Infinitive Interactive released Puzzle Kingdoms to capitalise on their huge success with Puzzle Quest. To that end, the formula in this puzzle-RPG hybrid is kept largely the same, as players traverse a fantasy land collecting relics and XP, with players leading an army of troops into puzzle battles against enemy forces.
The visuals are charming if overly static in presentation, and the music gets repetitive despite being consistent with the Warlords soundscape. The story is completely threadbare and isn’t taken seriously even then. For instance, select the female warlord during character creation and others will refer to her using male pronouns during cutscenes. So far, so very low budget.
The tile-matching action is better and it encourages players to think about their turns in greater detail than before. Matching three or more adjacent tiles will “charge up” any friendly troops of the same colour, with basic swordsmen and archers charging faster than bigger units like demons and sea monsters. Troops deal extra damage when attacking in unison, so it’s good to diversify your colour picks. Casting spells is also impactful because magic can do things like blow up tiles on the board, or heal damaged troops. The gameplay is slower paced than before, whilst also being more thoughtful and still just as addictive. Things get crazily imbalanced as your warlord gains levels, but even so, free turns are smartly capped, and the concept of clashing armies does feel like a solid progression of concept.
Letting the side down are some unexplained mechanics and confusing stat screens. I’m not sure why a hero’s character sheet is hidden during battle, for instance, and the fiddly UI makes army configuration a chore as well. There’s also no option to resign a battle, which means you can lose an hour of progress or more if the game crashes.
Needing to unlock so many units and spells means it takes time before things get interesting. Whilst Puzzle Kingdoms has a world map containing 30+ hours of adventuring, that map also doesn’t change much. It’s made up of lifeless icons which don’t compare to the breathing world of creature sprites and regenerating keeps that Puzzle Quest had. This is the biggest downgrade as far as presentation is concerned, although the PC version does support higher resolutions this time, which is nice.
The low difficulty does keeps things moving briskly, with some battles introducing unpleasant spikes if an enemy warlord has an overpowered inventory. I think back to my time battling an enemy paladin whose entire retinue contained nothing but humongous dragons and an amulet that halved the damage of my blue troops. That was not a good day.
Dragon units almost feel imbalanced because of their tremendous staying power over other units who can die after one hit; not helpful when the best strategy is to always try and kill your enemies in one hit!
The worst frustration comes from the dozen or so story puzzles involving enchanted boxes. These aggravating challenges can’t be brute-forced and take considerable time to solve. Their steep difficulty feels like a big misstep in a casual game like this. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn many people stopped playing because of them.
Puzzle Kingdoms is a decent little game, perhaps not well-suited for its target audience. This was a sideways step for the series in some ways, but it’s still an addictive and solid enough puzzle-RPG for diehard fans to rediscover.