Puzzlewood Quests is a fusion of quiz-like puzzle game and light social RPG that seems to hit the sweet-spot between the two. At no point does it feel like it’s compromised the RPG mechanics to make way for more complex puzzles, whilst resisting the urge to become too fiddly with stats and character pimping to be a good quiz.
Developed by Downcast Systems (purveyor of electronic goods!), who at this time have produced only this one game. Far from strangers to development however, a book titled ‘How to Find and Land a Microsoft.NET Development Job’ is available through the main website and until recently had its own companion app. For a first entry into the gaming market however, Puzzlewood is an ambitious project. Its Math and English based questions make it suitably challenging, whilst memory games and path finding tasks show a flexibility that sees a total of 16 very different game types all represented. In a perfect world schools would be purchasing this application for use on interactive whiteboards and tablets.
Graphically, Puzzlewood is a mixture of 2D assets that vary in quality. Some of these are extremely well drawn illustrations for characters and monsters that take in many traditional mythic beasts and RPG class types and put them through a cute filter to produce compelling on-screen characters. Others, such as the doors that slam shut when the game begins to mask loading (which is very well implemented) are photographs that have been put through a Photoshop filter to make them look more cartoon-like. When the game implements assets in this style it can be a little jarring when compared to the high quality of the cartoon work on screen at most times, and can break the sense of immersion a gamer will begin to feel. Menus and text are implemented in a clean manner with space for bigger fingers to not feel squashed on smaller screens and questions – the most vital point in this game – are quick to understand and visually clear enough that you can work out the answer at a glance.
In terms of music, Puzzlewood uses some nice themes, with the main title screen having a very cinematic score that lends the game a sense of epic scope and urgency that might otherwise have been missing from a more relaxed puzzler of this style. Unfortunately this same theme is used for character select, world select and world map screens, which does give the game a lack of variety. Battles themselves use a separate theme with darker tones, though similarly cinematic in feel. Sound effects are high quality and very clear, giving taps of the screen a precision that is often lacking in smaller releases.
In a rare move for games featuring lighter RPG elements, the game features a solid narrative. Four characters, each with their own campaigns (a knight, young girl, young boy and demon woman respectively) can be played in a drop-in, drop-out manner and each has their own motivation for embarking on a world-spanning journey as well as additional story segments that forward that particular plot arc. These are told through text-based information screens that are unlocked through play and are represented on maps as scrolls in small circles. Whilst hardly a reason to play the game (its own mechanics see to that) the thought that has gone into this is appreciated. Each campaign also shows a different level of difficulty, making for a smooth progression between them as your learning curve increases.
Gameplay is a smooth blend of RPG mechanics and brain-training style questions. Taking on the role of one of the games four characters you’re immediately given access to a world map that contains 6 worlds (and 3 bonus worlds), each unlocking progressively as you enter the previous one and complete its internal map. These maps are linear paths that contain battles, shops to buy items and narrative segments to forward the story. Battles take the form of 1 on 1 contests against an opponent who is on a steady countdown, displayed at the top of the screen and your focus is in answering as many questions as possible before it hits zero and you take damage. Correct answers attack your opponent whilst getting a test wrong sees you quickly smacked for more damage and the counter reset. Monsters gain steadily in attack power and health totals as the game goes on, forcing you to play smarter. These battles also go from single opponents to a series of several, all on the one life-bar (which is regained automatically after the battle has been won or lost) making for more of a challenge over a longer period. 16 different puzzle types are incorporated in all, ranging from finding words in a scrambled selection of 4 letters, finding a route out of a maze for a small character, spotting the missing piece of a puzzle and solving mathematical problems amongst many more. One of the games key strengths is its wide range of these tests, which rarely repeat on sessions and are presented in a random draw of three puzzle types per opponent to keep you invested. It’s not without its flaws, I’ve personally been slapped down a number of times for forming the wrong four letter word from letters available even when that word was spelt correctly simply because the game wanted a different word altogether, and the path finding task can drain too much precious time to complete given its requirement, but these are small niggles and the game has the decency to pause the timer to allow the character to move or to show you an instruction before resuming. Tutorials are built into the game on each combat screen, allowing you to check what you’ll be doing before the fight begins if you want to. Shops you find along the way sell a selection of useful items for extending timers and restoring health mid-battle, but only one can be used in a fight. Equipment can also be purchased to give small boosts to your character’s stats. The most useful item in the game turns off one question type, meaning that if a player dislikes any single test they can simply remove it from the draw. The games RPG aspects come in from a levelling system that allows you to tailor your characters to your play style. Winning a battle gives experience and gold (for the shop) which triggers a level-up and allows you to spend a point on one of four key stats. These dramatically affect the way the game plays, with increased timers, defence, attack and even Exp gain (I recommend this as your first buy) making life easier for you in the later game. Social features include Facebook compatibility to show off your game-given title and compare progress with friends, giving a competitive edge to the overall experience.
Originally released as a freemium title with paid expansions, this method has been dropped recently in favour of a pay-once and get everything model that feels much more satisfying. The game has much more room for additional characters and worlds and I’d personally like to see it continue to be updated with additional content over the next few years. In terms of fusing the Puzzle and RPG genres, Puzzlewood has hit on a formula that feels satisfying to play and encourages you to keep dropping back into it in order to get a little further, stretching your own intelligence and ultimately playing you against yourself. I recommend you purchase a full copy immediate. You may not play through it in an intense period like I found myself doing, but the allure of the casual gameplay lends itself perfectly to smaller session throughout your working week.
NOTE: Since this review was posted, MBU Staff have provided Puzzlewood Quests with new artwork for the ‘doors’ used in-game that has been incorporated into the latest update. This has no influenced or altered the games initial score.