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Posts Tagged ‘puzzle quest’

Sometimes it’s hard for me to believe that it’s already been a month since I deleted Marvel Puzzle Quest from my smartphone.  I played the game for almost six months and had a decent roster of characters built up.  And yet… almost every single change that the developers made during the time I played the game made the game less appealing.  I finally reached the point where I just didn’t want to like it any more, and gave up.

The sad part is that the core gameplay is actually really solid.  The puzzle combat isn’t finely balanced, but I’m fine with that, as I don’t mind a bit of imbalance.  It is well crafted and adds some nice twists to the Puzzle Quest formula.  If the game can be taken purely on its combat, it’s a fine addition to the pedigree.

And yet, the progression scheme and monetization scheme (intricately tied together, but even without monetization, the progression would be awful) just kill the game in the long run.  Of course, that’s “kill the game for me”, since it’s apparently still live and gathering clients, but I would really love to see some numbers on what sort of churn they are seeing.  It is very much a “winners win more” game, with elements that skirt the dreaded “pay to win” area.  Some of the judgment on the latter depends on how you define the phrase, but for me, it’s clearly designed to give an edge to those who spend inordinate amounts of money on the game, in no small part because of how glacial the progression system is, and that you can pay to speed it up.

This is not anything new in the F2P arena, to be sure, and it’s less grievous than being able to flat out buy victories, but it does undermine what could be very satisfying PvP combat puzzling.

In the end, though, it wasn’t any single huge change that made me uninstall the game.  It was a death by degree.  The poor progression scheme.  Nothing worth spending money on (which saved me money, but it was still what I thought of as poor design).  New characters introduced fairly regularly… but predominantly at the rare tier, so recruiting them was a crapshoot with their slot machine sort of character acquisition.  (Almost everything in the game is tied to a random chance of acquisition or absurdly overpriced… sometimes both.)  The change in healing so that it was limited to the combat of the moment.  Damage persists after a fight, limiting the ability to play multiple rounds in succession unless you heal in the fight or pay for refills between fights.  You get a few free refills, but they don’t last long if you’re in a heated race to top the competition boards to get some character you’d like.  You can buy refills or wait for them to recharge, 1 every 35 minutes, and you can hold 5 at a time.  (With 3 characters in combat, that’s not a lot of healing to go around.)  Competition is mostly PvP of a sort (never against other players; the AI just takes their team and runs it), which isn’t terrible, but PvP really needs to be balanced to be fun, and when character levels can be as disparate as they are in the game, it gets old when you play a few successful rounds and then get matched with an overpowered team you have no chance of beating.  Normalized PvP (like Guild Wars) where skill and team composition rule would go a long way to making the game better… but that sort of level playing field is harder to monetize.

Playing the moment to moment combat was still good fun.  It’s just… everything else isn’t, and the combat alone isn’t enough to save the game.

On the other hand, there’s Slingshot Braves.  It’s sort of a weird mix of PS1-era graphics (so it still looks good; I’m playing on a phone for crying out loud), Squids and Angry Birds, with a gear upgrade system that feels a bit like Puzzle & Dragons (consume hundreds of little pieces of loot to level up your gear) and a newly introduced gem/slot system that is a bit like socketed gear in a Blizzard game, but you can also level up the gems by combining several of a kind, and you can move some gems around, so it has a slight FFVII flavor.  It’s simple, but the five weapons are fairly elegantly designed, each with its own niche.  Leveling gear is slow, and the only way to make your team stronger, but it feels just fast enough to be acceptable.  Marvel Puzzle Quest’s character leveling is very, very slow by comparison.

Acquiring gear is only done via very rare loot drops or by the “Gacha” system.  It’s effectively a gear slot machine.  This is a bit annoying, but the game provides you with enough “gems” (the currency you can buy directly or earn via play or the occasional promotion) to get the occasional new bit of gear in that system.  Gear is in four tiers (C, B, A, and S, increasing in value), and you’re guaranteed at least a B level bit of gear in the Gacha.  It’s a bit annoying in that the best gear seems to be in the Gacha gamble, but at the same time, you can level up your gear and evolve it to a higher tier with enough little loot drops, so you can grind into some good gear eventually.  It’s slow, and annoying to get great new gear that you then have to level up, but that’s the quirk that comes with leveling gear in general.  It’s still much faster than MPQ’s system, and less frustrating.

I’m not sure there’s much that offers good value for real money here, either, but at least progress in the game isn’t as tedious as is is in MPQ.  You can buy gems, which allow character renaming, larger loot libraries, Gacha “pulls” and stamina refills (each mission you play consumes stamina, which recharges slowly; a standard F2P throttle).  Still, it’s not necessary, and most importantly, buying gems doesn’t have a huge effect on your success or pace of progress.

