Puzzle Chronicles (XBLA): Hands On

Ed's note: this was originally meant to be a review of the full version, but there were some technical issues that just wouldn't work themselves out. Please bear in mind that this hands-on was done using the TRIAL VERSION, not the full version. We'd be happy to concede that it's within the realm of possibility that things might be slightly better in the complete game. Maybe.

Puzzle Quest's combination of killer match-3 (Bejewelled-style) puzzle action and RPG gameplay rocked the world. Despite it's low budget it looked good, worked well (not so well on PSP, it could be argued) and deserved both the critical acclaim and sales success that it attracted.

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The sequel (Galactrix), taking the basic gameplay and spicing it up a bit, wasn't as well received (rating in the mid-70's compared with the mid-80's of the original). Not keen to leave the puzzle-RPG genre hybrid they created behind, Infinite Interactive are at it again with Puzzle Chronicles.

This time around, the match-3 gameplay has largely been pushed aside in favor of a new derivative, which is enough of a departure to no longer be lumped in with Bejewelled or its clones. Otherwise, the metagame concept (battle enemies via the puzzle system to advance the story, level up and unlock loot) is still pretty similar.

The puzzle game itself is now a head-to-head system where players place sideways-falling gems on a grid which is separated by an arbitrary line that itself starts in the middle of the grid. The goal of the game is to move this line towards your enemy, increasing the size of your grid whilst reducing the size of your enemy's. In doing so, you'll also capture any gems that are moved to your side of the grid by moving the line - a core strategy and something to always keep in mind when placing gems on your own side.

Matching like-coloured gems is important but doing so alone will not result in any gems being cleared from the game. In order to actually clear gems, you need to use special star-shaped gems which will clear any of their own colour that they touch. Then there are special gems, most notably the skull-shaped gems, which are used to actually attack your enemy (moving the bar in their direction). The destruction of your enemy will be your primary objective most of the time.

There are loads of other nuances to the gameplay, with special abilities, multipliers and many other twists and turns to keep things interesting. It's easy to figure out how to play but sometimes (especially early on) it's not clear exactly what's going on, particularly if you fight a high level enemy but even in the normal battles you'll occasionally be surprised by what happens.

The meta-game (where you move around on the map, advance the story, etc) is, well, a huge step backwards. The rather standard implementation seen in the original Puzzle Quest seems like the most refined and polished metagame ever seen in comparison to what's on display here. Selecting where you want to go is cumbersome and then you have to watch your little 3D dude walk between where you were and where you are going which can take a fair while (okay, a few seconds, but they're a very boring few seconds) in later levels.

Graphically? Well. It's hard to come up with a superlative that is sufficiently grandiose to accurately sum it up - the one that springs immediately to mind is "woeful". The graphics (the 2D stuff, at least) simply must rate up there with some of the worst ever seen in a commercial videogame. Even when times were simpler, download limits mattered and the pixel density of your average monitor could be counted on one hand, artists could do things with those sprites that gave them a personality. It seems, then, that Infinite Interactive don't actually employ an artist and the graphics in the game were generated by a school kid in remedial drawing. Yeah, it's horrible looking. The little 3D chaps you see in the battle sequences, while quite average in reality, look utterly incredible compared to the rest of the game.

The sound... it's a bit rough to start two paragraphs chastising a struggling developer so let's instead begin by talking about the music. While not doing anything spectacular, it catches the mood well and genuinely suits the setting and pace of the gameplay. It's nice and won't offend people should you leave the title paused to, say, gouge your eyes out with a fork. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for the voice acting which is, in a word, laughable. Still, with a dog turd of a script bringing to life a terrible story such as this, you can't really blame them. Well, not as much, anyway.

So, should you buy the full version? In short, I wouldn't. Using more letters, NoooooOOooOoOO. The core gameplay is solid but it's nowhere near spectacular enough to justify putting up with those horrible graphics. What we need is for someone to take this gameplay and dress it up with a usable interface and visuals generated by someone who can see. Then we'd have something worth talking about. Until then, save your points for something else.

+ Actual gameplay not too shabby
- No thought for the cosmetically minded
"From Puzzle Quest to this!?"
- Puzzle Chronicles
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