Puzzle Quest: Comparisons

I started off this whole series of posts by comparing Puzzle Quest to Bookworm Adventures, and I’m not the only one to make that comparison. It’s a pretty obvious comparison to make, since they’re two of the only representatives of the Puzzle/RPG Fusion genre. But now that I’ve experienced them both more fully, when I look at them side by side, BA seems little more than a proof-of-concept, while PQ is a full-fledged game, as complete and complex as any RPG on the market. I’m probably being a little unfair to BA because of its length, but even taking that into account, PQ has a more involved system of stats, provides more freedom of action on the main board, and gives you more options during combat — which is a little strange, because I’d call the underlying tile-matching mechanic weaker in that respect than BA‘s word-making. It seems to me that the main reason for this is PQ‘s decision to make both sides use the same board. BA had the computer opponent not act on the board at all — instead, it just hit at you and did damage. This meant that your actions on the board didn’t affect what the opponent could do, which put limits on the kinds of tactics that the game could support.

I also compared Puzzle Quest to strategy games such as Heroes of Might and Magic. It turns out that there’s a closer connection than I suspected: PQ officially takes place in the same campaign setting as the Warlords series (hence its subtitle, “Challenge of the Warlords”). I’ve played a couple of the Warlords games, long ago, but I’m basically not familiar enough with their trivia to recognize the names of its gods and kingdoms and so forth; apparently to a real Warlords fan, the connection would be obvious the moment the game said “Bartonia” or “Lord Bane”. Anyway, Warlords is basically the thing that Heroes of Might and Magic stole most of its ideas from, including the whole business of besieging cities, and running around to collect regularly-replenished resources. So now we have a direct reason for those elements to be present in PQ.

One final comparison. There is at least one blatant PQ imitation on the market: BattleJewels, a game written primarily for those few handheld platforms too geeky for PQ to run on (such as PalmOS and GP2X). Except that apparently it’s not an imitation: according to the developer, Stephen Bickham, it was in development for years before PQ was announced, and his real inspiration was Magic: the Gathering, so the massive similarity is just coincidental. Well, I’ve already noted how PQ has some M:tG-like aspects, so that part is believable. And there are some significant gameplay differences: BJ by default doesn’t refill empty slots, and it doesn’t have the whole campaign scenario and map treatment (being more geared towards PvP). To me, the campaign is a large part of the charm of the game, so I don’t feel compelled to plunge into BJ‘s context-free fights. In their basics, though, the two games are amazingly similar, even down to the choice of skulls for the damage tiles. But I’m not saying Bickham ripped off PQ, like many others have. For one thing, for all I know maybe PQ is the rip-off, and for another, there’s been such a general exhaustion of the possible variations on match-3 in recent years that it’s inevitable that some would be used more than once. Anyway, you can compare them for yourself, as both games have downloadable demos. PQ‘s has limited content, BJ‘s is nagware.

The Typing of the Dead: Getting Started

totd-struggleAnd while we’re talking about words as weapons, I really should bring this one out. One of the most absurdly-conceived educational games ever, The Typing of the Dead is a rail shooter — specifically, House of the Dead 2 — transformed into a typing tutor. Zombies stagger out labelled with words; typing the words damages them, with a gunshot sound accompanying each keystroke. The genius of this is that it naturally encourages touch-typing: you don’t dare look down at the keyboard when there are zombies shambling toward you, and there are as many in-game motivations to type quickly and accurately as there are to shoot quickly and accurately in the original game.

totd-keyboardThe most completely brilliant thing about it, though, is that this change in the world model carries through to the character models. Everyone who has a gun in House of the Dead 2 instead has a keyboard strapped to their chest, connected to a Sega Dreamcast on their back (even in the PC port). You don’t normally see your own shots being fired, but there are some cutscenes where you can see NPCs typing the zombies to pieces.

The fact that it was originally a Dreamcast game actually poses some problems for the modern PC gamer. Many console ports from that era use graphics with palettized texture maps, which is something that’s been dropped from recent graphics cards. So much for Direct3D backward-compatibility! Playing this game with my ATI card makes the game revert to software rendering, which is not just slow and low-res, it’s glitchy. Transparency in textures seems to just not work at all. I’ve solved the problem by reinstalling my previous graphics card, the nVidia one. I had given up on this card because of its inability to handle recent games well, but it seems to do alright with something this old. (Also, having inspected it again, I have some suspicion that its only problem was overheating due to parts of the heatsink being clogged with dust.) It looks like I may be doing a lot of card-swapping in the future, as the Stack contains games that are incompatible with either card. Or maybe I should just clear all the console ports of that generation from the Stack at once.

Anyway, even though it shares a basic conceit with Bookworm Adventures, it’s not really the same type of game at all. Bookworm Adventures is turn-based, and asks you to come up with the killing words on your own, thus rewarding people with large vocabularies (both in the sense of vocabularies containing many words and in the sense of vocabularies containing large words). The Typing of the Dead is all about reflexes, and always tells you exactly what you should type.

Bookworm Adventures: Finished

bwa-scoreboardBookworm Adventures is a pretty short game. It has three chapters (themed on Greek mythology, Arabian Nights stories, and classic horror — all it needs is a generic fantasy/fairy tale chapter and an African chapter and it would be the Quest for Glory series). I completed one chapter per session. I’m not sure how to feel about this. On the one hand, I’m not a fan of padding games out unnecessarily. This game demonstrates all of the special attributes monsters can have — attack side-effects, defensive powers, vulnerabilities to particular categories of word — and once the game is out of new tricks, it doesn’t overstay its welcome. On the other hand, padding things out is largely what RPGs do. It somehow seems wrong to keep it short.

