Review: Marvel Puzzle Quest

By Owen Faraday 04 Oct 2013 3
Wait until you see Juggernaut. Hawkeye, we have to get that vein in your arm looked at.

I was excited when I heard Puzzle Quest was back -- a game that I'd happily bought several times on different platforms and replayed until I'd squeezed every drop of fun out it, then a little more. But the news of the match-3/RPG franchise's return was accompanied by dark rumors. Free-to-play. Limited energy system. Multiple in-game currencies.

I considered unloading the review on Kelsey or maybe setting it on Phil's new doorstep and lighting the bag on fire. But no. I love Puzzle Quest, and if somebody has to take it out back and shoot it, it's going to be me. A man's got to shoot his own dog, Kiss it and make it better. Earth's mightiest heroes... have an owie.[/caption]

That core Puzzle Quest model from years ago is still here in Marvel Puzzle Quest, but the developers have grafted parts from contemporary free-to-play card battlers onto that host. Your characters aren't the generic fantasy RPG heroes anymore, but the spandex-and-capes set from the comic book world of Marvel which you bring into battles three at a time.

There's a single-player campaign with some reasonably entertaining writing that introduces a plot line where Norman Osborn takes over SHIELD. The story ends quite abruptly but presumably there's episodic content en route that will fill it out. The real core of the game is "multiplayer" mode, which is actually just another flavor of single-player: you challenge other players' superhero teams, though it's the AI taking them out for jaunt on the other player's behalf.

New heroes are unlocked and existing heroes are leveled up through the acquisition of cards -- sorry -- covers of classic comics. In that weird idiom of Puzzle & Dragons-style card battlers, you have to feed duplicate heroes to your existing heroes to so they can increase in strength: feed Hawkeye another Hawkeye and he'll gain a new ability. Strange that the most popular game mechanic in the world right now is essentially taken from the playbook of third-world warlords. You can also just dump some of the game's premium currency into levelling characters up.

The funny thing is: it all pretty much works. The game is relatively liberal about doling out premium currency as a reward for winning battles, and the puzzles are actually better presented than in previous Puzzle Quest games. PQ has always struggled with presenting all of its information to the player: it must tell the player how much mana he has and what spells/abilities are at his disposal, as well as all that stuff for the opponent -- and above all leave ample room for the puzzle board itself. Not easy.

Hello, Eric. Unlike Star Trek Rivals, Marvel Puzzle Quest knows that part of the reason you're here is for the art, and makes the most of it.

Marvel Puzzle Quest eliminates the need for many menus by grafting a lot of the information right onto the game board. If you want to know how much purple mana you have, touch any purple gem -- a popup informs you how much juice you've got and which of your abilities use purple mana, and gives you the option to fire the spell right from there. It's elegant, though it does make the board harder to read at a glance.

So I'm as surprised as you are. Marvel Puzzle Quest -- against all odds -- actually makes free-to-play work. Mostly. It's still completely silly, of course. The game would be infinitely improved by just being a good old-fashioned pay-once game whose content you unlock through actually playing the game, but it's tolerable.

The biggest mistake here is a ridiculous energy system: if Iron Man takes damage in your battle against Dr Doom, he's out of action for 5 or 10 real-time minutes whilst he recovers. You get a few "get out of the ICU free" cards to use every couple of hours, but otherwise you need to spend currency or wait. It's dumb and it's greedy. It would be interesting, perhaps, if getting hurt in battles had an actual gameplay consequence (like not being able to use Iron Man again in this quest line) but it doesn't. It's simply a mechanism to generate revenue that reminds you that you're playing the front-end of a cash register and not a product designed primarily to entertain you.

There's tons of missed opportunities like this: decisions where making a good game fell prey to the overriding need to maximize commercial potential. Take the "multiplayer" modes -- these would be pretty interesting for competing with your friends, but the only thing it tracks are global leaderboards, which lack any sort of ranking system besides total number of victories. This means that the people at the top of the leaderboards will only ever be the obsessives that jack into the game Matrix-style and presumably pay a pretty penny for the privilege.

But as I said, the freemium aspects of the game aren't Marvel Puzzle Quest's biggest problem -- these largely fall away in the face of how compelling the core match-3 RPG offering is. No, the biggest problem is that Marvel Puzzle Quest feels weirdly under-baked and rushed.

The game's tutorial is a joke, and doesn't do half the job of explaining the game's dual currencies or levelling system. For all of the lovely licensed Marvel Comics art (most of which is, indeed, quite lovely), there are places where a little more would have gone a long way: there's only three different game environments, and Tony Stark's office is the exact same generic sci-fi control room backdrop that adorns the Fantastic Four's Baxter Building.

Or Galactrix, but hey. There's nowhere near as much single-player content here as there was in Puzzle Quest or Puzzle Quest 2.

Even some of the gameplay elements have a sort of built-on-Friday-afternoon "good enough" vibe. When playing a puzzle in the New York City stages, one of the environment effects is that you can match jewels to eat a hot dog, regaining some health. A hot dog.

Obviously, arguing for realism in a game like this is a one-way ticket to sharing a room in a sanitarium with a drooling chap who says he's Napoleon, but come on. Wolverine is about to shish-kebab the Juggernaut, and the Juggernaut puts up an armored hand and says, "Hang on for a second, will ya? I'm starving."

Marvel Puzzle Quest has me mesmerised much the way its predecessors did, but the thrill is gone in a lot of ways. I'll keep playing it for a while, I'm sure, but is it likely to engender the kind of loyalty that the first game did, where I went out of my way to buy it on multiple platforms and proselytise it to my friends? No.

Puzzle Quest was a game you played, Marvel Puzzle Quest is a game you play against. And that's a pity.

Review: Marvel Puzzle Quest

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