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Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords

Developed by Infinite Interactive / Vicious Cycle and published by D3Publisher, Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords expands the small group of RPGís and large group of puzzlers that populate the Xbox Live Arcade. The game is a hybrid, relying on Bejeweled-style puzzles to act as the core, fighting element of the RPG.

The presentation of the game relies on a still-shot smattering of artwork filled with tons of text bubbles. Due to the gameís length, this was obviously the most effective method of conveying huge amounts of information. You wonít find any major cut scenes in the game, but the presentation does offer an epic feel right at the outset.

As you start up the game, you have to create a character name and choose a class; warrior, knight, wizard, etc. The class will dictate what types of magic you are skilled in as well as your competency in battle. Players can outfit themselves with a weapon, armor, helm, and one miscellaneous item to boost their defense, attack ability or random stats. As the player level increases, you can assign the stat points to the character specific to your needs.

The puzzle aspect of the game is more complicated than Bejeweled. Matching colored objects on the screen correlates with your capacity to perform spells and attack the enemy. Red, Green, Blue, and Yellow jewels match up to Fire, Earth, Water, and Air magic. The skulls on the screen offer the ability to attack the opponent, the purple stars increase your experience and the coins add more loot to your wallet. Matching three of the same type will trigger the reaction, but matching 4 or more will get you an extra turn. Also, higher level skulls drop on the board often to increase the severity of attacks. When you mix the jewels swapping with your spells, there is quite a bit of strategy that comes into play.

Players can take six spells into battle, each with different magic requirements. New to this version of Puzzle Quest, many spells now have time limits. For instance, I love my Knightís stun spell (Makes the opponent lose a turn), but it has a recharge rate attached to it. I have to wait a few rounds before using it again. Spells vary in usefulness, strength, and creativity. Knowing the best combination of spells will drastically increase your success rate in battle.

There are a vast number of quests in the main storyline as well as mini-quests. In many cases, your character will be faced with moral dilemmas along the way. Early in the game, you will be offered the task of escorting a young princess to a nearby warlord for her arraigned marriage. She offers you money and equipment to let her escape. If you complete the task as ordered, the player gains experience and new quests. Itís up to you to pick good or evil depending on the reward. In my case, I allowed her to escape and I received the added bonus of adding her to my party.

Your party dictates the number of people brought to battle and the bonuses they provide. The princess I mentioned attempts to charm good characters before battle while my Dark Elf will immediately do 10 points of damage on any undead creature. Your party will also offer conversation from time to time and fight amongst each other. So far, my favorite ancillary character is Drong the Ogre. He loves to take a bite out of enemies I come across.

When you want to take a break from quests, you can concentrate on building up the Citadel. Itís an area that unlocks new gameplay features such as conquering towns or creating magical items. While the Citadel is expensive to build, the rewards can be fantastic. For instance, taking over other castles in the kingdom will increase the amount of gold in your wallet due to taxes. With a game that already had huge depth in questing, the Citadel is just another deep facet to explore.

The player can also ride mounts within the game. As soon as a dungeon / stables has been built at the Citadel, the player can capture a mount and train it. Capturing requires the player to have beaten it three times in regular play and a different jewel mini-game. This mini-game requires the player to completely rid the board of jewels. These puzzles gradually increase in difficulty as the quality of the mount is raised. Training mounts requires the player to face off against the beast in a timed match. While it takes a substantial amount of time to complete, the rewards are great.

You can take your character from the single player campaign out into the multiplayer at any time. Basically any progression you have made in the single player campaign exists in multiplayer, offline and online. Winning matches boosts your character stats and increases the amount of gold in your wallet. Players can choose from the typical Xbox Live choices or just play a head-to-head match with a local friend. The matches I participated in were fairly entertaining, but those who donít turn on the handicap feature will be annihilated be an opponent with a much higher level. One aspect of the multiplayer that detracts from the experience is the lack of a rematch feature. Players are kicked out of the game immediately after someone wins. That's fine for playing with strangers, but competing with friends can be a chore.

Similar to the achievements in Castlevania, these 12 tasks will take a considerable amount of time to knock out. The 200 points are weighted heavily to the single player campaign with a single achievement offered for completing a single multiplayer round. Others are assigned to beating bosses or Citadel related tasks. Overall, itís a solid grouping of achievements, even if it will takes ages for the casual gamer to complete.

The artistic beauty of Puzzle Quest: RotW cannot be understated. Visually, there isnít a better-looking version of this title on any platform. High definition gives the artwork a distinct flair and enhances the character design. The minor amount of character animation is smooth and the small use of lighting and smoke effects are quite polished. Perhaps most importantly, the text is easy to read on a high-def screen. Besides a sliver of slowdown when the developer names pop up when loading, the game runs very smoothly.

The music in the title has a sweeping, epic nature and reminds me of the Lord of the Rings soundtrack. It incorporates itself into the battles as the intensity of the song raises and crescendos to a frantic level. The sound effects are typical of a battle and the jewel swapping auditory level doesnít grate on the nerves after hours of play.

While 1200 points seems like a hefty price for an Xbox Live Arcade release, this is actually the cheapest version (PC, DS, PSP) of Puzzle Quest: CotW in existence. The single player campaign is challenging, interesting, and provides a bevy of choices to modify your playstyle. While the multiplayer doesnít offer a huge amount of replay value, it does offer an occasional breath of life when you revisit this title from time to time. If you are a fan of classic role playing games and puzzles, you shouldnít have any second thoughts about snatching up Puzzle Quest: CotW. Itís the deepest arcade title currently on Xbox Live and will surely offer hours upon hours of entertainment for all that purchase it.