Game review: Puzzle Quest Challenge of the Warlords

"Shut up, Sorcerer."

Written by ritabuuk and dubiousdisc
Posted on September 28th 2019
Puzzle Quest PSP boxart
A hero, a minion of evil, and Bejeweled.

Have you ever considered you could be playing Bejeweled with a minotaur? If the idea intrigues you, then Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords is the game for you.

As the name implies, this game involves puzzles, quests, and warlords. The warlords are specifically the titular ones from the Warlords series of video games, as Puzzle Quest is a spin-off from this series, sharing the same universe. We know nothing about the Warlords series, and in fact didn't know this game was part of any series until we looked it up later, but, for the purpose of playing this game, it doesn't matter: Puzzle Quest stands on its own and you don't need to get your hands on a DOS game from 1990 to be able to follow the plot. All you need to know to play Puzzle Quest is Bejeweled.

Yeah, let's go back to Bejeweled with a minotaur. In Puzzle Quest, you play as a hero on a quest, who goes around the world exploring and fighting monsters and so on. It's the usual fantasy fare... except every action is accomplished by playing Bejeweled. And not just standard Bejeweled: most often, you'll be playing versus-style Bejeweled.

Playing Puzzle Quest
Playing Bejeweled with a Fire Elemental

When you're playing one-player Bejeweled, you can make as many little moves as needed to set up a big move. During battles in Puzzle Quest, you and your opponent take turns playing on the same board. In making your moves, you have to consider how you'll leave the board when it goes to your opponent, so you might have to pass up a good move because it would lead to an even better move for your opponent - and the AI of this game is very quick to jump on the opportunity. Or, sometimes you might have to make moves specifically to sabotage your opponent's moves.

In standard Bejeweled, it's all about the points. In Puzzle Quest, it's combat. You have a health bar, and your enemy has a health bar. And don't think you are going to do damage by just matching stuff: you have to specifically match skulls to do direct damage to your opponent. Otherwise, the rest of the board is mostly filled with gems representing the four elements of mana: Fire, Air, Water, and Earth (red, yellow, blue, and green). Mana, you say? Yes, mana. You match the gems to get mana, which fuels your magic attacks.

The four elements of mana.
We love elemental systems with layers of meaning, and Puzzle Quest delivers. Different combinations of mana energies, the colors of proportions of which make intuitive sense, are needed to cast the different spells.

The magic of this game is surprisingly in-depth, and really cool. Magic does all sorts of things, from healing, to changing the board, to making wildcards appear, to filling up your mana reserves, to inflicting status ailments like poison and disease. There's even a spell to hand your opponent a bomb, which, for several turns, will do 5 points of damage for each turn that your opponent has more than 12 red mana in storage. Magic does a wide range of exciting things.

You can only equip up to seven spells at any time, so you have to strategize in deciding which ones go well with each other and counter-act the different strategies of your enemies, just like if you were assembling your deck of trading-card-game cards. The spells are also affected by your proficiency at each kind of magic, so there are decisions to make when you level up.

Yes. You level up. Puzzle Quest also plays like a standard RPG, with a character with a class, stats, and equip items. For your character, you can choose to be a druid, knight, warrior, or wizard. Each class comes with its own natural playstyle: for example, we played as a druid, which focuses on Air and Earth magic. Compared to the other classes, the druid has limited defenses, but starts the game with a good healing move, which is otherwise hard to come by. As you level up, you decide what stats to grow, and as you continue playing, you can decide a lot of other things that impact your game.

The citadel

The citadel

You spend the game traversing a giant world map. When you visit a town that is friendly to you, you can visit your "citadel", which is your base in that town, and opens up a whole menu of other things you can do.

Given the size of the world map and how filled with Bejeweled-playing monsters it is, it is in your best interest to expand your range of influence so that you have easily accessible bases to visit. How do you do that? By besieging other towns with Bejeweled-playing siege weapons, and then building your citadel in that town. We imagine our character at the gates, yelling that we want to play some Bejeweled with the town, and all the townsfolk unroll down from the parapets a giant Bejeweled board, and they're able to do their special moves by pouring boiling oil onto the board, or dunking it in the moat. We're not letting our imagination get away with us here: we have seen the boiling oil and the moat as "equip items" of the towns we were besieging.

