gathering commons, but only barely. (Check out these two videos for more fun in this vein.) I’m decidedly not a fan of this sort of thing in general (though I love MTG drafting), and it only exacerbates the problems with the cover progression system. There is no cover trading, no way to trade a red Wolverine cover for a yellow one, so you wind up with a lot of useless junk.
It’s Free to Play. This kind of annoys me, actually, since I think it’s tied to the cover system. I don’t begrudge them the Hero Point system, at least not the way I’ve used it. I just use the Hero Points to expand my roster, allowing for me to collect more characters. It’s like buying character slots in a F2P MMO, and I’m OK with that. The other uses of Hero Points, though, from shields to protect PvP score to buying recruit tokens… those are closer to “pay to win” and “lockbox” purchases that I’m not fond of. And yet… it’s free. You can download it and just start playing. You can do a lot without spending money, and that’s pretty cool.
Still, I really wish I could just get the game via a single purchase and play it single player. I suspect this would allow for the hero levels and rarities to be normalized, quicker and more even progression (single player games don’t have to worry about keeping up with the Joneses), and ultimately, more exploration of character synergies.
…in sum, I do have a lot of little complaints with the game, but they are almost entirely on the progression side. The core gameplay is really good, and I wish that the progression side would facilitate that better. I’d have done that with a very flat level curve (no inherent advantage given to rarer characters) and drop the cover system, but you can’t win them all, I suppose. It’s definitely possible to just play and have fun with whatever team you can scrape together, you just won’t have a great deal of success in PvP or PvE races without some luck in the progression scheme getting covers you want, and enough ISO-8 to make your team stronger.
I’ve been lucky to get a max level Thor and Captain America, as well as a midlevel Hulk, Hawkeye and Wolverine, and they have carried me to a fair bit of success. I placed in the top ten (out of 1000+ players) of the most recent week-long PvE competition, scoring in the top 50 in half the two-day overlapping mini phases, in the top 10 in most of the others, and top 2 in one of them. I didn’t get the top spot, but I wasn’t far behind. It took a fair bit of time overall, but it was fun to play, so it worked out. The way that the scoring opportunities “regenerate” during events means playing every 8 hours or so… but it doesn’t take a lot of time in each play session to scrape out a handful of high-scoring matches and stay ahead of the curve.
I’ve been able to have a fair bit of success in the game without spending anything other than time. I count that as a successful game… though I’d still really like to get a single player single purchase version with some of the more annoying F2P barnacles scraped off.
…and yes, I think F2P can be done well. I’m just not all that happy with this implementation. You really can do a lot without spending money in the game, but I find myself stubbornly refusing to spend money, wishing rather for the ability to spend on the game the way I’d prefer to.