Review: Puzzle Strike03 Feb 2016 0
David Sirlin makes interesting games. They might not be mainstream bestsellers but he manages to produce titles that seem simple on the surface but contain a depth of strategic options. He, and his company, are probably most known for the card-based fighting game Yomi but he also produces a unique hybrid deck-building/fighting game called Puzzle Strike which has just been released for iOS and Steam.
Puzzle Strike is set in Sirlin's Fantasy Strike gaming universe and uses the same characters that appear in all of his titles. Each of his games (Yomi, Flash Duel and Puzzle Strike) have tabletop, browser and, with the exception of Flash Duel, iOS versions. The company's previous iOS release, Yomi, did a very good job of recreating the tabletop version of the game on the tablet so it remains to see how well this new game translates from the tabletop to the iPad and iPhone.
Puzzle Strike has some of the same gameplay elements as Puzzle Fighter HD Remix (a title so obscure that it doesn't have a Wikipedia page — how does that happen?) and Puyo Puyo combined with a deck building theme and Sirlin's fondness for poker chips. The aim of Puzzle Strike is to 'crash' gems from your gem pool into an opponent's pool until they have ten or more. You do this by playing purple Crash Gems to send a gem to your opponent but also by using Combine chips to merge gems into larger baubles. Your opponent can react with their own Crash Gems to block your attacks unless you manage to merge four gems into a single unblockable gem.
Each player chooses a character (four are initially unlocked with an additional 16 to purchase) which has three unique power chips. In addition there is a bank of chips available to each player that you can purchase from each turn to add new abilities, attacks or defensive reactions. As with most deck-building games, one of the goals of Puzzle Strike is to build the most efficient 'engine' you can to combine your gems and send them to your opponents. Chips are all colour-coded (brown, red, blue and purple) corresponding to utility chips, attacks, defences and gem modifying chips. The game also has Wound chips that just fill your chip bag with dead chips that, for the most part, have no purpose.
Puzzle Strike can be played in one of two modes, either against up to three AI opponents or online against one or more human and AI opponents. As with the digital version of Yomi, you can play against AI opponents while waiting for a non-digital opponent to join the game. Puzzle Strike will create a random bank of chips for you or you can edit the bank to create your own unique set of chips or use one of the presets available. Puzzle Strike ships with the 48 chips available in the two tabletop versions of the game (the base game as well as the Shadows expansion) and the three promo chips available in the Puzzle Strike extras pack. The number of possible combinations of those chips is large enough that I had to search online to determine that there were 12, 777, 711, 870 permutations. I suspect that someone on BoardGameGeek already has a full list of them graded by game experience.
Each player starts with the same set of seven chips plus their three unique character chips all stored in a virtual bag. Players draw from five to eight chips at the end of their turn depending on how many gems are in their gem pile. The closer you are to losing, the more chips you can draw allowing you to skirt the edge of disaster but still find the tools required to get back into the game. As noted earlier, Puzzle Strike does not have a complex set of rules and it is easy to dismiss as a basic deck-building experience. This would likely be the case if it wasn't for the numerous interactions between the various chips, the character abilities and a player's decision making process regarding drawing and cycling your chips.
What chips to purchase each turn are informed not only by your character abilities and the chips present in the bank but also by your opponent's abilities. Using a chip like Really Annoying, which gives your opponent Wound chips, is usually a good idea unless your opponent is playing Jaina whose Burning Vigor chip can take those Wounds and use them to generate more actions in her turn. Puzzle Strike is one game that can provide depth of play as you advance as a player.
There is a lot of information that you need to know in order to make the most of the game and the app itself doesn't have access to any of it outside of an active game. You can't browse the chips or characters from inside the Puzzle Strike app on your phone or iPad. There is an extensive Guide available for the game as well as page that has images of all the chips in the game. The Fantasy Strike forums also have a useful forum thread that includes links to character guides written by forum members. It would have been useful to be able to easily browse some of this information from within the game.
In addition to the standard game mode, Puzzle Strike also offers Quests which offer you in-game Gems as reward for accomplishing tasks such as playing ten Red Fist attacks or crashing seven unblockable gems. There is also a Challenges puzzle mode that you can play to solve various… well puzzles. These are definite head-scratchers and not only are entertaining in their own right but also show you the higher level that Puzzle Strike can be played at.