One weird thing about this mechanic is that we have to besiege any town we want to build our citadel in. Even the friendly town that we already helped save. We understand attacking the orc city of mean orcs, but we don't want to attack the friendly dwarves! Why wouldn't they let us build our little citadel in the corner?

But anyway, once you have your citadel, you can do some bonus things:

Crafting

Anvil
To craft, you need to match enough of the right proportions of elements, plus enough anvils, without running out of moves.

Many map locations have an optional battle with a runekeeper. Defeating the runekeeper will earn you a rune, which is an item with some properties that can be used for crafting new items in your citadel. To craft an item, you have to mix three runes, which interact with each other and thereby define what item they will yield. For example, you can use the Rune of Swords to decide that you want a sword, the Rune of Poison to imbue it with venom, and the Rune of Dwarves, which boosts the effects of the other two runes, to create a cool new poison sword - of course, before crafting that, you have to play a tough round of Bejeweled with special rules.

The cool thing about this mechanic is that it's completely optional, and all parts of this are left to the player's discretion. If you don't care, you don't have to. If you invest the effort, you can get a cool thing that you wanted. You can completely change everything up by making a new item that will let you use a new strategy, and all of these decisions are up to you, and they are not obvious. One of Rosy's biggest pet peeves in video games is when the progression of upgrades is extremely linear, in a stupid way. Like when at the beginning of the game you have the sword of +1 attack, and later you find the same sword but with +2 attack - you don't need to even think to understand that the new one is better, and that the first one is now obsolete. Since things are not so linear in Puzzle Quest, this doesn't happen. You have to think!

Researching spells

Before you imagine a bunch of monks meditating over the old books, researching new spells in Puzzle Quest is done by capturing enemies and torturing them with Bejeweled until they spill their secrets!

The torture room
Nice decor.

After beating a certain number of the same enemy in the world, you are given the option to Capture them. To capture a monster, you are given a Bejeweled puzzle, with your goal being to clear the board completely. Once you capture monsters, you can bring them to the dungeon... and that's where you torture them with a hard round of Bejeweled with other special rules. If you succeed, they will tell you everything, and now you can add their special moves to your potential movepool. Having more available moves will give you more possibilities to strategize later, so torturing monsters is always in your best interest.

The temple

We just wanted to point out that you make donations to the temple... to raise your stats.

When you level up, your character's favored stats are easy to boost, while the others are harder. Rather than wasting all of your experience points on the hard stats, it's often more cost-effective to raise them with money at the temple. So, if some of your stats fall behind, you can pay indulgences to the church to redeem them. Convenient!

The mounts

Riding a Griffin
Here we are riding a griffin!

Some of the enemies that you can capture are more useful as mounts than as, ahem, research subjects. So, capturing certain enemies will allow you to ride them through the world. When you do so, you get a little overworld sprite of your character riding that particular beast. In some games, all you can ever ride is a horse. In this game, you can ride everything but a horse. You wanna ride a giant rat? You can. You wanna ride a sandworm? You can. You wanna ride a dragon spider? You can.

Yeah, fantasy games, step it up. We're talking fantasy here, right? Why is it always just horses? We could ride a horse in real life. In fantasy, we wanna ride a dragon spider!

Your mount contributes one of the seven spells available to you, so it is also in your interest to strategize which mount you want and train it with more Bejeweled.

Abstractions

Sandworm
"That was a good move!"

In all seriousness, Bejeweled is how this game is played - we can imagine that the rounds of Bejeweled are the game-play stand-in for our character harnessing the energies present in the world around her to pull off her spells and attacks, as the enemy is doing the same. We know that the characters are not literally sitting and playing a puzzle game against each other. The plot never addresses that the Bejeweled part exists - characters just talk about the battles that are happening. We play Bejeweled as an abstraction for the characters using swords and axes and shields and spells, much like how chess is an abstraction of a war, but we're just moving little figures around on a board.

We think this is a good decision on the part of the developers. Even if we giggle when we acknowledge that we're Bejeweled with a sandworm, we get it that we're not really playing Bejeweled with a sandworm. Breaking the fourth wall is a difficult and delicate art, and sometimes it's better to leave it alone.

Looks and sounds

We like the art style of this game. It reminds us of the art of Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance.

