Puzzle Quest 2 Preview: The Same, Only DifferentS

I got to spend a half hour this morning with Puzzle Quest 2, the sequel to a game I found so addicting that I'd rather play it than write up this preview. Is my life over come late spring?

In short, yes. While dramatic changes have been made to the navigation system, experience points, money, and equipment, at its core this is essentially the same game that so many fell in love with on the Nintendo DS, PSP, PC, Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network, and iPhone. It's just...different.

Two things saved me from sitting in my chair at the D3publisher booth all day long, playing Puzzle Quest 2. First, I had to make it to Stephen's panel, which I wouldn't have missed for the world. Second, the demo is timed.

Though a timed demo wouldn't have stopped me. With all four new character types - War Mage, Inquisitor, Barbarian or Assassin - available for play, I could probably waste at least two hours.

But alas, limited time and all, I opted to play as an Assassin, which the demo lady said was the hardest of the four new classes to play.

Bring it on.

It's not so much that the Assassin is hard to play, but that the Assassin is a bit more complicated. While the other three classes rely on the colored mana gems to cast spells or use skills, the Assassin's skills revolve around manipulating purple gems, one of two new types of gems, which increase your damage as you accrue them. Rather than casting spells, the Assassin's skills are more about finding the right opening, biding your time, and then attacking weak points for massive damage.

Of course, as a level one Assassin, there isn't much in the way of massive damage happening. Just some rat killing.

Puzzle Quest 2's map looks more like an isometric RPG or possibly even an adventure game than the original top-down, war game looking affair. Characters with quests appear on the map with the now industry-standard exclamation point over their heads, giving you tasks that generally revolve around fighting against monsters in a puzzle environment.

My first quest, a tutorial, simply had me making groups of three or more skulls, which is one of the ways to do damage in Puzzle Quest 2. Being an old pro, the rats go down quickly.

Soon I graduate to goblins, which are much tougher than rats. Luckily I now have a weapon as well. Weapons work by taking advantage of the second new gem type, the Gauntlet.

Equipment in the original Puzzle Quest added passive benefits, giving you extra mana, helping you cause more damage, or doing nifty things like clearing extra rows if certain conditions are met.

In Puzzle Quest 2, equipment takes on a more active role. Take the short sword I picked for my Assassin. After collecting enough of the Gauntlet gems, I could activate my sword like a spell, triggering a quick flash of Assassin attacking art before doing direct damage to my foe.

Equipping armor raises your armor class, as it would in a pen and paper role-playing game, lessening the damage enemies dole out, while wearing a shield would give you the option of a shield attack.

So there are three ways to directly damage your foes in Puzzle Quest 2, which should make for less rounds spent desperately waiting for skulls to align or mana to fill up.

There are tradeoffs to this new system, however. The Gauntlet and the purple gems replace gold and experience points. You still gather both at the end of each match, but you can no longer farm the board for more.

At the end of each round you are awarded a set amount of experience and gold, as well as materials you can eventually use to level up your equipment. So one dimension is removed, but another is taken away.

Alongside monster killing quests, Puzzle Quest 2 will also feature mini-game quests. One mission had me putting out a fire by gathering blue water gems, while avoiding red gems, which would heal the fire.

A half hour wasn't enough time to give me a comprehensive feel for how the game is going to turn out, but it has assuaged my fears about Infinite Interactive's ability to deliver an entertaining follow-up. I lost a little faith with Galactrix and Puzzle Kingdom, and was worried the developer might have simply lost the magic.

The magic is still there. It's just a little different.

Look for Puzzle Quest 2 to steal away large chunks of your life in late spring.