Match three games have been around for ages - popularized (if not invented) by Popcap, who extended the Columns formula and all but invented the casual gaming genre. It wasn't until the seminal Puzzle Quest that someone managed to successfully combine RPG gameplay with matching gems, creating an experience that transcended the simple puzzle activity of the original and opened up the gameplay mechanic to those that might otherwise be scared away by the "casual" moniker.
Since Puzzle Quest, there have been numerous attempts to combine puzzle and meta RPG / adventure gameplay, with what can only be described as mixed success. Inifinite Interactive's own followup to their original Puzzle Quest, Galactrix, was itself met with mixed reviews. If even they couldn't revisit the magic of the original, what hope do others have?
Enter Square Enix and Popcap. Two of the biggest names in game development, Square Enix bring their RPG experience (there's arguably no more experienced RPG developer in the world) to Popcap's Bejewelled gameplay genius. By their powers combined, do they have what it takes to secure the seemingly abandoned crown of puzzle RPG king?
On the surface, Gyromancer sounds both simple and incredibly similar to Puzzle Quest itself. Your goal is to travel the world performing quests by battling monsters via the mechanic of matching three gems at a time. It's only a minute or so in that you start to notice the significant differences to the core gameplay and after half an hour or so, it becomes apparent just how incredibly dissimilar they really are.
First up, the core mechanic has changed from the original "Bejewelled" style "swap a gem for an adjacent one" to "select a group of four gems and rotate them one place clockwise". This single change makes a big difference to how players need to approach a board full of gems. The second biggest gameplay change is that, unlike in Puzzle Quest or other multiplayer match three variants, the player doesn't alternate turns with their opposition; the player is in fact the only one that does the matching - your enemy's ability to defeat you is entirely determined by your actions. To explain how that works, we need to take a quick step backwards...
Players take control of an heroic adventurer on a quest to save his kingdom. Things have gone badly wrong, as they do, and someone needs to step up and return some semblance of normality to the world. This adventurer, however, doesn't do the actual battling - instead, like a good Pokemon master, he wields his collection of fantastical beasts (from a preselected party), each of which has its own set of attacks and abilities.
What these beasts also have is a predetermined gem type. Matching gems of your beast's type will grant them power to use their abilities, so gems of your type will be the default "best match" that players will look for most of the time. Each time you perform a twist (i.e. rotate a set of four gems), your enemy will gain power to use their abilities - unless your twist matches their colour, in which case they will be blocked from gaining power with that twist. This makes a blocking twist the second most important type of move a player will typically be looking to perform.
Matching other colour gems is also important - if a player is able to keep a chain going (i.e. keep eliminating gems with successive matches every twist), when they eventually match their own coloured gems or perform some other action, its effect will be magnified by the current combo level.
Many of the abilities (either yours or those wielded by your enemies) are direct-damage, meaning that when you fill the power bar, a certain amount of damage is inflicted on your foe. There are numerous other types of ability as well, which can initially be a little confusing as to exactly what's happening (abilities aren't explained, for the most part) but eventually it becomes clear that figuring out what's going on in the playfield is a lot of the fun of the game. These abilities include stacking damage auras (you can use inventory items to remove these, if you have them) and turning gems into bombs that will damage you in a certain number of twists if you can't clear them in time.
The metagame is very similar to that found in Puzzle Quest, with a map interface that you can explore as you proceed to your objective or try to hunt down items that will improve the odds vs. the increasingly powerful enemy creatures you encounter. Unlike Puzzle Quest, however, the main map drills down into level maps, which are discrete sets of encounters which you'll need to clear without running out of beasts to fight for you or you'll be defeated and have to start over. These maps are quite large so it pays to keep your strategy in mind throughout lest you lose the war of attrition before you defeat the boss of the map and have to do it all over again. Fortunately you keep your earned experience so if you came close last time around, chances are good your (now higher level) party will be able to clear it out pretty easily the next time around.
As you progress through the game, you'll also come across codes that allow you to summon different beasts - ensuring your party is made up of strong, well balanced beasts is (much like a game of Pokemon) key to being able to tackle any encounter you may happen across.
Technically the title is also very impressive, with the level of polish and presentation prowess you'd expect of a Square Enix (but not Popcap) title. Epic music fills your ears with grand expectation as you set forth on your adventure. Cutscenes etc play out as static images but even that nod to download limitations doesn't significantly harm the feeling that you're really getting something for your buck (or in this case, virtual buck).
There's a lot more to it, too, which is why it can seem a little daunting to begin with; fortunately if you spend a decent amount of time with it you'll start to see the depth and versatility that such a vast array of features brings to the genre. The game is surprisingly deep, from the strategy employed when deciding on your party makeup through the path you take when exploring levels right to how you approach matching gems. It's fun, big and beautiful. A true successor to the Puzzle Quest throne and the new puzzle game RPG champion.