Music Volume: Off
We rate the music as: "Did they give us an option to mute it?"

On the other hand, the music sucks. Or rather, what's there is passable, it's nothing that makes us want to rip our ears off, but there is so little variety that it wasn't long before we were bored sick of it. There are only three distinct tracks of music for when you are playing Bejeweled, shuffled at random at the start of each battle, with no concern for whether you are facing a random rat, a minion of evil, an undead dragon, or the entire city of dwarves. It's always the exact same music.

If they wanted to get away with having just a few music tracks, they needed to be awesome. But the music of Puzzle Quest is okay at best. We can't help but think of the soundtrack of Agarest, which is a 100-hour long game with only two distinct normal battle themes - but they're so good that we're excited to hear them over and over again. There are also a couple of special themes for special battles, which helps set the right mood for them being special, and then, if you manage to get to the final boss battle in the True End path, you will be treated to a special, special track of some of the most hardcore battle music we have ever heard. Man, it didn't even need to go so hard, but it did.

But anyway, in Puzzle Quest, it's not like this. So, after a few battles, we went to the options, muted the music, and put on our own music instead.

On the third hand, the sound effects of Puzzle Quest are spot on. There are such wonderful booms and zaps and nyooms and clinks when you match things on the board. We love it.

You also get a little sound clip when you win or lose a battle. When you lose, you might hear a bell toll, or a woman's voice declare, "You have suffered defeat." Our favorite is the voice triumphantly announcing, "You are victorious!" with such energy that we can't stop ourselves from echoing it later.

The plot

So far, we've been talking about game mechanics and presentation, and while we think these are an important part of explaining what is Puzzle Quest, what really makes the game for us are the story, the universe, and the characters. Because you can give us all the Bejeweled you want, but if that was all there is, we wouldn't care. But this game has plot. In-depth plot that lasted us easily 60 hours.

The main story follows the archetypal high fantasy quest: you play as the last descendant of an ancient hero who slew Lord Bane, the Dark Horseman of Death. Now you are setting out on your own journey to aid your kingdom as a growing number of suspicious dark circumstances suggest that Bane has risen again! You must find him and face him in a duel to the death of Bejeweled!

Cheesy as this all is, it's fun. And, unlike most super high fantasy stuff, Puzzle Quest explores the genre tropes pretty far.

How many times when talking about dwarves in high fantasy do you hear the question of, are there female dwarves, and do they have beards? But how often do you ever see anyone actually go there with their high fantasy? Well, Puzzle Quest does! There are two prominent dwarf characters in the game: our recruitable friend Khalkus who is a male dwarf with a beard, and Khrona, the leader of dwarf town, a female dwarf with a beard! Yes! Thank you, Puzzle Quest!

Khrona
...So maybe there are more female dwarves than we realize.
Sunspear

During the plot, you spend a good chunk of time exploring the Realms of War, a land ruled by the minotaurs, which are not just one unfortunate individual, but an entire race. As you meet different minotaurs and visit their different towns, you learn about their cultural values and religious beliefs. We'd never seen a game go much further than presenting minotaurs as mindless grunting monsters to kill - let alone going into the religious beliefs of minotaurs. Puzzle Quest has even a minotaur party member, a warrior-priest who guides the human main character in learning the ways of the minotaur, eventually leading to the hero being named an honorary minotaur, daw. This is definitely not something we see in every game.

Troll
Trolls are also easily recognized by their orange happy trail. Pubes!

Puzzle Quest is generally very good at differentiating its creatures. For example, there are Trolls, Gnolls, and Orcs. Often, these are treated as indistinguishable monsters of bad. But in Puzzle Quest, they all look very different, and play Bejeweled with different strategies, which further distinguishes them. The Trolls use Water magic and can regenerate; the Gnolls rely on cunning and have special abilities relating to coins and calling for their pack; the Orcs focus on brute strength. In the end, Puzzle Quest manages to have Trolls, Gnolls, Orcs, Ogres, Dwarves, Dark-Dwarves, Humans, Elves, Half-Elves, Rats, Dragons, Wyverns, Sandworms, Spiders, Griffons, Giants, Harpies, Minotaurs, Liches, Wights, and all sorts of necromantic abominations, and they are all clearly distinguished from each other.

