Loot Hunter

The nondescriptively-titled Loot Hunter is a pirate-themed game in the genre that I’d call “puzzle-quest-like” if that weren’t so ambiguous. It’s ambiguous because Puzzle Quest was two-layered, an RPG wrapped around a match-3, and you can generalize that into either “RPG wrapped around an arbitrary minigame”, as in Runespell: Overture, or “arbitrary overgame wrapped around a match-3”, as in Hunie Pop. Loot Hunter is basically the latter, although the overgame is pretty RPG-ish in every way but presentation.

In presentation, it’s Grand Theft Galleon. Your ship freely roams a map of an archipelago, trading goods from port to port, doing optional quests, hunting for buried treasure, and attacking other ships for their booty. The game’s intro text makes it sound like you’ll have to choose between the path of the honest trader or that of the freebooter, but in fact there’s very little motivation to refrain from pursuing every path at once. Even if you’re just doing quests, the British can give you quests to attack French or Spanish vessels and vice versa. The three-sided faction system reminds me a little of GTA2, but only a little.

The main reason I’m singling this game out for a blog post is that it’s a very clear demonstration of something I’ve observed before: if you stuff a match-3 into an overgame, I will be unable to stop playing it, even after it stops being fun.

To be clear, it does start off fun. It starts off by giving you a bunch of things to explore! There’s a terrain exploration element, with most of the map shrouded by clouds until you sail them off. There are special ship-to-ship combat skills, essentially spells, to acquire and upgrade. There’s a series of increasingly large and expensive ships to buy, and items you can install in them for bonuses. And of course there’s the matter of figuring out the best tactics in match-3 ship-to-ship combat. The thing is, none of this lasts. It doesn’t take long to explore the full extents of the map, and once you’ve done that, there’s no more exploration. It doesn’t take long after that to max out your spells. Once that’s done, there’s nothing stopping you from discovering the optimal tactics, which you don’t have to vary ever.

Well, that’s not quite true. Sometimes you’ll be attacked by a ship that’s simply too powerful for you — say, if they have enough cannons to take you down in three volleys or fewer — in which case your tactics should shift to rapidly acquiring enough mana to cast the “escape from combat” spell. But in all other cases, including cases where the enemy outguns you only a little, you can treat all encounters the same, because they basically are. There’s none of the variability in rules or abilities or obstacles or even just board shape that I expect of a good match-3; the only differences between ships are differences in power. Even when the game describes an encounter as being with a group of ships instead of only one, it’s treated like just one larger ship in combat.

Once you’re that far, the game is really significantly reduced, and you’ve still got hours before you can afford the biggest of ships. And yet I wound up playing long enough to do that, and a little while longer besides. At this point, I’m not really getting anything out of the experience, apart perhaps from the opportunity to listen to it — the music is really lovely, varying from Jolly Little Nautical Tune to Stirring Adventure Music to Dark Orchestral Menace, and the sound of splintering wood from the cannons is really well-done. The game doesn’t seem to strictly have an ending, but there’s one more goal — maxing out your social status — that’s so close that I may well wind up playing to that. After that, there are some Achievements that are basically only achievable by playing for a very long time after the game has been rendered completely trivial and devoid of further goals.

The lack of a definite ending may be the game’s biggest design problem. An ending provides a basis for balance: ideally, in a game based around leveling and upgrades, everything the player is doing should reach its peak at around the game’s end, which is to say, at around the same time. Lacking anything like this to tether the game’s systems to, different parts of Loot Hunter have their endings at wildly different times.

Runespell: Overture

I suppose that by now the description “like Puzzle Quest, but with X” is an entire genre. Runespell: Overture is like Puzzle Quest, but with a card game based on building poker hands. The basic mechanics are as follows: You and an opponent take turns, performing a default of three actions each turn. Most of these actions will be spent rearranging cards, either stacking face-up cards from your side of the playfield or stealing unstacked ones from your opponent’s side (both gaining them for your own use and preventing the opponent from using them). When any of your stacks contains five cards, you can use it to attack the enemy. Better poker hands do more damage: a pair does 8 hit points, while a five-of-a-kind does 20.

Mind you, the fact that it’s a fantasy-themed game using standard playing cards has me wondering if it reminds me more of Faerie Solitaire than of Puzzle Quest. It all comes down to depth. Puzzle Quest provided the possibility of pursuing various different strategies, and gave us enemies with different attributes that required different approaches. Faerie Solitaire remained pretty much the same throughout.

