Combining match-three puzzle solving with a rich fantasy role-playing infrastructure was a stroke of genius that produced one of the most unique and compelling puzzle games in recent memory. I’m talking, of course, about Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords. Clearly created in Puzzle Quest‘s image, Puzzle Hero is a much-simplified romp by comparison, whose goal seems to be to dumb down the Puzzle Quest formula for those who may have found the game’s Dungeons & Dragons-style game mechanics intimidating.
Unlike Puzzle Quest, where you were free to roam a world map and complete quests in any order you chose, Puzzle Hero is a completely linear experience. You progress from Point A to Point B along a pre-set path as your warrior-girl main character embarks on a quest to save her brother from the clutches of an evil ghost king. Along the way she’ll have to battle countless monsters, and each battle plays out on a match-three board.
During a battle, each side takes turns making a match on the board. Matching three or more swords launches an attack that drains some of your opponent’s health points, but the monster can do the same to you. The battle ends when one side’s health points reach zero. You can also match potions to heal yourself, and shields and minotaur heads for super-shield and super-attack power-ups, as well as laurel crowns to accumulate more experience points for levelling up your character, and coins that can be spent in towns to buy more powerful equipment weapons and armor.
If you’ve played Puzzle Quest, the format is familiar – right down the game granting you an extra turn if you match more than three, or losing a turn if you make an illegal move (i.e. a move that doesn’t result in a match). One thing missing, however, is the symbols that represent different types of mana – the substance used for casting spells. The spells system in Puzzle Hero is much simpler: buying and equipping certain magical items will grant you the ability to cast spells like fire, ice and poison, and to do so you must refill a general mana pool by matching wizard’s hat symbols on the game board.
During the adventure you’ll face more than 50 different types of monster, which are varied and often whimsical in their design – this is one of the game’s strong suits. Another nice feature is that you have the ability to customize your character’s appearance, and any equipment you buy will actually show up on her avatar as she walks and fights.
Besides the 65 levels and 9 towns of the game’s story mode, there’s also an Arena where you can go head-to-head against any of the monsters you’ve unlocked so far in story mode.
Puzzle Hero isn’t a bad game, but compared to Puzzle Quest – and it’s impossible not to do so given the fact that the two games have almost identical concepts – Puzzle Hero can’t help coming off as shallow. The hackneyed story, presented as a disappointingly bland series of colorless story panels, doesn’t help, and quite simply, a lot less is asked of the player in terms of brainpower. Strategy doesn’t really get more sophisticated as the game progresses beyond the fact that enemies have more health points to chip away at.
If Puzzle Hero is your first experience with this type of game – one that combines match-three with role-playing elements – then you’ll probably think it’s the bees knees. But Puzzle Quest veterans who are used to the more sophisticated and polished experience will likely find Puzzle Hero disappointing by comparison.