The makers of Puzzle Quest clearly love high fantasy, and the game feels like a joyful over-the-top romp through every aspect of it, fully celebrating high fantasy in all of its glorious cheesiness, without a shred of insincere irony, or pretentious ego-tripping. Puzzle Quest is like an ideal convention costume party where everyone is invited to have fun, and there's no bad blood, and no need to leave anything out, we love it all.

The characters

And, exemplifying this diversity, look at the key characters of this game!

You

When you pick your class at the start of the game, you have the option to choose from many different face portraits for your character. The designs are all very nice.

Main characters

The dialogue of the game does not change based on your character, except for appropriate pronouns and terms based on your gender. So, no matter what you choose your character to be, they are going to have the same personality through the game.

And that personality is: sass.

Shut up, sorcerer
Talk to the hand.

We love that we picked the avatar of the petite girl with green hair and a cute little pet squirrel on her shoulder... she will out-sass anyone in her path. This is sure to be great with pretty much any character portrait you pick, but we think this one is especially great.

One example of our character's legendary sass is when the Ice Queen summons us. This is the Ice Queen that we previously stole a valuable item from, one that we were explicitly told we could not borrow. We enter the throne room and she is all "..." at us. So our character says something to the effect of, "Did you summon me here for a reason, or are you just going to look haughtily at me?"

Later in the game, we manage to sass Lord Bane, the Dark Horseman of Death, into submission. He shows up to threaten us, and we just sass him so hard, he leaves.

The party members

The party members themselves are not playable, but they follow you, they talk with each other, and sometimes give you little boosts at the beginning of battle.

Syrus Darkhunter

Syrus Darkhunter

Early in our quest, we meet a certain Syrus Darkhunter. Appropriately for someone with that name, he is emo personified. As we learn about his past, we find out he is a half-elf who was in love with a human, and her racist father was against their relationship. They ran away together, and bumped into a necromancer... and his girlfriend became a zombie. Ever since, he's become a dark hunter, ineffectively chasing necromancers with the vain hope of avenging his girlfriend. We say ineffectively, because, well... When Syrus is in our party, he can contribute to our fight at the beginning of the battle. Whenever we face the undead, he pops up to say, "Undead are my specialty!" And takes a shot at them.

Poke
He will fill it with one arrow, maybe.

For a maximum of ten damage.

This becomes only funnier as the game progresses because, when we're attacking end-game monsters with 400 health points, boink, ten points of damage, thanks Syrus. We're glad this is your specialty, because we'd hate to see your weakness. We imagine him firing an arrow that is essentially a toothpick, and the Arkliches going, "Owie. What was that for?"

Click to reveal spoilers... Over the course of the plot, you can help him lay his girlfriend to rest, come to an understanding with her father, and tone down the emos. But his name stays.


Drong

Drong

We visit a tower where the ogre Drong lives. Drong is a very simple person. He likes to eat. He wants to try everything. In the beginning, he sends us around the world to get him things to eat, but later decides that it would be more effective to just follow us on our adventure and take a bite out of any animal we meet. We're not kidding, that is indeed his function in the party: whenever we fight an animal, Drong pops up to take a bite out of them.

He ends up eating everything. Giant spiders, wyverns, even other ogres. Everything.

It's fun that this game has both Syrus Darkhunter with his emo anime eyes and Drong with dot eyes.


Princess Serephine

Princess Serephine

Also early in the game, we visit our neighboring kingdom of assholes. The asshole king wants to marry off his daughter to the orcs, as an awful peace treaty. As part of our negotiations with this kingdom, we're supposed to escort Princess Serephine to the orcs. Princess Serephine understandably wants nothing to do with this, and appeals for us to save her.

Here we have to weigh the politics of our country against the welfare of Princess Serephine. We chose to save her, which means, periodically, her asshole father will be sending assassins after us. Serephine, on the other hand, can lower the defenses of paladins and other Good people, who would never hurt the princess. And she gains a crush on us in the process. However, our character is generally too sassy to reciprocate.


Sunspear

Sunspear

While we are in the land of the Minotaurs, Sunspear is our elderly warrior priest mentor. He follows us to help us learn the ways of the Minotaur and resurrect elder gods, and to find a worthy opponent for him to die in battle against, as that is what minotaurs do. It would be a disgrace for a minotaur not to die in battle.

