Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords was one of the most unique games of its time. Originally released in 2007, Puzzle Quest combined the match-three gameplay mechanics of Bejeweled with the questing, leveling, and character progression of an RPG. Over the years, Puzzle Quest saw a myriad of spin-offs, and even a direct sequel. Yet, for many, the charm of the original would always be nearest and dearest to the heart.
After over a decade, the original Puzzle Quest has made its grand return – this time on Nintendo Switch. Fittingly titled Puzzle Quest: The Legend Returns, this new port offers five new character classes (compared to four from the original game, or eight from the updated Revenge of the Plague Lord iteration), making the grand tally a whopping thirteen. In addition, The Legend Returns boasts enhanced visuals, new quests, and an updated interface that takes advantage of the Switch touchscreen.
Puzzle Quest: The Legend Returns is undoubtedly the definitive version of Puzzle Quest. The five additional classes provide new ways to experience an already massive game. Meanwhile, the inclusion of new story content ensures that even those that have played the original, and its expansion, to death will have something to look forward to here. At the same time, The Legend Returns hasn't done much to mask Puzzle Quest's obvious aging. Visuals look decidedly outdated, and the game's storytelling and gameplay feel slightly less innovative than they did 12-plus years ago. The result is a title that I wholeheartedly recommend for those curious (especially at that $14.99 price tag), but not without a few caveats.
For the uninitiated, Puzzle Quest begins with players choosing a character class. After deciding on a name and selecting a portrait picture from a small list of presets, the player is placed in the middle of an overworld, complete with settlements, quests (denoted by exclamation points), and monsters that roam the land. In traditional RPG fashion, players navigate from city to city, taking on questlines, vanquishing enemies, and gaining experience and gold to funnel back into your character.
Where Puzzle Quest differentiates itself from the pack is with its patented match-three gameplay. Anyone who has played Bejeweled, Candy Crush Saga, or any number of iOS/Android games should be familiar with the concept. The action takes place on an eight-by-eight grid filled with gems of various colors. Like the aforementioned games, the goal of Puzzle Quest is to match three or more gems together to earns points.
Unlike those games, in Puzzle Quest players take turns matching gems with an opponent – whether that be a skeleton, a spider, or something far more menacing. By matching these gems, the player (or the enemy) gains mana points, from which he or she can cast powerful spells. These abilities range from multi-turn buffs and de-buffs to immediate effects that change the board in meaningful ways. For instance, the Knight class's Charge! spell destroys a selected row of gems, deals 5 points of damage to the enemy, and grants the player the effects of every gem destroyed. (It's extremely versatile, and one of my favorite spells in the game.)
Also present on the grid are skull icons; purple, star-shaped gems; and piles of gold. Matching three or more skulls deals damage to the opponent (a more direct means of attacking than casting spells). Matching purple gems awards the player with some additional experience (useful when trying to level grind), and matching gold – as I'm sure you can imagine – nets players some extra coin to spend when out in the overworld.
There's even more to the combat than these basics. By matching four of a kind, players are awarded an immediate extra turn. Match five in a row, meanwhile, and players generate both an extra turn and a wildcard gem. This wildcard not just acts as a stand-in for any particular gem type, but also multiplies the amount of mana you receive when matching gems of a given color.
Easy to learn, yet difficult to master, Puzzle Quest's gameplay is nearly as enthralling as it was over a decade ago. Battles run quick, taking only a few minutes per bout, but are satisfying and extremely addictive. The inclusion of different spells makes each enemy its own unique obstacle, and learning how to deny enemies the mana they need for specific spells makes for a dynamic experience that never plays out quite the same way twice. This variety carries over to the different player classes, each of which has its own distinct feel. The Knight relies primarily on offensive spells, for instance, while the Druid utilizes more defensive incantations. Regardless of who you're playing as and who you're facing, though, you're in for an exciting time.
Yet, as much as I still enjoy Puzzle Quest's gem-fueled action, the game is beginning to show some chinks in its armor. Just as players can match fours and fives of a kind to earn extra turns, so can the enemy. And, make no mistake, your opponent will absolutely take advantage; some of my least favorite moments playing The Legend Returns came about from enemies stringing together massive chains of matched gems, often in their opening turn. (One of your stats, cunning, determines who starts a battle; enemies often win out here, especially early on in the game.)
RNG, luck of the draw... whatever you want to call it, it can be downright unforgiving in Puzzle Quest: The Legend Returns. Sometimes, your opponent may earn enough extra turns to shave off half of your health before you even get a chance to respond. Other times, the AI may miss an obvious move entirely, ceding it to the player. This randomness, while seemingly innocuous, leads to some unfortunate difficulty spikes throughout The Legend Returns’ campaign. When the game clicks, it's great; when it doesn't, it can lead to some frustrating moments. Thankfully, the former occurs far more often than the latter.
While the match-3 enemy encounters are the meat of the experience, Puzzle Quest: The Legend Returns also sports a robust overworld, complete with a main story and plethora of side quests. In general, Puzzle Quest's narrative is rather straightforward. Your character is an apprentice working within the Citadel of Bartonia, the largest city of the Kingdom of Agaria. For centuries, the people of Agaria have lived in peace; recently, however, the ruler of Bartonia, Queen Gwendholyn, has received reports of the undead cropping up within the country's borders. At the Queen's request, your character sets off to investigate this phenomenon and fight back the supernatural threat.
Though well written, the story serves mainly as an excuse for players to roam the land and fight various beasts and monsters. Still, the narrative is a nice touch, and helps provide moments of respite between all the (puzzle) fighting. It's a shame, then, that developer Infinite Interactive couldn't have done more to personalize the story based on the class you are playing. No matter which character you choose – a white Bard, a black Priest, or even the most "evil" looking Warlock – your story is the same: You serve the queen, and you have a white father to the east that requires your immediate assistance. Back in 2007, when there were only four classes and I was experiencing this story for the first time, I was much more willing to suspend my disbelief. 12 years later, however, and the lack of any updated writing or character art (how hard could it be to have a black variant for the father?) to accommodate these new classes feels like a missed opportunity.
This unshakable feeling of corners being cut carries over to The Legend Returns' underwhelming presentation. Despite Infinite Interactive and publisher D3Go describing the port as a proper remaster, The Legend Returns' visuals remain largely unchanged from 2007, warts and all. Characters and backdrops look blurry and washed out during cutscenes, especially when the Switch is in docked mode. Character portraits, meanwhile, have a decidedly amateur feel to them; I would have loved to have seen brand-new art for this re-release, given the sheer time that has passed since Puzzle Quest first graced our handhelds and consoles. And while the game does have some reworked art assets – namely for menus and other parts of the UI – they're rather simplistic, and lack the charm of the original 2007 design.
That said, The Legend Returns looks as good as ever where it matters: in battle. The game's visuals pop on the puzzle board, with sharp textures and vibrant colors. It's hardly a justification for the poor visuals elsewhere, but given that Puzzle Quest's gameplay is the crux of the experience, know that you're getting an excellent visual experience there.
Despite my issues with Puzzle Quest: The Legend Returns, the game is still one heck of a great experience, twelve years later. Battles are as exciting as ever, while the new wealth of classes and quests ensures that even series veterans will be able to get lost in this world all over again. The game shows its age in the visuals department, and the presence of difficulty spikes is bound to frustrate some. However, those willing to look past The Legend Returns' flaws are in store for a rich and rewarding experience. And for 15 bucks, where else are you going to get a sprawling RPG/puzzler like this?