FreeCell Quest

It’s a habit that’s become as regular as clockwork: There’s a Steam sale. I buy some cheap stuff. Among the cheap stuff is some kind of Puzzle Quest imitation, which eats at least a day of my life. Even if it’s not particularly good, even if I have other games I’d rather be trying out in my limited time off, I wind up compulsively just-one-more-leveling to the exclusion of all other activities for a while. The one difference this time around is that I didn’t actually buy FreeCell Quest in the sale; it was in a Humble Bundle earlier in the month.

FreeCell, for all that it’s a form of solitaire, is at heart a puzzle game, and FreeCell Quest is a collection of intentionally designed FreeCell puzzles. The quest aspect adds context and flavor to that base, but skimps on story. You get a fantasy map to walk around on conquering cities by playing FreeCell at them, and that’s pretty much it for plot. The game says you’re “liberating” the cities from some evil force rather than conquering them, but in the absence of any information at all about the enemy, I’m taking that as a euphemism. As it is, all you every see of each town, fort, monastery, or other point of interest is a game of FreeCell, and in some cases a shop menu for buying upgrades.

Mechanically, though, it turns out to be one of the more satisfying entries in the Puzzle Quest-imitation genre. It actually goes to the effort of making the puzzles meaningfully different, for one thing. Each location has stats you can view on the map: how many columns, how many cards (from half a deck up to two decks shuffled together), how difficult the shuffle (which seems to have to do with whether the kings or the aces are in front). We quickly notice that these correlate with the location’s type: villages are wide, forts have difficult shuffles, etc. The number of cards simply increases across the board as you get farther from your initial location. It’s very easy to see these qualities as abstractions of the locations’ physical properties. That’s the kind of reading-into that I like to see in these games.

Battles are asymmetrical. The player’s stats are hit points and mana, which increase as you level up from winning battles, and defense, which increases as you buy better equipment with money from winning battles. The enemy doesn’t have hit points; you win a battle simply by sorting all the cards onto the foundations. Every once in a while in real time, the enemy attacks you by casting a spell from one of the cards that currently can’t be moved; if you can free the card before the spell is fully cast, the attack is canceled. You can cast spells as well. The cheapest spell, costing a mere 1 mana, is the Undo spell, which lets you take back a move. At first, I thought of this spell as theoretically useless: sure, it’s handy when you make a mistake, but an ideal player wouldn’t make mistakes. But it turns out to be very good for defense! Often, an attack will come from a card that’s buried under something you don’t really want to move, because the only place to move it to is an empty slot that you have other uses for. So what you do is, you move the cards to cancel the attack, then Undo. The attack remains canceled. There’s also a spell you can cast to just cancel any attack without moving any cards — this is, in fact, the spell I cast most frequently, because things are often trapped too deep for the Undo trick. But when you can pull it off, the Undo trick is significantly cheaper.

Most of your spells are about moving cards. For example, there’s a spell to move a card one spot forward in a column, a spell to rearrange an entire column at random, a spell to push kings all the way to the back. My favorite spell is one that plucks out a card that can be placed on a foundation from anywhere on the board, but it’s very expensive to cast. These are the sorts of spells I was wishing for in Runespell: Overture, ones that affect the mini-game layer instead of just the RPG layer. Their chief purpose in the game is to let you attack puzzles you’re not otherwise ready for by choosing to spend lots of mana instead of figuring out how to rearrange things manually. That’s important because of the way the game limits your access to cells.

Ordinarily, FreeCell gives you four cells that you can stash individual cards in. FreeCell Quest starts you off with only one, which means only the smallest and easiest puzzles are doable without the aid of spellcasting. Additional cells, to a maximum of six, must be earned through conquest. The game dresses this up in some additional complexity, but what it comes down to is that the number of cells you have correlates with the number of distinct locations you’ve beaten. As a result, cells are grindproof. You can always get more XP and money by replaying locations. Sometimes the game even forces you do to this, declaring that a town you’re passing through has fallen to the enemy and has to be re-liberated. But you only make progress towards a new cell when you beat something new. Cells are the most important upgrade there is, more powerful than health or mana, so that keeps driving you into new and more difficult territory, which forces you to take advantage of your spells to compensate for the cells you don’t have yet.

In short, there’s some good thought behind this game. Despite a day and a half of obsessive play, I haven’t beaten it yet — it’s pretty long. But I’ll probably keep coming back to it until I do.

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