Perhaps most importantly, though, the only multiplayer system is a cooperative one, so it’s OK if someone else is stronger than you.  You both win faster that way.  There is some light competition among scoring leaderboards on some events, but the majority of the time any reason you have to care about the gear other players have is in how much it helps you, not how hard it is to beat.  That’s a huge underlying shift in assumptions and goals, and it makes a world of difference.

…and is it telling that the progression scheme is the first thing I write about?  That’s really where these games live or die, since that’s where they monetize, usually.  It’s also where things get annoying, and where MPQ got worse as time went on, SB just keeps getting better.  Loot drops have been made more frequent, promotions give people more goods to work with, the gear Gacha was split into a weapon Gacha and an Armor Gacha (anything that increases player control over the slot machine is a Good Thing for players), and the new socketing system makes gear more flexible.

But how does it play, moment to moment?  Largely like Squids, where you fire your character in a direction and watch it bounce around the arena, beating on foes or careening off of your ally unit or the walls.  Maybe it’s just the billiards fan in me, but I love that a good eye for angles and thinking ahead pays off in the game.  It’s a simpler game than MPQ, but it still seems to reward player skill, and that’s one of the things that I appreciate most in games.

So, while Marvel Puzzle Quest’s fortunes in my library sank, Slingshot Braves has risen to be the game I most prefer to play at the moment on my phone.  Tiny Dice Dungeons is another great contender, but it hasn’t seen as many “live” changes.

I find it striking that MPQ made most of its changes to try to squeeze out more monetization, and it’s obvious.  SB wants more money too, certainly, but their changes have almost uniformly felt like they were improving the progression scheme, and occasionally the combat engine.  My visceral response to the two development teams couldn’t be more opposed.  The more I see each in action, the more I like SB, and the less I like MPQ.

In a world where games can mutate and adjust over time, I think it’s critical that the changes feel like they are making the game better, and that’s really the difference between these two when it comes to whether or not I play them and recommend them.

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Last time I noted some of the great bits and a few of the bad bits of this fancy new Marvel Puzzle Quest.

It turns out that the game is still more or less in beta, and the developers are still monkeying around with the character balance, progression system and monetization.

And it turns out that most of those changes are making the game slower, harder and more expensive.

I’d still buy a single player offline version of the game, and I still recommend at least taking the game for a spin, but I cannot recommend spending money on it.  I had hoped that the continuing development would mean that the problems I highlighted last time would be alleviated.  It turns out that such a hope was, at least so far, merely a dream.  Almost every change I see on the developer forums over thisaway winds up being what I’d call Bad Design, sometimes even Twinkie Denial choices.

I actually don’t mind slower, more tactical battles on the whole, but PvP and PvE scoring races mean slower battles tilt the scales ever so slightly more in the favor of established players or those who spend more money.  With the overall “rich get richer” system in place, it’s really not a game to play if you want to make steady progress.  It’s a game to play because the core puzzle combat design is really good, and the progress side is something you can ignore.

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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.)

Pros

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…

Cons

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.

Oddments

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.

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Some time ago, Psychochild mentioned his friend, Dave Toulouse, and his crazy awesome indie game development ways.  He runs a blog over at Over00, where he writes about his efforts.  I’ve been following them both on Twitter, and a couple of days ago, they announced Toulouse’s latest project, Bret Airborne, which he has written about a few times on his blog that I totally have been neglecting.  I’m so bad at keeping up lately.

Anyway, I gotta say… I like it.  A lot.  Like, enough to play it and write this post about it instead of working on my steampunk poker stuff like I probably should be doing.

Y’see, I’m a fan of Puzzle Quest.  And Puzzle Kingdoms.  And Puzzle Quest: Galactrix.  And Gyromancer.  And I’m a huge fan of Puzzle Pirates.  Muckbeast’s Tower of Elements is similarly sweet.  I’m a gamer, have been for decades, but I never did pick up the attitude that “match 3” or other simple puzzle games are unworthy of attention.  I like puzzle games, and though they may be “light” gaming fare most of the time, that’s not a bad thing.  I also happen to love RPGs, so splicing in some RPG DNA into puzzle games is a Good Idea in my eyes.

Bret Airborne is definitely a mutation of the Puzzle Quest school of design.  This is an expression of praise, at least as far as I’m concerned.  It uses some of  the standard match 3 game design elements, with swapping items, new pieces dropping in from above, that sort of thing.  It is basically PvP puzzling, like Puzzle Quest is, complete with special attacks (using energy from matches you’ve made) that you can use to make the experience a bit more strategic.  It’s pretty simple to understand, and the learning curve is kind.

