Developer: Gung Ho Entertainment
To say that Puzzle & Dragons has been a success for Gung Ho, both in the US and Japan, is a bit of an understatement. According to the Wikipedia entry for the game, the game brings in between $2 and $3.75 million every day. Also, the game has been downloaded like, a kajillion times (not a real figure) between all regions, and it remains a wildly popular game today. It?s also a pretty fun game, as far as free-to-play match-3 style games go. I played a ton of it on mobile platforms a year or so ago, and was hooked for a number of months. I even dropped about $50.00 into it, which doesn?t happen too often for me on those types of games.
So while I?ve been free of the Puzzle & Dragons bug for a bit, I was still pretty excited for this 3DS release, which combines the previously Japan-only release of Puzzle & Dragons Z with the new release of Puzzle & Dragons: Super Mario Bros. Edition. I was very curious to see how the in-app purchase portion of the original game would be removed or tweaked to accommodate a non-stamina focused method of playing. And for the most part, Puzzle & Dragons makes a pretty smooth transition from free-to-play with IAP?s to a standard retail video game experience.
At the onset of the game, you can choose between either the PADZ game or the Super Mario Bros. Edition. While I went straight to the SMB version of PAD included on the cartridge, I?d strongly urge new players, those that have never touched Puzzle & Dragons in any format, to give PADZ a shot first. It?s a bit easier and new player friendly than SMB Edition tends to be, and doesn?t seem to have some of the weird balance issues that plague the SMB Edition throughout. The trade-off there is that you get a needless RPG experience with PADZ that gets to be a bit too talky at points, but it still ends up being the better overall version of Puzzle & Dragons for newcomers to check out.
For those that haven?t played PAD before, here?s what you need to know. Yes, it?s a match-3 game that?s not too unlike the standard Bejeweled formula. You?ll have multiple colored orbs on a grid like playing field. If you match 3 or more, they?ll disappear, replaced by other orbs falling into place. Matching 3 red orbs will cause all red color assigned teammates to attack, matching 3 blue will cause blue teammates to attack, and so on. Each color represents an elemental property, with each element being weak or strong to another.
The biggest different between Puzzle & Dragons and other match-3 games of similar style is that when you move a colored orb from one place to the next, you have free range to do so, provided you finish moving within a handful of seconds. As you move an orb across the board, you?ll displace other orbs you come in contact with. So while you?re attempting to match 3 or more with a single orb, you can also manipulate the other orbs on the board, creating combo attacks that?ll add a multiplier to damage you dish out. One sound strategy in both versions of PAD included here is to create a diverse team so you can cover the full color spectrum in any given round. There?s some merit to making mono-color teams as well, but if you have a team of only red attacking characters, you?ll be making a lot of additional matches that do absolutely nothing for you.
This one mechanic, the ability to manipulate the other orbs on the board with the one you?re carrying, is what really propels Puzzle & Dragons above other match-3 titles of similar ilk. It adds an amazing amount of strategy to the game, can be somewhat difficult to master, and is always satisfying to pull off. I can?t count the number of encounters where I?ve just scraped by on a fight because I had a quick moment of clarity, and pulled off of a quick, multi-color combo that saved my bacon. It?s the addictive nature of the puzzle component in Puzzle & Dragons that will keep you coming back for more, and that carries over well to this 3DS compilation.
Of course, there?s a few other things going on here as well. As you defeat enemies in both titles, there?ll be a chance for you to gain them as an ally. You can customize your team with a leader, helper, and additional teammates. All teammates gain experience at the end of a battle, level-up, and eventually can evolve into newer, more powerful forms. The Super Mario Bros. Edition handles the menu aspect of this a bit better than PADZ, in that it gives you a simple menu location to switch between the different power-up activities. In PADZ you?re forced to run around a small town and main building, visiting each option, like powering-up, as an actual location. It?s a bit tedious, and doesn?t add much to the game. I can understand the need for some sort of immersion, but players familiar with PAD will grow bored of doing this quickly enough.
That said, Super Mario Bros. Edition also has a problem or two. The biggest of which is the numerous progress walls you?ll hit at different points within the game. This will likely start early for most players, around World 3, where the game essentially forces you to up your skill level considerably all at once. You?ll either get frustrated with this, or come to realize that there?s nothing wrong with blowing a life or two on any given match. There are very clear spikes in difficulty throughout the game from World 3 on, which really makes me wonder what they were going for in terms of balancing. It?s not a huge deal, and something that you can overcome with enough practice, but it?s likely to turn away many new players as well.
All together, especially if you already know you enjoy Puzzle & Dragons, I think this is a package worth checking out. I admittedly do miss the random draws for powerful monsters you get with the mobile version of the game, but I certainly don?t miss the restrictive stamina and IAP mechanics. And this compilation is pretty massive, featuring dozens upon dozens of hours between both titles, meaning that this is one 3DS game that can likely last you all summer. It?s also remarkably fun to play, and I think it will be a breath of fresh air for those that have played endless Bejeweled clones but have managed to miss Puzzle & Dragons in the past. So go ahead and check this one out, I don?t think you?ll be disappointed.