So he has us fight about everything in the world to see what would be a worthy opponent for his last battle. Click to reveal spoilers... After his death, his ghost remains with us to watch our last Bejeweled battle against Bane.


Khalkus

Khalkus

Khalkus is our dwarf friend. He talks a lot about machines. No one ever lets him finish a sentence. To be fair, the partial sentence does fill the whole dialogue box, and usually trails off into extended ridiculous metaphors of non sequitur. We still wish everyone was a bit nicer to him.

Khalkus helps us fight against machines and cities, and is trying to rebuild a thing called the Great Machine, even if he doesn't know what it will do. Click to reveal spoilers... It doesn't do much even when rebuilt. It upgraded our beginning of the game shield into a better shield, and that was it. By then we already had a much betterer shield. Ah well. At least Khalkus is happy to see the machine finished.


Flicker

Flicker

A young dragon. He couldn't help but notice that all the other dragons are missing, and he asks us to help him find his family. Along the way, he helps us against flying enemies.


Patch

Patch

This game has a party member gnoll. We were already impressed that this game had gnolls and they weren't just uninspired random monsters, but there's even a party member gnoll. Patch gets in a lot of trouble due to stealing shiny objects.

He is also one of the most useful party members to have around, as he can SNEAK ATTACK! Surprise! It's random when it happens, but it's much more effective than Syrus Darkhunter's doink attack.


Winter

Winter

There are talking wolves in this game. Their leader wants us to call him Winter, but that's just because our human mouth cannot produce the proper sound that would be his name. The wolves, likewise, have given our character a wolf name: Deathstalker Two-legs. After helping Winter and his pack against the minions of Lord Bane, he follows us to the final battle.


Elistara

Elistara

Elistara is a high elf who rides a frost dragon named Crystal. We help her and the elves resist the minions of Lord Bane.


...And the party member limit

There are nine possible party members, but only eight slots, just so that you can have the dilemma of who to leave behind. Why? When Elistara joins, we are confused and we don't know what to do. After much deliberation, we decided to leave Winter behind, not out of any hatred, but because we thought he would be the easiest one to reach again, as his homeland is right near the end of the game, where we were.

You... you don't want me? If you change your mind I will wait for you in Hyaan.
Nooo! Nevermind! Cancel, cancel! You should stay!

We wish the game would just let us have all nine party members. It's not like we would be overpowered with one more party member. The companions all have different mutually-exclusive specialties, so usually you only get help from one of them per battle, and they do very little anyway. This limit just makes us feel bad to have to pick the one loser who is not invited to the party. And for how much we riff on Syrus... he was the first one who joined and he specifically wants to fight the undead to avenge his girlfriend. We can't leave him behind. Besides, we'd have to walk all the way back to the beginning of the game to get him back. Are you going to drop Princess Serephine, who has to go back to her castle where her abusive dad wants to marry her off? Are you going to drop Patch, who practically cries when you try to remove him from the party?

The only real void we feel with this game is... some sort of dating simulator mechanic. As silly as it is to say this out loud, it just seems like our relationship with our companions should matter more. Besides, since they join at different points in the game, not all of them get equal amounts of screentime, so we wish we could see more of them, perhaps by specifically choosing to talk with them. As it is now, you can only see your party members talking when the game has a cutscene that involves them.

The ending

Lord Bane

After traveling far and wide, meeting everyone, training with the Minotaurs and putting back together their dead god, we finally are ready to face Lord Bane himself in his citadel.

Lord Bane is a real challenge, a major ramp up in difficulty from anything we've fought so far. He has the power to clear any of the four elements from the board at will, which adds them to his mana reserves. Using this power to clear so much of the board is almost certainly going to cause a Bejeweled cascade that will earn him an extra turn, allowing him to do the spell again on another element, and keep gaining more mana and more extra turns. On top of this, his equip items boost his stats proportionally to the size of his ever-expanding mana reserves, which causes his magical resistances to shoot through the roof. It won't be long before all of your spells are blocked, Bane's mana reserves are full, his attacks keep getting stronger, and his health points are going up rather than down.

Haven't you read the stories, Bane? One of us ALWAYS survives.
Heck yeah! Now we just need to manage to win...

People weren't kidding when they dubbed this asshole a god. Our character says some badass retorts, but we're not sure how we're gunna bring him down.