BretAirborne

It builds on the Puzzle Quest design in a few important ways (that I’ve seen, there may be others), though.  First, the playing field is split between the two players, though it’s still technically a shared space.  If you get matches of 4 at a time or more, you can push your zone of control of the shared space into the opponent’s territory (that bar in the middle scoots over, opening up a new column to control), messing up their plans or using their resources.  At first, I thought this was too constraining and potentially too swingy, but it actually plays very nicely.  I thought the scoot was persistent, silly me.  It actually resets at the beginning of each player’s turn.  It certainly penalizes bad luck and bad defensive play, but it just feels right, like my own play is more important than luck.  This is a Good Thing.

Second, and I can’t emphasize how much this made me happy, you’re not constrained to making moves that create matches.  You can make a move that sets things up for the future, though if you don’t make a match, the opponent gets a boost to their zone of control on their next turn.  I have always loved Bilging in Puzzle Pirates for exactly this, the ability to shuffle things around without the necessity of matching every time you make a move.  In that game, you do take a scoring penalty, but if you play smart, you can set up big combos that more than make up for the penalty.  This freedom is a beautiful thing, and it’s awesome to see it in Bret Airborne.  This also means the board will never reset itself if it gets into a locked position, which again facilitates planning over randomness.  This is a subtle thing, perhaps, but it’s something that makes the game a joy to play for me, rather than the frustration that the persnickity prototypical Bejeweled clones tend to offer.

It also has a few of what I call “quality of life” improvements.  One that made me smile was that matching two sets of three in an L or T shape doesn’t just register as two threes, it registers as five at a time matched, with the concurrent zone increase bonus.  Again, it’s a subtle thing, but it really helps me enjoy the game.  No longer do I have to choose to match a four in a row (to get the zone bonus and extra move) and leave a bit of clutter with that fifth piece as the odd man out.  If the gems are in the right formation, I can play with an eye to keeping the board cleaner, which enables further tricks down the road and still get the bonus for matching more than the baseline three.  Maybe this is “easy mode” to purists, but I love it.  The suite of tricks that you can learn to make combat more interesting are excellent, too.  There isn’t quite the array of abilities that Puzzle Quest has, but then, it doesn’t have the class system, either, so it’s nice and flexible.  One other, simple thing… it lets me click over to my second monitor without freaking out, crashing or nuking my computer.  No Alt-Tab necessary.  This is a little thing, but I love it.  It’s like Star Trek Online in that regard… and it’s something that WoW, in all its pomp, still fails at sometimes.  (Alt-Tabbing out of it crashes the game half the time for me.  It’s a jealous game.)  Bret Airborne runs in full screen mode nicely on one monitor while I do my thing on the other, like writing this post, and it doesn’t try to wreck my workflow.  It’s a genial game.  Again, simple quality of life improvement, and it’s a shame I have to mention it as an aberration, but I appreciate it.

Oh, and it’s Steampunk themed.  This also makes me smile.  The art is fairly simple, but it’s clean, readable and stylistic.  It won’t compete with Bioshock Infinite (since y’know, that’s important or something), and there are some things I’d do differently (I’m an artist, after all), but that’s just me nitpicking.  The play’s the thing, and Bret Airborne is simply a joy to play.  Maybe it’s a little “plain Jane” to look at, but it’s a beauty in action.

Go get the demo.  Play it.  Buy it.  It’s worth it.  I’ve been picky with what games I buy lately, mostly because I don’t have time to play, but this is one that I’m happy to have found.  I recommend it highly.

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After a bit of research and tinkering with the demo for the PC version of the game, I went ahead and purchased Puzzle Quest Galactrix for the DS.  It’s suffered a bit from mixed reviews, but I find it to be a great game, a worthy sister title to Puzzle Quest Challenge of the Warlords.

That’s not to say that it’s perfect.  It’s just considerably better than the detractors would have you believe, and I heartily recommend it to anyone with any interest in puzzle games.  The RPG elements aren’t anything huge to write home about, but the core gameplay and Privateer flavor add up to a great way to spend some time.

*This clocks in at over 3500 words, perhaps because I’ve written it over several days, so I’m using the More tag here to hide the wall of text*

(more…)

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I loved Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords.  I’ve been looking forward to its “sequel”, Puzzle Quest: Galactrix.  Tobold wrote about it a bit ago, and I’ve been reading other reviews.  I’ve noticed a few interesting things that pop up pretty consistently regarding luck vs. skill, and the class system in PQ:Warlords vs. the lack of one in PQ:Galactrix.  Since I also write about MMOs, it’s probably not too hard to see how these might apply.  The post title might be a bit more obscure, but remember that I consider games to be all about choice, and MMOs to be perhaps the best genre to explore certain choices.  (This is a bit sprawling, weighing in at over 2400 words, so I’ve amputated it a bit here with a link.  I’m still toying with finding the sweet spot for doing that.) (more…)

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