I haven’t got very far in Runespell yet, but so far, it looks like it’s somewhere between those two cases. As in PQ, there are spells, things that you can spend your actions on that take the tactics of combat outside of the card game, or that enemies can use to gain distinct powers. But in PQ, half the joy of the spells was the interplay between the spells and the match-3 game, each affecting the other in nontrivial ways, and I haven’t seen that in Runespell yet. I’ve seen damage spells and shield spells and spells that prevent the opponent from casting other spells, but nothing that affects the cards directly, or is affected by them. So it could very well be that the underlying card game is always basically the same, something that could be swapped out and replaced with any other hit-point-based combat mechanic that takes place over multiple rounds. But we’ll see.

Faerie Solitaire: Mimesis

Even if Faerie Solitaire is essentially the same game as Fairway Solitaire, it seems to me that the golf theme is a better fit to the gameplay. Regard each draw from the deck as a stroke: the game is about trying to achieve a goal (clearing the board of cards) in as few strokes as possible. It’s not a big stretch of the imagination to think of a lengthy run from a single foundation as meaning that you’ve hit the ball a very long way. The “faerie” theme affords no such easy interpretation. In my mind, I’m comparing it to Puzzle Quest, which is another fantasy-themed game with highly abstract gameplay. But at least PQ took care to establish some clear metaphors for swordplay and spellcasting in the player’s activities, conveying a sense that it was all just a symbolic representation of what was really going on in the gameworld. All games with combat mechanics are abstractions; PQ just abstracted it a little farther than most. In Faerie Solitaire, there’s not even a clear notion of what the card-game might be an abstraction of.

I mean, what is the hero doing in the game? Assuming that the voice who narrates snippets of story in the first person is supposed to be the player character — and there’s not much to suggest this other than convention and expectation — he’s pretty passive. He travels from place to place, directed by various supernatural beings, observes conditions, and gets bits of prophecy thrown at him. Occasionally he lets a fairy out of a cage, but also at one point he’s tricked by a fairly transparent trickster into carrying a magic item that winds up killing a bunch of fairies instead, so at the point I’m at, I can’t really say that he’s had a net positive effect. It’s really surprising how much of a downer the story is. I guess it’s trying to use depictions of fairies being imprisoned, tormented, tortured, and occasionally slaughtered in large quantities as a way to motivate the player to free them, but it doesn’t really counterbalance this with depictions of fairies not being imprisoned, tormented, tortured, or slaughtered. The icon used for the game in the Steam interface shows a very sullen-looking baby-faced fairy, which struck me as an odd choice when I first saw it. Why not use a picture of a smiling, happy, frolicking fairy, which would probably be more appealing to the fairy-loving demographic and drive up sales? The answer: the game contains no such pictures.

The one occasionally mimetic thing about the levels is that the card layouts sometimes reflect the story environment. For example, if you’re walking along the shore, the cards might be arranged in a wavy pattern. But the physical layout is rather arbitrary, especially given the use of ice and thorn cards to rearrange the stacks without affecting the topology.

Battlegrounds: Comparison to the source

The Battlegrounds manual contains a list of things that are different from M:tG. Some key items, with comments in square brackets added:

  • You do not draw and discard cards — all of your spells are available at all times. [All those you brought with you, that is. You can bring at most ten spells into a duel.]
  • There are no artifacts.
  • You have a shield. [That is, you can press a button just before something hits you to reduce the damage it does.]
  • You have a duelist attack. [That is, you can press a different button just before something hits you to do 1 point of damage to it.]
  • Creatures fight until they are dead.
  • Damage is permanent.
  • Most creatures attack, but some block. Others run to the back and perform an ability. [That is, what a summoned creature does is not chosen by the player, but determined by the creature’s type. Despite the reduction in player agency this represents, I consider this to be an improvement over Battlemage, because it simplifies the UI and gameplay so much.]
  • Flying creatures do not interact with ground creatures. They attack only other flying creatures or directly to the enemy duelist. [So ground creatures can bypass air units just as easily as the other way round. This is a drastic change to the dynamic of flight.]

Given such radical changes, you might be wondering: What’s left?

Well, some of the creatures from the card game are kept — or at least, their names are. Those ubiquitous Llanowar Elves are around, but instead of increasing the amount of mana you have available to spend, they let you replenish it faster. Or consider the Raging Goblin. As in the card game, it’s a 1/1 red creature with haste, costing 1 red mana. From its stats alone, you’d think it’s identical to the original version. But “haste” means something completely different in the two contexts: in the card game it means that it comes into play untapped and can attack immediately after being summoned, while in Battlegrounds, which doesn’t have a summoning-sickness mechanic or anything like it, it just means that the goblins move more quickly than normal creatures. And a lot of the creatures are just made up from scratch, with no direct counterpart in the card game.

