Reviewed on Xbox 360 (LIVE Marketplace)
The latest game from local developer Infinite Interactive continues to sport the Puzzle moniker as well as much of its forebears flavour, but drops any pretence of ‘turn-based’ game-play.
As we saw – only briefly – with PuzzleQuest Galactrix, the Puzzle franchise is moving further down the real-time path, and this is emphasised in Puzzle Chronicles.
Returning to a fantasy - this one tinged with a North African theme – Puzzle Chronicles has us filling the substantial ugg-boots of an atypical barbarian, sold into slavery and then freed by a mysterious sorceress for her on nefarious ends.
So, gone is any class selection, instead your vanilla thug is moulded in a number of other ways as the story mode progresses.
Each act of the game is broken down into map regions with Puzzle Chronicles allowing free traversal of past visited areas, this will be important and is encouraged, as you will see.
Each location within a map region is a potential battle, and once the denizen of the location is defeated, the location may become one of several types of special locations, perhaps a store, perhaps a dungeon to be unlocked, more on this shortly.
The battle system is a layered system, once again reliant on matching gems, in that PuzzleQuest way, but in a completely new manner. Early on, your grunt will pick himself up a pet dog, or, as the game calls it, a War Beast.
Your trainable War Beast can learn skills, with each of these associated to one or more of the games colour system (yellow, red, blue or green). On the battle-screen, your animated Barbarian his War Beast and foe take up the top half of the screen, the lower half is a grid, with icons representing War Beast’s skills are on the left, each skill’s icon will fill with appropriate colours as gems are matched on the grid. Once the icon is full, the skill can be unleashed, usually with a satisfying growl.
Damage is represented by a vertical bar, which initially divides the grid in half, Gems appear in groups of three on the left and side, and move, Tetris like towards the dividing bar. The triad of gems can be rotated and when it hits the bar, or other gems already on the board, actions will be triggered.
Triggering Rage gems (Skull shaped) with Battle gems (Star shaped) will not only increase the appropriate War Beast power, but also add Rage – a Skull based track above the grid, filling Rage will damage the foe and importantly move the vertical bar to the right.
To win a battle, our Barbarian must force their foe to stack gems back to the right hand margin, like losing a game of Tetris, except horizontally.
Stacking gems into a square of four like coloured gems converts them into a large Power Gem, triggering this gem will enact the power contained within inventory items, with varying effects such as destroying opponent Rage gems to poisoning foes and so on.
The inventory system is a low point of the game. To begin with, when purchasing items, apart from the obvious items such as armour, boots and helms, it is impossible to know which colour an item will be associated with until after the purchase. Furthermore, loot whores will be disappointed with the lack of item variety; seemingly Puzzle Chronicles – unlike PuzzleQuest - game structure does not allow a range of effects that can be imbued into the loot.
Because the battle is real time, the vertical bar of doom can move back and forth as each pugilist seeks to gain an advantage, if the bar moves too far left, the tension rises as room becomes cramped, and desperation replaces careful planning. On the other hand, frustration can build when a badly timed doom-bar move destroys your plans for domination, as what were your gems move to the opposition side. Information on the skills of your opponents is also sparse, making strategy that much less involved.
Once a battle is won, special locations may appear, to gain access; usually a mini game must be played. These are variations on the more traditional Tetris like vertical challenges. For example to explore a treasure trove, the board must be cleared of a particular symbol within the time limit.
Other mini-games include War Beast training, Barbarian training, Dungeon unlocking (to allow unlimited battles against a foe type) and crafting of items. There is also a robust multiplayer option including matchmaking, this did not get much of a work-out during my play-testing, but looks solid enough for some... ahem... human on human action.
Puzzle Chronicles is not as polished as previous Puzzle outings, there are some interface shortcomings and a certain amount of grind to progress the story. But the game retains that ‘just one more battle’ addictiveness, and entertaining, tension filled game-play that remains a hallmark of the marquee.