A few years ago I bought Puzzle Quest on the Xbox 360. This was a terrible idea. If you’ve ever played Puzzle Quest, you know it isn’t a fast-paced game. It’s essentially a match three gems game, but with a layer of RPG combat stacked on top. Given that each match is your only action, it’s advantageous to pick the best move available because at any point, one switch can randomly bring down all sorts of gems that will allow your opponent to destroy you in the most infuriatingly doesn’t-seem-all-that-random sort of way.
So each turn you spend time just staring at the gem grid, trying to find a match that will get you an extra turn or maximize your damage dealt or mana intake. It really is a horrible game to dedicate your television and time on. Especially because the music is terrible. After a few late evenings in the dark, I abandoned it.
A few years later, though, I picked it up on the PC. This is really where the game shines. You can just sit on the couch with your laptop and pluck away at the game as you watch a marathon of Farscape. It’s a game that requires a lot of time and attention, but doesn’t provide enough response to justify playing the game as your sole activity.
I have concluded my time with the game–the final boss is designed in such a way to be almost impossible to beat by the character I had created–but I remember the game fondly. So fondly actually, I’ve sort of chased the experience. Looking for the next game that provides a nice balance of puzzle, strategy, and RPG, but also something that fulfills my embarrassingly all too necessary need to fiddle with something while I watch TV.
With the acquisition of an iPod touch, I thought the app store would be my oyster. What I’ve found was — rather than a plethora of puzzle games that merge puzzle, role playing, and strategy elements — a slew of puzzle games that reward speed rather than strategy, and that use character improvement as the sole impediment of progression. These games’ inclusion of matching speed as a game mechanic unfortunately overrides all other mechanics, reducing each game to a variation on a fast fingers matcher.
I’d like to then start off with the obvious big RPG puzzler in the app store, 10000000000000, take or leave a few zeros. This game totes itself as a RPG puzzler: it does indeed involve matching, and includes thing you see in RPGs, like dungeons, skeletons, dragons, swords, magic, keys and unfulfilling conclusions. But it does lack essentials like RPG mechanics or any sort of thoughtful play whatsoever.
10000000 is a game about quickly making matches via a set of horizontal and vertical sliding tiles. You match tiles to collect resources, to gather keys to unlock doors and chests, and deal damage to monsters. There is a time element to each round as you press forward through the dungeon, and each door/chest you unlock or monster you fight eats away at your time. Doing certain things increases your time, but eventually the round ends when you run out of time. The ongoing goal of the game is to get resources and money to improve your character so that you can travel further into the dungeon, because as you progress in the dungeon the more points you receive for killing and unlocking items. The ultimate goal is to get 10000000 points. Once that’s achieved, you escape the dungeon and win. Yay.
The ways you improve your character, however, are fairly unimportant. You’ll be able to buy all the upgrades eventually, and they only serve to create an artificial difficulty curve. Essentially, the gameplay never changes; you just improve your character so that your rate of damage output and protection allows for later parts of the dungeon playable. And so we are left with the matching, which while there is some strategy involved, a very very effective strategy is to just stop thinking and just match fast.
Ideally, you should match certain tiles when faced with certain obstacles. Attack tiles for monsters, keys for doors, resources when just running. However, a strategy of simply matching as fast as you can serves you just as well as looking for specific tiles. The two seconds you spend looking for a 4 tile match of swords could have been spent making several matches that produce subsequent matches in turn by falling replacement tiles. While 10000000 functions as a mildly entertaining diversion, the gameplay comes down to pattern recognition. The timed gameplay deemphasizes all the hybrid elements of the game and rewards a mechanical play style over strategy or consideration.
Another game that I had high hopes for was Puzzle Saga. From the preview images it looks like Might and Magic: Clash of Heroes a great RPG Puzzle game. In Clash of Heroes, you have a grid of your troops at the bottom of the screen who face off against enemy troops at the top of the screen. To attack, you match troop types. The opposing troops behave in the same way. There are various benefits for matching in certain ways, as well as different kinds of troops that introduce new strategies for varied encounters. From Puzzle Saga’s layout it’s clear that it’s a super-dee-duper rip-off. Unfortunately, they have enough integrity to not duplicate the game entirely, and what the designers decided to change was the methodical pace of the original.
In Puzzle Saga, you still have troops in a grid and you match them to attack; unlike in Clash of Heroes, though, the enemies just attack. They don’t match: they appear and start shooting. Effectively, taking time to plan moves has a high cost. While I can see this as a way to balance strategy and decisiveness, as I progressed in the game and the difficulty increased, I found the best strategy to survive was to not plan at all, but to match as fast as I could. You can improve your characters as well, but the improvements do not have options. The upgrades again only serve to create an arbitrary difficulty curve (no matter your strategy or matching speed, you could not survive higher difficulties) and to force you to grind lower levels over and over again to acquire enough cash to purchase the upgrades.
Mobile games are the perfect environment for puzzle games that involve strategy and RPG elements. You can quickly pull up a game while you’re waiting for the bus, or watching an epic all of the Star Trek marathon, but many of the games that I’ve come across sacrifice the elements they are trying to fuse by including speed as a driving force in their gameplay. This functionally removes both strategy and RPGness and creates a bejeweled game with a medieval tile set. I don’t mind that these games exist, but they seem like they are compensating for their lack of game mechanic design by forcing players to act fast. When you are worrying about obtaining your next match, you can’t consider the implications of your next move, which is good, because if you did, then you’d realize these games don’t offer much in the way of their hybrid elements. Puzzle games that require fast matching and little else are represented in large numbers; as well, games that require you to think about actions don’t need to be $50 board games.