It’s hard to take the rules of a card game as successful as Magic: The Gathering and turn it into a thrilling experience outside of its original medium. Direct versions for mobile exist that follow the games design to the letter of the law and manage to be dry, lifeless and overly-complex experiences. Compared to games such as ‘Elements’, which does much the same but allows for the benefits of its medium, there’s not been a really great Magic game.
People have tried. Acclaim and MicroProse gave it a good shot but came up short, whilst ‘Magic: The Gathering Online’ was developed in-house by Wizards of the Coast and still felt like a mess. ‘Duels of the Planeswalkers’ tries hard to make games dynamic, but ultimately just makes people want to go any dig out their cards for a ‘proper’ game. When the team behind ‘Puzzle Quest’ announced that their latest game would be a fusion of the two properties there was some degree of doubt as to whether such a change to the games systems could world. Puzzle Quest was of course the original Puzzle RPG, matching a fantasy realm with match-3 mechanics very successfully but a lacklustre sequel then a shameless series of IP grabs (Marvel, Ghostbusters, Adventure Time, etc) have done little to forward the genre. Luckily the central concept of matching elemental icons to play cards actually turns out to be an engaging fit for both series.
Graphically the game uses a similar style to the ‘Planewalkers’ series, with the same kind of visual currencies and high-quality art assets to draw from. The menus and buttons are presented in a classy manner that makes the game more of a hub for Magic than a fictional world and allows for various options by tagging a website-style menu. Some of these pages work better than others however, with the Planeswalkers (characters essentially) page being awfully fiddly to browse through without accidentally scooting past the character you want or selecting one by mistake and having their information fill the screen. The game makes very good use of timeline-like vertical lines to represent unlocking progress and small orbs contain both the encounter number and fill with liquid to represent completion total. In battles the game uses high quality 2D art assets and renders a similar layout to other Puzzle Quest games, though the more adult and serious tone of the artwork makes the game stand out next to ‘Marvel’ or ‘Adventure Time’ renditions.
Audio is clear and crisp, with some samples taken from ‘Planeswalkers’ whilst others are recorded specifically for this title in high-quality audio. Musically the game uses some very nice pieces that appear to feature real rather than synth instruments for the most part and continue for a lengthy period of time before looping seamlessly. Both audio and visual presentation for this game are top-notch and although neither present a new twist on the property they maintain the professional ‘feel’ of Magic in excellent form.
Though the game features only a light story it does employ some scene setting to teach the player the game and introduce some of the basic concepts of the mythos. Initially given a single ‘Green’ avatar to control (called a Planeswalker in-game), a short introductionary prelude talks over the rules before building up to a confrontation with another, more powerful character. At this point a third Planeswalker with a greater power level than your own arrives and the two exchange a brief text dialogue before you switch to this new character for the final fight. That done the game opens up in earnest and the game becomes a series of battles with only short text descriptions to add flavour to them. Infinite Interactive appear to be aware that people don’t come to Magic for its story, and instead set up only a brief framework from which to springboard gameplay. They have however included more content in this manner than I originally expected, and in doing so should be applauded for the way they have accomplished this balance.
High quality graphics, sound and a basic story serve to highlight the gameplay, which is the real reason one would download this freemium title. The game manages to present some exceptional highs and worrying lows over the course of this area. The high point is that the game integrates deck building and avatar levelling mechanics around its match-3 formula, with new cards unlocked through play, weekly rewards (with daily rewards leading up to this) and of course in-game purchases using premium currency that is given out slowly or purchasable with real money. Packs are overpriced, but a strong deck can be maintained using the free cards at first. New avatars with their own skills can health totals can also be purchased, and at launch the game has one for each colour available. Events are as-yet not a factor, but I imagine soon limited-edition characters and competitions will begin to appear. The single player campaign is easy to complete but will take time to 100%, in which period more can be added, and HP serves as the barrier to entry, with your avatar regenerating slowly and having persistent health. Battles see you using the traditional match-3 formula to infuse cards in your deck with mana. At the start of a match your deck will be limited to a single card, but at the start of each turn additional cards are drawn. When a card is sufficiently powered it comes into play and at the end of each turn will attack the opposing avatar. You can stack monsters of the same type to increase their stats but only field three different monsters at a time, making decisions on what to hold back or play quite important. To aid the player they can stack their deck by swiping right to view it and re-order as they choose, with only the card at the top gathering mana unless that card is already full, then continuing down the pile. Spell cards also factor and fit into effects that are instant or persistent on the board, with the later represented on the tile grid. Reducing an opponent to zero health whilst maintaining your own is the key mechanic here and for the most part it works exceptionally well, with special rules such as ‘fly’ and ‘trample’ represented on monsters to add strategic depth, as too do Avatar abilities that unlock as you level up. Quick battles are also an option, and these pit you against human opponents online, giving the game much-needed replay value past the initial campaign. This all feels incredibly organic and is possibly the most addicting and well balanced variation on Puzzle Quest I’ve encountered to date, incorporating some Magic rules (such as Summoning Sickness) but dropping many others to make a better experience. The bad news however is that the game is glitch and some menus are too fiddly. I had to restart one tutorial multiple times because it wouldn’t recognise a simple finger gesture that I’d not struggled with once outside that tutorial. The game crashed several times mid-battle even though I had a stable connection at the time (online play is needed) and worst of all after unlocking a significant amount of content and despite being linked to my Facebook account the game simply ‘forgot’ my progress, undid my purchases and dumped me back at the beginning of the campaign one morning with no hope of getting anything back. These are some serious flaws.
Overall, I’d advise people check out this game as it is the best version of the Puzzle Quest formula we’ve seen to date, but don’t spend your premium currency too quickly and risk losing progress. Wait for an update to stabilise the experience and consider what you want to spend it on carefully. I personally won’t be re-playing anything for a while.