Archive for May, 2008

Puzzle Quest: UI

At its core, the way you interact with Puzzle Quest is identical to the way you interact with Bejewelled. On a PC with a mouse, this means that you have two ways of swapping gems: either click on the two gems that you want to swap, or hold and drag one gem in the direction of the thing you want to swap it with. Either of these two input methods suffices for any swap you can make, and indeed it took me a while to notice that two existed. I’ve been clicking rather than dragging, and only discovered the dragging version accidentally, when my hand joggled too far during a click — something that’s happened often enough that I wish I could turn the dragging off. It isn’t even just a harmless annoyance: when you accidentally enter an invalid swap — which is to say, one that doesn’t form a row of 3 or more — you lose 5 hit points and your turn ends. The hit points don’t hurt so much, but failing to act can be devastating.

The presentation, though, can and does go beyond that of Bejewelled, for the simple reason that there’s more to present. There’s a good deal of information on the screen — hit points, mana levels, spell names and costs — and even more available through tootips — both combatants’ skills, the effects of their equipment, descriptions of spell effects. Whenever any aspect of the game state changes, the change is indicated through glowy particle effects over the appropriate part of the display. This is a nice touch. I’m seldom watching the particle effects, since they occur at the exact moment that the board changes and I’m anxiously scanning it for exploitable patterns, but they register in a near-subliminal way.

Puzzle Quest: Spells

Combat in RPGs is always an abstraction. Even in a relatively concrete system like D&D, there’s a sense that the actions explicitly taken aren’t all that’s “really” going on: combat rounds are supposedly six seconds long, which is an awfully long time to make a single sword thrust. Combat in Puzzle Quest is of course a great deal more abstract than that, but it still makes me wonder how much can this be regarded as an abstract representation of combat.

It’s the spells that are really suggestive in this regard. I call them “spells” because the game does, but in a lot of cases “special attack” is more apt. For example, ogres have a “spell” called “Thump!” that simply does 10 points of damage. It’s not hard to imagine this as an action that the ogre performs, and the “red mana” that it needs in order to perform it as a matter of summoning up its strength.

Or consider the sandworm. The sandworm has a potent combination attack consisting of the spells Sinkhole, which doubles the target’s green mana while halving mana in all the other colors, and Swallow Whole, which is a direct damage spell that increases in strength with its target’s green mana (the color that Sinkhole just doubled). Now, the four colors of mana correspond to the four elements, with green being earth. So one can imagine how sinking into the ground would increase your access to earth magic while decreasing your access to any other kind. Swallow Whole is trickier to explain — does your contact with the earth enable the sandworm to swallow you more thoroughly or something?

The Haste spell is a particularly interesting case: While it lasts, it does 4 points of damage to the opponent whenever you get an extra turn. This isn’t at all what I’d expect a spell called Haste to do. I’d expect it to do something more like grant its caster extra turns. But there are other spells for that, such as Entangle and Petrify — things that emphasize immobility on the part of the opponent, not additional mobility on the part of the caster. What Haste does, though, is it gives the caster an extra motivation to take advantage of things that grant extra turns. So the end result is that casting Haste has haste as an indirect effect.

The most tactically interesting spells are the ones that alter things on the board. There’s a spell called Burn that turns all the green (earth) gems into red (fire), and another called Freeze that turns all the red gems into blue (water, the closest thing the game has to ice). Griffons have a spell called Soar that turns all the green and blue gems into yellow (air) — a pretty clear representation of moving the arena of combat away from the land and sea and into the sky. Spells like these, executed at the right time, immediately create multiple rows of 3 or more, which collapse and then cascade and probably yield extra turns.

Even more intriguing, though, are the spells that involve the board geometry, such as Besiege (a “spell” used by catapults, which destroys a random 3×3 section of the board and gets full effects for every gem in it), Call Lightning (destroy one column and get the full effects) and Charge! (destroy one selected row, get the full effects, and do 5 points of damage). These paradoxically work against any attempt at interpreting the action as an abstraction of combat by not being abstract enough. They’re over-literal, and rebuff any attempt to take them seriously. They’re also among my favorite spells in the game — Charge! in particular has all sorts of tactical uses.

Puzzle Quest: Investigations

Although it could probably get by on the novelty of its gameplay alone, Puzzle Quest actually does something a little interesting with the plot. The premise is uninspired — the peaceful cities suddenly come under attack by orcish slavers and undead, just like in about half the D&D campaigns ever devised. But rather than just go on an uninhibited slaughter spree into Mordor, the player character, recognizing that the orcs are taking captives at an unusually aggressive rate, goes and talks to them in their city in order to get more information. There are even quite a few side quests you can do on behalf of the “evil” races, such as killing various monsters for an ogre gourmand who’s gotta eat ’em all. Do enough of these quests and he joins your party to save time.

This isn’t to say that it’s Ultima VI-style “we’re all brothers under the skin/scales/chitinous plates” time here. Sometimes the enemy can’t be negotiated with, even if you try. One ogre chief, when asked “Is there really any need for war?”, memorably replies “Is there really any need for PEACE?” But overall, the monsters have been more helpful to me than my supposed allies, who have been stinting on aid even in the face of the return of ancient evils bent on taking over the world, preferring to sit back and watch me win the war singlehanded. They’re far enough from the real action to think it’ll never affect them. It’s the orcs and ogres and minotaurs who are already starting to live under the lash of something scarier than themselves and, in some cases, not liking it.

Diplomacy with monsters isn’t unheard of, of course, especially in RPGs. I think of Ultima Underworld, which has settlements of peaceful goblins and ghouls, or the peaceful resolution to the Triton quest in Quest for Glory V. But it’s unexpected here, where all the story is really required to provide is excuses for ever-escalating combat. Also, to get slightly political here, I’m slightly reminded of the immediate aftermath of 9/11. People are already forgetting this, but at the very beginning, there was actually some debate about whether the attacks should be treated as acts of war or as crimes. Terrorism, after all, usually falls under the purview of the police, and the clearest antecedent — the 1995 car bomb attack on the WTC — was handled by the NYPD and the FBI, not the armed forces. Now, in Puzzle Quest, you’re not dealing with terrorism, but unquestionable acts of military aggression by foreign powers. However, the PC largely treats it like a criminal investigation anyway, questioning witnesses in order to try to find the guy at the top, and cooperating with the local authorities when possible, even when the local authority is a dragon god or something. I’m not saying that the creators of Puzzle Quest have a political agenda here, but it’s a strange way to write a fantasy epic.

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