The original Puzzle Quest, from 2007, is one of those games whose genius is all right there in the title. It has puzzles, and you go on a quest. Its creators had a simple idea and executed it well: use a Bejeweled-style match-three puzzle game as the gameplay engine for a role-playing adventure, in which you combat enemies, level up, and follow a story. This genre mash-up from Australian studio Infinite Interactive, designed by Steve Fawkner, was all the more inspired for its incongruous, salted-caramel clash of two flavors: gaming at its most casual, abstract, and bite-sized, melded with a long-form storytelling genre known for depth and intricacy. It just worked.
A flood — alright, maybe a stream – of copycats followed, and then slowed to a trickle, before drying up completely. The world moved on. There remained an alchemical brilliance to Fawkner’s discovery, but the subgenre fell out of fashion, as subgenres often do. Puzzle Quest arrived just too early to make hay on smartphones, where GungHo’s similarly themed, free-to-play Puzzle & Dragons cleaned up a few years later — but even that game is no longer available on the iOS App Store.
All of which made the recent release of Puzzle Quest 3 a curiosity — not to mention a beacon of hope for people, like me, who like matching colors and watching numbers get bigger. But, I’m sad to report, in the intervening 15 years, Puzzle Quest has lost its way.
Puzzle Quest 3, which is available on Steam, iOS, and Android, can’t find the magic in that same simple connection of gems and stats anymore. It’s a polished game, with smoothly animated 3D characters unleashing flashy attacks on either side of the game board. But the core match-three action is unvarnished and basic, the pace of its interaction with the combat systems (you match gems to charge up spells of the same color) feels sluggish, the story is bland, and the many layers of RPG tinkering outside of combat weigh it all down. It doesn’t help that it’s a free-to-play game, with the attendant confusion of currencies and resources to regard with suspicion as you attempt to track them, wondering when the other shoe will drop.
The sense you get playing Puzzle Quest 3 is that the designers are more interested in the role-playing than the puzzles (and more interested in the monetisation than either). It’s been designed from the wrong end. In a good puzzle RPG, the puzzle gameplay is where the action is; the RPG is a superstructure that invests the puzzles with meaning and with stakes, and gives shape to your experience. But if the puzzling is boring — and it is in Puzzle Quest 3 — the rest of the game will be too.
If you crave a shot of simple match-three puzzles with a chaser of big numbers flashing up the screen, then I would recommend the more immediately satisfying Puzzle & Dragons instead, which has a decent enough new Nintendo Switch edition. But this subgenre has gone to much more interesting places in the last 15 years. Here are five of the best puzzle RPGs that you can play today.
One of the first Puzzle Quest clones out of the traps was this unlikely 2009 collaboration between Square Enix and Peggle developer PopCap. It takes the gameplay of PopCap’s Bejeweled Twist and adds creature collection and leveling along with ornate artwork and a typical Japanese RPG storyline. The cleverest aspect of the game is an elegant battle mechanic that derives all of its tension and sense of danger from you trying to solve the board without wasting moves, rather than waiting for a computer opponent to take a turn.
Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes
For my money, Capybara’s Clash of Heroes — which first appeared on Nintendo DS in 2009, and then in a definitive “HD” version for PC and consoles in 2011 — is the greatest puzzle RPG ever made. It might be more accurate to call it a puzzle tactics or puzzle strategy game, as its battle system can easily rival the likes of Advance Wars for sophistication. The simple concept of stacking and combining color-coded units is extrapolated through a beautifully balanced net of rules across five factions and a substantial, 30-hour campaign. It’s a shame publisher Ubisoft is unlikely to give this the full reissue treatment, as it’s a stone-cold classic.
Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes is available on PC (Steam, free demo available) and Xbox (backwards compatible Xbox 360 version). Note: some PC players have said that the game doesn’t work well on Windows 10/11.
You Must Build a Boat
If you fancy something more bite-sized and frenetic, EightyEightGames’ 2015 sequel to its mobile hit 10,000,000 is the tile-matching dungeon crawl stripped down to its barest essentials (with a little bit of endless runner thrown in). Your character runs from left to right, encountering monsters and chests, while you frantically scroll lines of tiles in an attempt to line up sequences to form attacks, keys, or buffs. You can’t lose, but you can get pushed off the screen, whereupon you go back to your boat to upgrade and regroup. You Must Build a Boat is funny, fast-paced, and very moreish.
Developer Capybara once again proves its mastery of the form, and its genius for original puzzle mechanics, with this color-matching, creep-smashing dungeon dive from 2019. As in Gyromancer, your true opponent is yourself: In an exquisite game of risk and reward, you attempt to string together ever-longer chains of color-coded monsters, while also earning grindstones, which make yet longer chains possible. Grindstone is admittedly light on the RPG side of things, though it does feature an extensive item-crafting system to help you bend and break its rules, as well as daily challenges, meta challenges, a boss rush mode, and more. The art and animation are grotesquely funny, and the design is unimprovable. No one is better at this than Capy.
Grey Alien Games are true outsider artists, former casual games developers who made an unlikely transition to Steam success with their delightful Jane Austen-inspired time-waster, Regency Solitaire. Ancient Enemy’s brooding dark fantasy theme isn’t quite so charming. But it makes up for that by developing a sophisticated, finely balanced RPG system around the simple act of clearing runs of cards, with the hand of solitaire you’re dealt standing in for the dice rolls. That wouldn’t count for as much as it does if the tactile pleasure of clicking on the cards, refined by Grey Alien’s Jake Birkett over many years and games, wasn’t so irresistible in itself.