I was pleasantly surprised by the original Puzzle Quest; I enjoyed Puzzle Quest: Galactrix, but not as much. Given that, I assumed that I’d eventually play Puzzle Quest 2, but I’m also not surprised that it took me a little while to get around to it.

Recently, though, I found myself awake in the middle of the night, wanting a way to pass unpredictable amounts of time; Puzzle Quest 2 fit the bill, so I got a copy. (The iPad version, which I turn out to like quite a bit more than the DS interface that I’d played the prior games on.) And I was really surprised how much I liked it. And, to be clear: not just how much I liked it compared to what I was expecting based on the progression of the series: how much I liked it compared to turn-based RPGs in general.

Take a typical turn-based RPG. The way I play them, I have my standard attacks that I lean on, and in 95% of the battles I mindlessly select them over and over again. In the other 5% of the battles, I have to think more about the tactics that I use, trying out different combinations to see which ways the probabilities work best, but even that is a relatively static experience.

Even the most basic of battles in Puzzle Quest, however is fundamentally different: instead of dealing with a static probability space, you are dealing with a constantly changing collection of opportunities. And those opportunities aren’t isolated, either: the space of opportunities changes in a mostly but (crucially) not completely deterministic fashion depending on which move you make, leaving space for reading. Depending on the gems that you match, you’ll set up different opportunities for your opponent; or, if you do it right, you’ll set up different opportunities for yourself! Cascades are possible, but not always easy to spot: studying the board and reading ahead pays off.

That’s Puzzle Quest in general; why did I like Puzzle Quest 2 so much? I think the main issue there is that the strategies were somewhat different from the previous games, and didn’t fall into the same ruts. Before, I would have a three-fold pattern of: 1) grab 4-of-a-kinds; 2) grab attack/defense matches; and 3) control tempo, taking multiple turns in a row when I got the most out of it. That worked well enough, and actually picking the right spots to use spells to control tempo demanded some amount of thought, but ultimately I’d had my fill after two games worth of that same basic strategy.

In Puzzle Quest 2, however, those tactics weren’t as important. Grabbing 4-of-a-kinds is certainly a good thing, but I didn’t mind as much if I missed them. As the game progressed, though, I noticed that matching attack gems (skulls) wasn’t nearly as important as I was used to it being: generally, the skull attacks didn’t do as much damage as other forms of attack, so while I still matched them or prevented my opponent from matching them if I didn’t have anything else to do, they didn’t dominate my strategy. (And there aren’t any built-in defensive gem buffs, though you have access to spells that will provide different forms of defense in different circumstances; on which note, they also got rid of the annoying experience/money forms of gems, the combat is exclusively about combat.)

I was pleased when I earned my first spell that allowed me to control tempo; but the fact that skull matches aren’t so crucial means that, in turn, tempo control isn’t so crucial. So, while I experimented with that for a while, I soon moving on to other possibilities.

The result was that, for the first ten or so hours, I spent a fair amount of time trying out different spell combinations, attempting to understand how each new spell that I acquired would fit in with the other possibilities that I had available. (And experimenting with weapon possibilities, too: one-handed or two-handed, cheap small damage or expensive large damage?)

Unfortunately, that phase came to an end, and came to an end sooner than I would have liked. I don’t know what the other classes are like, but I chose the Assassin as my class, and it wasn’t too far through the game until I happened across a spell/weapon combination that worked extremely well against most opponents and acceptably against all of them. And once that happened, I stopped learning from the game; that is, I suppose, my own fault, nothing was preventing me from experimenting with the (numerous!) other spell possibilities that I had available to me, but why mess with success? To make things even more boring, four of the five spells that I had were just different-colored variants of each other, so I was really just working with two kinds of spells and one weapon (I had two weapons but never used one of them) doing the same basic patterns of attacks over and over again.

That was a bit of a drag; when I watch Liesl play as a Sorcerer, she’s clearly using a more varied range of spells, so maybe the Assassin is a particularly banal class. But, even playing through that banal class, I was still enjoying myself: yes, the broad pattern of how I approached each match was almost always the same, but I still had to deal with the realities of what the board looked like each match, at each point in the match, so there remained a not-unpleasant amount to think about. I stopped actively seeking out battles to fight, instead walking past enemies unless they were blocking my way to a door I needed, but I enjoyed the battles I had to fight. And I enjoyed the boss fights and special monster fights; even though I kept the same load-out for them, I did have to think about how to balance my use of the different parts of that load-out, and how to best use the board to frustrate my opponent.

So: good game. Nicely refined compared to its predecessors, and in particular the static map without wandering monsters (indeed, with monsters that were perfectly happy for you to walk right past them) worked well for me. If I could change one thing, it would be the chest rewards mini-game, but even that was more underwhelming than annoying. And I was pleasantly surprised that I managed (after quite a few tries on one or two of them!) to unlock all the spells: a good challenge level on those puzzles.

But I’ll come back to what I said above: the basic fact that reading ahead is a key part of the battle mechanic makes a huge difference to me. It gets me so much more engaged than a traditional turn-based RPG, turning battles from mindless button pushing exercises to something that’s reasonable rewarding even in the worst of times.

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