Here was our strategy...

Considering we can't really count on using any of our magic, we turned to our forge to craft items. We made a crown of poison, so that any time we manage to land a hit on him, he'll probably get poisoned. If we have a good string of turns, we can max out the poison on him: quadruple poisoned. Waiting for the poison to whittle down his hundreds of health points is our primary strategy. Oh no.

We learned the Fire Bomb spell from the Dark Dwarf prisoner in our citadel. Considering that Bane's red mana reserve will quickly skyrocket past the 12 needed to trigger the bomb, it will always be effective, hitting him for five damage each turn, if we manage to get past his resistances to stick a bomb on him. Sometimes we are really lucky and stick a bomb on him twice, for 10 damage each turn.

The rest of the time, we are almost defensively matching skulls, more to avoid Bane matching them against us than as an outright attack, but still, slowly whittling him down and re-poisoning him. If there's ever a turn where we can't get four of a kind or match skulls, we attempt to heal ourselves.

But it's not enough. Bane keeps winning. We need to try to craft something else.

We scoured the land for Runes that might seem useful, and we obtained the Rune of Orbs. This lets us create an item that will boost all of our mana stores any time the enemy uses a spell. Considering that Bane is firing off like three spells each turn, this should at least refill our own mana stores any time he does that.

We combine the Rune of Orbs with the Rune of Gods, boosting the mana we earn from +1 to +5, and the Rune of Trolls to give us some additional health points too.

The game says this combination will result in an "Almost Legendary" item. lol.

Forging an Almost Legendary item needs an almost legendary round of Bejeweled. God, that took awhile. So often we ran out of moves and had to start over. We can imagine our character slaving over the forge, her shoulder squirrel wiping the sweat from her brow as she carefully, carefully forges this Almost Legendary item - and then it gets all messed up and she needs to try again from the beginning.

But in the end, we crafted the Trollkin Shard, which means we shouldn't have to worry about running out of mana in our fight against Bane.

We try again, with one other addition to our strategy: we put on the music from the Agarest final boss to help us get appropriately pumped.

And after some grueling Bejeweled... we are victorious!

Click to reveal spoilers...

After we defeat Bane, he taunts us, claiming that after one hundred years, he will just rise again, same as last time. Our hero retorts that Lord Sartek of the Minotaurs is coming, and he's pissed, something about how Lord Bane previously dismembered him into 101 pieces. This ensures that Lord Bane gets ripped to shreds. Also, since we have Drong in the party, he reminds us that we previously gave him permission to eat the next god we happen to meet. So, he eats Lord Bane's arm, making it just that much harder for him to be revived next time.

There is an alternate ending where, if you play the game like an asshole, you can replace Lord Bane as the new Dark Lord. As you do these asshole moves, your party members will try to convince you to stop, and as you continue onward, one by one they will ultimately leave the party. Sadly, this is the most like a dating simulator that Puzzle Quest gets: the scenes of each character essentially breaking up with you.

  1. Flicker

    There’s still time to turn back you know.

  2. Hero

    There’s something here Flicker. Can’t you feel the power as we get closer?

  3. Flicker

    I won’t be getting any closer. Come back - I’ll even fly you! Let’s fight Bane as a team.

  4. If the hero continues on their path, a message pops up: "Flicker has left the party."

After losing your party members, the ending is mostly the same, except for the implication that there's a new Dark Lord in town now.

Seems scary and creepy, but, after all... you've been an asshole all along. You've been besieging cities and capturing and torturing monsters and always having a sassy retort. How surprising is this really?

But we like the good end better.

Join you? Hah! You are a fool, Bane.  Why should I join you... when I can REPLACE you?
...he hadn't thought of that.

In conclusion

This game is surprisingly very good. It is, however, very difficult to finish, both because of the challenge and because there's only so much Bejeweled you can take before you've had enough Bejeweled. We put down this game for a whole year before suddenly realizing we hadn't finished it yet (and we were so close, only like three evenings away from the end).

For the record, we played the Nintendo DS version of the game, but it's on pretty much every platform if you are interested in playing it yourself. In fact, as we're writing this article, the Switch version has just come out, as an enhanced re-release 12 years after the fact. Dammit, we're accidentally timely again.

References