But such things happen when you translate a work from one medium to another. Have the designers at least succeeded in preserving the flavor of the original? I think I have already been clear that they have not, except in superficial matters of theme and setting.

So let us imagine throwing those superficialities to the winds. Suppose this game had been made without any obvious M:tG branding. Would I have at least been reminded of M:tG?

I suspect so, because I was reminded of M:tG by Puzzle Quest, which is at first blush even further removed from M:tG‘s gameplay. And yet… Puzzle Quest is at least turn-based, and that goes a long way towards recreating the M:tG feel. It also has a strong random element, like M:tG and unlike Battlegrounds. So I’m really not sure. At the very least, Battlegrounds has the five colors of magic — and, that being the single strongest vestige of its source material, they naturally make it the entire basis for the minimal plot of “Quest Mode”. More about that next time.

Puzzle Quest: Lord Bane

After all the side-quests were done, I had two options for the end: enter Lord Bane’s citadel, or follow my sword as the necromancers instructed. I did go so far as to try the latter, but when you do so, you get some dire warnings from Princess Serephine (who threatens to leave you if you continue on that course) and a final opportunity to chicken out, which I took. I may play through again with another character class, and if I do I’ll definitely want to give the alternate ending a look. But for now, Bartonia is safe.

Beating Lord Bane took me five tries, with various different collections of stuff, including some items I forged specifically for this fight. Lord Bane’s basic trick is that he casts spells that make him more powerful. For each element, he has a spell that destroys all of that element on the board and increases his mastery of that element by the number of gems destroyed, and in addition, his equipment makes his elemental masteries benefit him in other ways. The biggest problem, in my opinion, is his shield, which gives him +1 to all resistances for every 3 points of Earth mastery. So if you let him get enough Earth mastery, your spells start fizzling more and more. As I see it, there are three things you can do to overcome this. First, you can do what you can to hurt him with spells at the beginning of the fight, before he can resist it. Second, you can try to forestall his resistance by having high earth resistance yourself (to keep him from casting the spell that raises his earth mastery) and by using up the green gems on the board before he gets them. Third, you can increase the damage you do when matching skulls so that you’re less dependent on spells to kill him.

Here’s the combination of equipment that ultimately worked for me:

  • Spells: Channel Air, Entangle, Forest Fire, Sanctuary, Lightning Storm, Charge!
  • Equipment: Quartz Relic (+5 damage for each full mana reserve, +8 Air Resistance), Armor of Minogoth (prevents 1 point of damage when you receive 2 or more, +15 Earth Resistance), Deep Edge (+6 damage when you do 6 or more damage, +8 Earth Resistance), Frozen Harp (+4 to all mana reserves when you match 4 or 5, +8 Fire Resistance)
  • Mount: a level 8 Wyvern (Rend spell, +6 to Battle skill)

By this point, I had enough Battle skill that just matching three skulls did 6 damage, and thus triggered the Deep Edge bonus. Like I said, I wanted Earth resistance more than any other kind, but this loadout provides a certain amount of resistance in all elements (water resistance being provided by one of the companions). As for the spells, I basically didn’t use Sancutary (adds to your resistance in a randomly-chosen element) at all, and would have swapped it out for something else if I had to give the fight another try. The most useful spells were Entangle and Charge!, both good for setting up moves; if you can get a foursome out of them, they can almost pay for themselves, given the effect of the Harp. Charge! is notable in that it takes advantage of the board in ways that Lord Bane can’t, so it’s relatively safe to cast when he has high resistance: you lose an opportunity, but at least that opportunity can’t be used against you. In the end, despite Lord Bane’s increased resistance, I struck the final blow with the direct-damage spell Forest Fire.

All in all, this was a satisfying game. Tile-matching games provide one of the purest experiences of flow, and RPGs, with their promises of greater power if you keep leveling, provide buckets of player motivation even when the gameplay isn’t particularly compelling, so it’s a winning combination. And on top of that, it has excellent production values. I haven’t even mentioned the sound: cascades involve one of the best thunderclap sounds I’ve heard in a game, and the background music has prominent bassoon solos. (Or possibly english horn. It can be hard to tell sometimes. Regardless, it’s a good thing.) I understand there’s a sequel due out soon, with a sci-fi setting and hexagonal tiles. I’ll definitely be playing that when it’s released for PC, which will probably happen months after it’s released for everything else.