It may have been designed this way because PopCap is more comfortable with the casual stuff, and regarded Adventure mode as a mere introduction to the real meat of the game, Arena mode, which is unlocked when you finish the plot. In Arena mode, you challenge the various boss monsters again, starting over at experience level 1, but with all of the game’s magic items available. There are changes in how you acquire potions and how experience points are earned, but the main difference is that Arena mode is realtime. So much for sedate gameplay and falling asleep mid-battle. I don’t really care for Arena mode: much of the pleasure in Adventure mode came from searching for the very best word that the available tiles could make, and you just don’t have time for that when the enemy is killing you whether you play or not. Instead, you have to play whatever mediocre words you can find quickly. It’s probably more interesting to watch than Adventure mode, though, in which (as I played it, at least) the player spends a lot of time just staring at the screen without doing anything.

Bookwork Adventures: Sleepy

Two nights now, I have played Bookworm Adventures. And two nights have I fallen asleep playing it.

That’s sort of a double-edged thing to say. If it were a movie or a play, to say “I fell asleep” would be to call it boring. But in games, there’s the “I kept playing until I dropped from exhaustion” option. And honestly, it was a little of both in this case. If it were genuinely boring, I wouldn’t have kept playing even as I began to nod off. But it’s hardly exciting, either. It’s sedate. The background music is as comfortable and child-friendly as a lullaby, and the character animation consists mostly of things rocking gently in place. Aside from some optional time-limited minigames you can play for extra potions and gem tiles, it’s completely turn-based. And, since knowing what happened on previous turns doesn’t really help you much, you can actually doze off repeatedly during play without your performance suffering much.

Still, my mental state meant that I didn’t really process the plot at the beginning of chapter 2, when my first session ended. When I came back to the game the next day, I had no idea who the player character was talking to or how they met. The story element in this game is pretty light, though, and doesn’t affect player decisions at all; mainly it’s just a series of excuses to put you through different monster themes. Which is not to say that it’s bad — the whole thing was written by Stephen Bob the Angry Flower Notley, and is full of his sense of humor. It’s more G-rated than Bob, and I’d almost say it’s less gratuitously absurdist, but then I remember that it’s a story about a worm in spectacles who fights legendary monsters inside books.

Bookworm Adventures

bwa-fightA long time ago, in the heyday of Ultima, I had an idea. I felt that the combat tactics of the CRPGs of the day were generally shallow and uninteresting, and should be replaced by something else. Like, say, chess. Combat mode was generally a distinct mini-game anyway, not sharing any mechanics with the exploration/NPC-interaction mode. It wouldn’t be standard chess, of course — different enemies would have different sets of pieces (including nonstandard ones whose movement rules the player might have to figure out from observation), there would be magic items that gave pieces special powers, and so on.

I never implemented this idea, mainly because writing a program that could play chess decently under the kinds of varying condition that it demanded was beyond my abilities. But the core idea isn’t really about chess specifically, it’s about replacing the D&D-inspired combat simulation at the core of most RPGs with something completely different — maybe even something that doesn’t even try to resemble a combat simulation — while leaving the RPG superstructure intact.

There have been a few recent games that play with this idea. PopCap’s Bookworm Adventures looks like the shortest and simplest of them. In fact, it’s simple enough that it barely has that RPG superstructure: it has experience levels and equipment slots, but no exploration, no choosing your battles or when you’re ready for them. You go through a linear series of levels, each of which consists of a set series of combat encounters ending in a boss. The only reason you’d ever repeat an encounter is because you died — and since dying just sends you back to the beginning of the level with one less healing potion and doesn’t affect your XP, I can imagine someone deliberately dying just to gain experience levels faster.

Within each encounter, you trade blows with a monster by making words out of a set of 16 tiles. In the simplest case, each tile you use does 1, 2, or 3 hit points of damage, depending on the letter, and once used, they’re replaced with random new tiles. The tiles are arranged onscreen in a 4×4 grid, but the arrangement is basically irrelevant, and you can think of it as an oversized Scrabble hand. And, indeed, some of the thought processes involved are similar to those in Scrabble. You don’t want a hand full of difficult letters, but you also don’t want to waste your turns making low-scoring words just to get rid of them.

There are complications. Long words are rewarded with special “gem tiles” that provide damage multipliers and other special effects when played (like weakening the enemy’s attacks, or causing it to skip a turn), so there’s an element of resource-management in deciding when to use them. You can also get gem tiles for overkill on your final blow against an enemy, so there’s some motivation to use damage multipliers just in the hope of getting a stronger damage multiplier.

Bookworm Adventures is of course based on Bookworm, which is more the sort of casual game that PopCap is known for. I played Bookworm some when it came out, and felt the same way about it that I feel about most PopCap games: it was amusing enough while I played the demo, but I didn’t feel compelled to register it. The central mechanics in Bookworm and Bookworm Adventures aren’t quite the same — the arrangement of tiles is actually significant in Bookworm, which means you spend a lot of time trying to set up high-scoring words by clearing tiles that are in the way. But even taking that into account, I think it’s interesting how different the Bookworm Adventures experience is simply as a result of the motivations. I’ve never cared much about high scores, 1Perfect scores, now, that’s something else. That’s a challenge to be met. But trying to beat your old record is just an activity. but completing quests, defeating bosses, and collecting magic items that give me special powers? These are things I can get into.

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1. Perfect scores, now, that’s something else. That’s a challenge to be met. But trying to beat your old record is just an activity.