Addiction is a terrible thing; exhausting all in its grasp and leaving them a shambling, hollow shell of their former selves. Like a moth to a flame, I find I can't resist just one or two more rounds of Puzzle Quest, and all of a sudden three hours have gone by. It's an insidious time-killer that won't let go once you're in its grasp, even with the large number of problems that would kill any lesser game.
Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords is the combination puzzle/RPG that hit the handhelds a few months ago, newly reformatted for the TV screen and looking better than ever. The peaceful kingdom of Etheria has been taking it easy for centuries, free from the ravaging hordes of evil and undead that find fantasy realms so hard to resist. Needless to say, this peaceful state of affairs isn't going to last.
At the start of the game, you can choose one of four character classes, with four different portraits in each to act as your avatar. Knights and Warriors are good at using the skull tiles to deal damage, while Druids and Wizards are better at using mana from the colored tiles to cast spells. Each class has its own strengths and unique skills, but the core gameplay is the same for everyone: turn-based Bejeweled.
An eight by eight grid is covered in gems and symbols, and a move is made by swapping places between two adjacent tiles. At least one of the swapped gems has to complete a row or column of three or more, which then disappears and grants the player that tile's effect. Colored gems come in four types, powering mana in the four classic elements, while stars and coins give experience and gold bonuses, respectively. The skull tiles are where things start to get dangerous, though, because clearing three of them directly attacks your opponent.
Skulls are the most straightforward method of dealing damage, but there's no underestimating the power of a well-placed spell. While a nice, clean hit to the enemy has its place, casting Entangle for an extra turn can line up a chain attack. Alternately, turning all the blue mana into yellow, then following it up with another spell that harvests all yellow mana on the board, can lead to some seriously impressive combo action. Each encounter starts with empty mana reserves, so it can become a race to see which side gets the right mana the fastest. If the enemy AI was a bit smarter about using what it had, there might be some real strategic challenge to back up Puzzle Quest's mindlessly addictive quality.
Most of the problems with Puzzle Quest are the same that have plagued Bejeweled since its first incarnation. A little too much success is down to luck rather than strategy. Sure, you can see that holding off on a particular move will force the enemy to take it, guaranteeing a nice skull combo, but more often than not it's just as easy to grab the first move you see, trusting in luck to either give out a bonus move when the replacement gems falling from the sky line up just right, or to give the enemy a series of strong attacks there was no way to plan against. One of the experience bonuses is the Heroic Effort, which is granted when you get a five-move combo. I'd feel all sorts of clever if it could be planned for or created, but instead it's more like the game randomly decided to pat me on the head and hand me a cookie. Um... thanks?
Despite the all-but-broken strategy of the core gameplay, Puzzle Quest can easily knock hours off the clock without trying. Almost all enemy encounter can be wrapped up in less than ten minutes, and it's very easy to go from fighting creatures to capturing them, researching their skills, and testing them out against new opponents. Capture, research, and even forging new weapons from the runes won from various spots on the map have their own mini-games, and that variety goes a long way towards keeping the game fresh. If that doesn't do it, then full online play is available as well, although you'll want to develop a high-level character before seeing what kind of fight a real human opponent can put up. The over-use of chance means that Puzzle Quest will never be a tournament-level game, but it's still a good time, whether going up against a friend or just leveling up in the main game. The most important thing to remember though, is that four hours sleep is one of those ideas that only sounds reasonable fighting those last few monsters, and not so smart the next morning.