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.

Puzzle Quest: Choices

It turns out that level 50 is indeed the highest attainable. I have attained it, and I am now spending my time doing the last remaining batches of side-quests, forging new items, and researching spells. I’m a little reluctant to pursue the main quest line, because it seems to be funneling me towards another potentially regrettable decision.

There have been several choice points in the game so far. The first one occurs when you’re told to recruit Syrus Darkhunter, famous slayer of undead. When you first meet Syrus, he asks for your help capturing a necromancer named Moarg and bringing him to a prison in a city where Syrus is unwilling to set foot. Why won’t he set foot there? He refuses to say. Moarg, on the other hand, is quite willing to give you information, provided you set him free. Now, as far as I’m concerned, Syrus has only himself to blame if I don’t trust him. I’ve had experiences in D&D with NPCs who were supposedly on my side but who put everyone’s safety in jeapordy by withholding plot-crucial information for no good reason, and this scenario reminded me of that a lot. (See also Yeesha vs. Esher.) So I accepted Moarg’s proposition, hoping that his intelligence would be more valuable than Syrus’ assistance. It turns out that it wasn’t particularly valuable, but to my surprise, I got Syrus’ assistance anyway, due to my character lying to him.

Only in Lord Bane’s realm, when we were fighting Moarg’s colleagues, were my unintentional lies exposed. And so Syrus left the party — not a great loss, since his “10 damage to undead at the start of battle” is a mere drop in the bucket at this point, but still, a loss. I suspect it might have been possible to keep him by temporarily disbanding him before fighting the necromancers, but I didn’t think of it at the time. Removing people from your party is something you don’t usually don’t have any reason to do in this game, sort of like closing doors behind you in an adventure game.

Another early choice involved a potential ally who wanted me to escort his daughter to another city, where she’d be forced into a loveless political marriage. Once more, I struck a blow for freedom and against keeping promises, gaining the princess as a party member and incurring some extra encounters later on when her father sent soldiers to get her back. In general, though, other choices have been less morally ambiguous — things like choosing whether to return a magic item to its rightful owner or keep it for yourself. (I’ve been forging my own magic items anyway, thank you very much.)

That choice about Moarg, though, apparently “started me down the dark path”, if the necros are to be believed, and there’s someting I can do with a sword Moarg gave me if I “want to know true power”. I kind of want to defeat Lord Bane and achieve my primary mission objectives for the whole game, but I’m also curious about what the bad guys are so eager to show me. So far, their one big claim to power is that when they die, Lord Bane just raises them from the dead again. And as the player, I have that power already.

Puzzle Quest: Shifting Gears

I seem to be approaching the end of the game. At least, I’ve reached the vicinity of the castle of Lord Bane, God of Death and primary antagonist, who’s appeared personally a couple of times to taunt me and set his minions on me. I’m also nearly up to character level 50, which may or may not be the highest attainable level — it’s certainly the last point at which you get a new spell just for levelling.

At this point, a couple of things are happening to change gameplay. First, my opponents and I have high enough skills all round that any move has a significant chance of being followed by a free extra turn, especially if there are combos and cascades involved. Things can change very rapidly without your being able to do anything about it. Second, elemental resistance is becoming a large factor.

The way elemental resistance works is this: Each side has a percentage rating in all four elements. That percentage is the chance that a spell cast by the enemy will fail if it uses the relevant color of mana. Resistances don’t usually go very high — the highest I’ve seen was a Fire Elemental that had something like a 30% resistance to red. Still, even a 10% resistance is enough to put paid to certain tactics. For most of the game, I’ve been making heavy use of Entangle, a spell that makes your opponent skip a number of turns determined by your green mana reserves. Whenever there were multiple sets of skulls ready to go off, or other tempting targets, I’d cast Entangle to get them all — not even necessarily to get them myself, but to keep them from being used against me. In other words, I was using it at exactly those moments when I least want to risk losing a turn to a miscast and giving the enemy first crack at everything.

Resistance isn’t the only thing that’s making spells useless. Some of the more advanced undead have abilities that drain green mana, making it a lot harder to cast spells with green components. Now, I know a lot of spells, but you’re only allowed to take six of them at a time with you into combat (plus a seventh determined by your mount). I’ve been making only occasional adjustments to my loadout through most of the game, as I learn new spells or decide to experiment with new tactics, but now I’m starting to pick my inventory on an enemy-by-enemy basis. I commented before on emergent changes in effective tactics. It’s nice to see that this is still going on, in a reasonably unforced way, this late in the game.

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.

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