Each completed puzzle earns you more of the aforementioned Gems and these are used to unlock a special Puzzle Smash mode which allows you to create even larger unblockable gems, increases the maximum size of the Gem pile and adds extra action arrows. This mode needs to be unlocked each time you play but Puzzle Strike adds new Quests on a daily basis so you always have the ability to earn new Gems if you want to play the Puzzle Smash mode.
As with Yomi, Puzzle Strike offers the ability to watch replays of your matches and even watch the lastest replay of other gamers in the Leaderboard. This is an excellent way to learn from other players but also to figure out your mistakes and learn from them. Sirlin Games makes products that are accessible to new and casual players but they do have a focus on competitive gamers and the Replay system caters to them. You can step through each play in a game, view your opponents chips and even read a log of each action in the game. If you want to improve your Puzzle Strike playing, then the Replay system provides you some very good tools to analyze your, and other player's, games. In order to do this you will have to create an account and log in when you play. If you want you can skip that entirely and just play as a Guest. Creating an account is very quick and it also gives you access to the forums on the Fantasy Strike website.
Puzzle Strike is a Universal app and, like Yomi, plays very well on even older hardware like the iPad 2. If you have a smaller iPhone like the 4s then you may have some issues playing the game. The controls in Puzzle Strike scale to match your screen resolution and so while the game runs very well on older iPhones you may have difficulty hitting the correct buttons or reading some of the smaller text. Several times while playing on my iPhone I mistaking selected the wrong option when presented with several buttons and once even bought the wrong chip.
The game is not going to win any awards for interface design, not that there is anything wrong with that, but it is functional and works well. Online play worked seamlessly on all the devices I played on (including my Mac) and once I linked my Steam account to my Fantasy Strike account I was able to use the same login on my iPad, iPhone, Mac and even the browser-based version of the game. The major problem with online play at the moment is that even with the early Steam release, there doesn't seem to be a lot of people playing the title online. This isn't a This is the story, of a lovely Sensei...[/caption]
When setting up AI opponents you can pick from any of the 20 available characters and the game's AI does a decent job of playing. Given the staggering number of possible combinations in the game though it is obvious that the AI is going to find chip combinations that give it difficulty. That said, I've found the AI opponents to be challenging and the ability to create four player games with AI opponents (or mixing and matching AI and human opponents) can let you create some interesting offline games. One minor issue I had with the AI games is that the app uses generic names for the AI opponents instead of using the names of the characters the AI is using.
Puzzle Strike also does a very good job of translating the tabletop experience to the tablet. While you don't get the, for me, deeply satisfying experience of rifling poker chips with your fingers while you play your real-world experience with the game will largely translate into the digital version. Like some tabletop conversions, Puzzle Strike on the tablet is easier to play in some respects as you have easy access to the chips in your bag and discard pile and can also easily see you opponent's discard piles as well.
Puzzle Strike has a few reoccurring visual issues with graphics popping on and off screen based on the data being retrieved from the server during online matches. Aside from that, the game is mostly bug free and once you get accustomed to the peculiarities of the interface it is easy to navigate through the game. There can often be a lot going on in the game and Puzzle Strike does a good job of putting that information front and centre so you can keep track of the game state.
I find it difficult to maintain a critical distance when reviewing Puzzle Strike. I am quite enamoured of the game in its tabletop version and this new tablet version scratches the same strategy game itch. I like games that you can apply yourself to and 'sweat' your strategy and tactics and Puzzle Strike, despite its shiny anime appearance, has that. Don't let the bright graphics and chibi characters fool you, there is a deep game waiting there for you to explore.
Puzzle Strike is also the closest that Sirlin Games has come, so far, to producing a casual game experience. Puzzle Strike gives you a few distinct characters and access to 20 possible opponents and it is still a challenging game even if you don't want to invest a time playing it or you want an interesting game to fill some free time. Puzzle Strike also balances that casual experience with a very deep game that rewards repeated play and exploration.
Additional characters can be purchased individually for $1.99 US and in bundles, $5.99 US for the remaining six Base game characters, $9.99 US for the Shadow expansion characters or $11.99 US for all 15 remaining characters. This IAP monetization puts the full price of the game on par with many AAA titles but if you want to dive fully into the game the additional characters add extensive replay value to the game.
This game was played on an iPad 2, iPhone 4s and Macbook Pro.