The Puzzle Quest series was one of the first titles to mix the match 3 and RPG genres successfully, and Puzzle Quest 1 and 2 are still solid entries into the sub-genre years after their original release (though ‘Puzzle Quest 2’ is notable by its absence in digital stores these days). With the main-line titles spinning off into licensed properties such as ‘Magic: The Gathering Puzzle Quest’ and ‘Marvel Puzzle Quest’, it’s been left to Gems or War to carry the banner for original content in this respected series.
Developed by Infinity Plus 2 and produced by 505 Games, Gems of War is effectively the MMORPG to Puzzle Quest’s single player campaign, combining guilds, PVP and a party building system based on drawing cards of various rarities in a gattcha-style system. It’s a big step away from the single player experience, but it does manage to preserve a unique sense of world that’s missing from the recent mobile efforts, and is utterly enjoyable on both the small screen and across consoles to steam, with a recent Switch release showing there’s no slowing this title down.
Graphically the game makes use of 2D illustrations, rendered in HD that look visually crisp on both mobile and on larger TV screens and monitors. Character designs are numerous and varied, but all maintain a singular art style that unifies the whole game’s feel, and everything from the lowest snow bunny to the most powerful of angelic beings feels linked through this style. The game went through something of a visual re-imagining a while ago that dramatically overhauled and streamlined its design and presentation to look more modern and less kitch, with everything taking on a more streamlined appearance whilst retaining the original artwork for characters and cards. This dedication to keeping the game feeling visually relevant in an evolving market, that includes an endless stream of free to play match 3 titles on mobile, is admirable and shows the care and attention that has clearly been lavished on this game by Infinity Plus 2.
The music for Gems of War has a good, epic feel that matches the fantasy world that they are trying to present. Some loop better than others when the game is left inactive, with the tune for battle being well suited for this but the overworld theme fading out before blaring back in again from its strong opening chords. Sound effects are limited in quantity (gem matching, attacking and select/decline notices accompanied by a few vocal samples) but don’t feel out of place and rarely stand out against the title. As a Match-3 it’s likely the kind of game that will be played muted on a portable, which undermines the epic feel that enjoying the game on a big screen with the sound up can provide for battles, which can feel trivial when separated from the trappings that surround them. Little feels as good as winning a long-fought conflict across the games grid, hearing the victory chords play as the death rattle of your last opponent sounds out and the coins come rolling in to reward you.
Rather than present a single narrative, Gems of War presents a series of locations that your custom-made avatar explores and each of these is a self-contained adventure with its own NPC companion and narrative flow. It’s a great way to build episodic content and allows for players to delve into the experience if they want, reading the character dialogue and banter between each battle, or tune out for a single location and skip it all to concentrate on the gameplay without feeling like they will miss anything they may need later. It also means that the devs can bolt in new areas and events with little damage to the main campaign. At times the format of NPC information and single sentence reply from your character can seem a little dry, with many of these occasions simply having your character say ‘ok’, ‘alright’, ‘let’s go’, etc when there’s no real need for him/her to speak at all, but the NPC dialogue can also be highly amusing.
Gameplay sees you presented with a vast overworld of locations that you unlock one at a time, starting with a single location that unlocks 2/3 others that then unlock more and from there the game plunges you deep into its setting. Selecting any location you’ve unlocked presents you with its story campaign, a series of battles linked with a narrative device that when completed unlocks a free-play mode, the NPC from that location as an Epic card in your inventory and a series of challenges. It also unlocks a series of special missions to learn that NPC’s class, which when mastered becomes a powerful addition to your player arsenal. You build a party of up to 4 characters (optionally including your avatar, who can be levelled, change class to unlock passive buffs, equip a weapon and a pet) from a growing pool of cards that are presented to you through play or more commonly drawn from a series of chests in the store. Lower level cards are common and can be grinded out with gold, whilst the most powerful ones are in events and gem-locked chests that need to be ground out in order to pull from. You can survive and build up a mean force of lower level cards but fusing duplicates to increase their rarity and unlocking perks with them, but our advice would be to join a guild to really maximise your experience. Guilds have their own special missions and events, and communally unlock heaps of chest keys, gold, experience and gems through members acting to the benefit of the guild. The game also throws regular dungeons, quests, challenged and events at the player as side-quests and has a second underworld to explore once the main campaign is defeated. There’s no shortage of content, all built up around the central mechanic of swapping traditional turn based combat for match-3 mechanics. These battles take place on an 8×8 grid filled with a randomly generated selection of elemental jewels and skulls. Lining up 3 or more skulls will deal damage whilst 3 or more elements will power up characters in your party of the matching type to allow them to release special moves that effect play in a variety of ways. Not all of these deal damage or heal, some will remove rows, blow the board or deal status effects among other more inventive mechanics to shake things up. Lining up over 3 icons guarantees a bonus turn before the opponent can act, and these can be handily used to match and trigger skills to good effect. The AI is savvy enough to spot groupings of 4 or more too however, and will make you regret not seeing them sooner, though will prioritise these over skulls, often meaning you avoid damage. You’ll battle your way down the opponent’s team of 4, attacking the top monster in the line as standard, and it will do the same with yours, making positioning important, and when one side of the battle is completely wiped out the battle ends. Some battles play with this mechanic more than others, visits to the Treasury are all about merging 3 or more of a kind to unlock progressively better rewards in a given number of turns, whilst special dungeons are shown as maps where you choose your next battle but persistent health between matches needs to be taken into account. It’s a fully rounded package of material that’s available free to the player, though occasional pop-in adverts for one-time purchase sets of cards and Gem bonuses to appear from time to time and some of the best cards are significantly easier to claim if you pop for access to a unique draw-pool for the gattcha system instead of grinding away for them. Your tastes for this will vary, with some finding it a trivial annoyance and others hating it.
Overall, Gems of War is perhaps the best entry into this growing series to date and after its dramatic graphical overhaul it’s certainly the most visually appealing. Though you can’t link your console accounts to your mobile one for unified play (though you can with the Steam edition) the game IS well worth your time on a console such as the PS4, where the large screen allows the artwork to shine and makes picking out patterns in the grid an easier experience. Potentially the Switch edition has it best in this regard, as you can have both the portability of the mobile game and seamlessly transition to the big screen at home. We ran the game on both mobile and console independently for this review and found both experiences deeply enjoyable, recommending that whatever your platform of choice is you download and try this title out for yourself.