Puzzle Quest and its sequels were excellent cross-genre blends, bringing together the seemingly disparate RPG and match-3 puzzle game genres to great effect.
Now, the fourth game in the series is here, and rather than unfolding in an original universe like its predecessors, it's based on Marvel comics and characters.
As a free-to-play mobile game, it's also clearly taking aim at the immensely popular Puzzle & Dragons, since there are a lot of common mechanics. The game is less about freely roaming around an overworld map picking up quests and purchasing equipment as you see fit, and more about following a linear campaign (featuring some seriously dodgy dialogue despite apparently being written by Marvel veteran Frank Tieri) while gradually improving your abilities through the acquisition of collectible items -- in this case, characters, comic book covers and varying quantities of the Isotope-8 material that is a central plot point in Marvel's other recent mobile and social games. In essence, it's a very well-disguised mobile card battle game, albeit one with considerably more gameplay than this genre usually offers; for an example of how to do it very, very wrong indeed for comparison's sake, check out its stablemate Marvel: War of Heroes.
Initially, you'll find yourself controlling Iron Man, and other iconic heroes will join you as you progress through the missions of the game's various campaigns. Much like earlier Puzzle Quest titles, the game unfolds as a series of battles in which you play a match-3 puzzle game in order to take down your enemies. The mechanics have been somewhat tweaked since Puzzle Quest 1 and 2, however -- now, matching any color gems deals direct damage to the enemy as well as earning ability points to spend on powerful special abilities. This means the special tiles for direct damage, earning money and earning experience are no longer in the game, making for much more fast-paced battles due to the fact every move deals damage. On the one hand, this is a positive change friendly to quick play sessions -- Puzzle Quest battles could frequently go on for a very long time -- but at the same time, it's a shame to see one of the series' more distinguishing features from other match-3 games go away.
As you add heroes to your roster, different symbols will appear on the various colored gems indicating who from your party will attack when you match them. Whoever attacks last sits at the front of the party when the enemy's turn comes around, allowing you to strategically "tank" with whoever is your most powerful hero. You can also block enemy attacks now, too -- enemy special abilities are marked with "countdown" tiles on the field, and if you incorporate these into a match before they expire (or kill the enemy, for that matter) you'll negate the attack altogether.
This latter mechanic is an important part of play, since the game is set up in such a way as to discourage you from taking damage as much as possible. Heroes do not heal immediately between battles, unlike previous Puzzle Quest games, and instead gradually heal over a period of real time. This being a free-to-play game, naturally you can also expend "hard currency" purchased with real money to heal them immediately; said currency may also be spent on acquiring rarer characters and comic covers to upgrade your heroes' abilities. It's one of the less obnoxious uses of freemium mechanics in recent months -- sure, it's a pain to wait for heroes to heal if you don't want to spend any money, but it's a mechanic that also rewards skilful, strategic play and keeping your characters out of danger.
Marvel Puzzle Quest is available now as a free download for both iOS and Android devices. The title screen currently claims it's a "preview version" but the version tested didn't seem to include any limitations, and an official blog post from Marvel says it's out for real today. Give it a try and let us know what you think!