Like peanut butter and jelly, the Bejeweled-style puzzles and role-playing elements in Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords are a perfect match. The game smooshes these two flavors together, mingling their tastes into something unique and delicious. In a metaphor like this, the Nintendo DS is two slices of hard plastic bread, but don't focus on that.
Not everything is rosy, however. There's a dark secret hidden in the tiny plastic card living in my DS. It's time to bring the truth to light -- Puzzle Quest will stop at nothing to beat you.
Difficult games are one thing. It's okay for a game to be hard. Even though many people play games to relax or just "have fun," there's a large contingent that play games for the challenge of the experience. Games are a mental exercise first and foremost, and there's nothing wrong with a puzzle that can't immediately be solved.
Puzzle Quest isn't difficult in the meaning above, however. What Puzzle Quest does is intentionally manipulate the player into screwing themselves.
Here's how it works: During combat, players try to match three board pieces to collect their bonus. These pieces can be mana gems, experience, gold, or skulls that attack the opponent. Matching four or five gems gives you an additional turn, allowing the player to string a combination of board moves for maximum bonus. So if you can match more than three gems repeatedly, you can piece together an impressive turn. Once three gems have been matched, your turn is over. Simple enough.
But what if a match isn't immediately apparent? Some of us haven't spent years playing Bejeweled while procrastinating at work, so our minds aren't trained to find those elusive patterns. In this situation, the game will suggest a piece to move, indicating the match you should make. An arrow will appear beside the piece, as if the game is looking over your shoulder and telling you what options you have left.
DO NOT LISTEN TO THE GAME.
Making this match will almost always give the computer the chance to bend you over, stringing together massive combos that end with the computer opponent maxing their mana reserves while scoring 50+ points of damage on your (or in this case, my) fragile wizard body. And while you're staring at the screen watching the pieces magically fall into place for the AI, it's easy to imagine that your DS is smirking.
AI in this case stands for "Asshole Intelligence."
We've all accused a game of cheating. Racing games like Burnout are notorious for catching up computer-controlled racers near the end of a track, and RTS games like Starcraft have been known to let the AI build resources up faster than the player. FPS games will often let enemies hit the player from impossible positions on the higher difficulty levels. Situations like this are defended by the design philosophy stating that rules can be bent to provide a challenge for the player, and for the most part these are acceptable. After all, the game only has your best interests in its cold, digital heart.
Puzzle Quest doesn't care about your interests. It's not here to challenge you, to make you think. Puzzle Quest wants to stamp out the human race, four mana gems at a time. It whispers lovingly into your ear, inviting you to move that gold piece, promising power, glory, and, um, gold. It winks and smiles, as if to say, "Trust me. I wouldn't lead you astray. Put your faith in me and the world can be yours."
When you finally make your match, earning your measly four xp, its smile takes a menacing twist. Time seems to stop, and then the realization hits you: You're boned.
Don't let this knowledge stop you from playing what is otherwise an enjoyable experience. Puzzle Quest brings a level of depth and complexity to my DS that I haven't had since Age of Empires, and it's very easy to pick up and learn. Just don't be lured into thinking that everything is five by five between you and your DS. The machines are rising against us. It starts with the mana gems, and ends in human enslavement. Be vigilant.