Nintendo may be making their first tentative steps into the murky world of mobile gaming, but Puzzle & Dragons Z + Puzzle & Dragons: Super Mario Bros. Edition proves that handhelds are still the platform of choice for discerning gamers on the go.
Containing two huge match-three puzzler RPG hybrids, balanced to be fun, compelling and deep without microtransactions and tedious wait-or-pay energy systems, it's a great value package full of quality content. All up-front, not doled out piecemeal.
Effectively it's also two games in one, but tempted as you may be to jump straight into the Super Mario Bros. Edition, Puzzle & Dragons Z is by far the best place to start.
Taking inspiration from Pokemon, Puzzle & Dragons Z is a fully-fledged RPG adventure that incorporates match-3 puzzling into its dungeon crawling and battling. After the world is ripped into pieces by the nefarious Paradox organisation and its armies of followers, you're cast as a fledgling dragon tamer tasked with raising a team of powerful monsters and restoring the land to its rightful state.
The story and characters are clearly designed with a younger audience in mind, meaning that it's completely earnest and slightly saccharine Saturday morning fare, but the plot and dialogue held my attention throughout the lengthy campaign. Well-written without being too involved and filling out the lore as it goes, it adds much-needed context and a reason to keep on matching.
Striking out from your home town (which is full of sidequest-giving NPCs, optional dialogue and a base of operations), you'll descend into a huge selection of dungeons with your team of monsters and a helper from one of your NPC pals or Streetpass contacts. Once you enter a dungeon you'll trundle along the corridors, sometimes choosing branching paths to follow on your way to an eventual boss, running into plenty of battles along the way.
Which, as you doubtlessly know, take the form of match-3 puzzles. With enemies arrayed in front of you like a classic dungeon crawler, you'll proceed to match colours that correspond to your monsters' elemental types, and doing so allows your respective monsters to attack. Enemies attack or use special moves after a certain number of turns elapse, striking at your team's cumulative health bar, which can be replenished by matching hearts. It's a simple setup that's easy to grasp, but deliciously deep and varied thanks to several major deviations (dare I say improvements?) over the traditional Bejeweled formula that we've seen cloned and copied so many times.
First off, orbs can be freely moved anywhere on the board and placed back down even if no match is made at the expense of a turn, all while shuffling other orbs out of position. It's therefore possible to plan and execute complex chains of combos and matches to best suit your team's colour match-ups, adding a satisfyingly complex layer of genuine puzzling and strategy to the proceedings. The more you play, the deeper your understanding of the mechanics becomes, making it feel totally unique from the likes of Candy Crush on a mechanical level.
Skills are also exceptionally important. Each of your monsters can pull off a unique ability mid-battle, governed by a limited skill gauge. Some monsters can heal your team in a pinch. Others can transform orbs into more useful colours or deal direct damage. Choosing which monsters to bring into each stage, and how to best use their abilities, becomes increasingly important as the stakes ramp up.
It's all underpinned by a robust Pokemon-style progression system. You'll constantly hatch new monsters from eggs with different skills and stats, or consume eggs you find to power up your existing crew. Collecting various items from defeated foes and treasure chests -- themselves a fun optional match-three puzzle -- allows you to evolve many of your creatures through several stages, increasing their durability, attack power and versatility. That said, obtaining some of the rarer evolution materials and monsters can require a little grind.
As such, Puzzle & Dragons Z compliments the compelling 'just one more go' factor of a puzzler with the compelling progression of an RPG, making for a deliciously moreish game.
After a few hours you'll be ready to try out the Super Mario Bros. Edition, which feels a lot like a meaty expansion pack for experienced players. Extremely light on story but heavy on battles, it's based around exactly the same principles and progression, only swapping out the dragons for Goombas, Koopas, Hammer Bros, Bullet Bills, Toads and other familiar Mario accoutrements.
However, it's also calibrated to be more challenging than Puzzle & Dragons Z from the off, requiring more in the way of careful planning and limiting your skills much more strictly, meaning that it can prove frustrating if you play it first. With Puzzle & Dragons Z under your belt, though, it's an enormous and satisfying slab of content.
The visuals are also exceptional. While Puzzle & Dragons Z uses sharp sprite art and 3D dungeon backdrops, very much resembling a substantially crisper DS title, Super Mario Bros. Edition is powered by crisp and detailed 3D models that look utterly gorgeous on the 3DS' top screen. Both games are colourful and varied to behold and accompanied by a serviceable soundtrack.
Though I always attempt to review games in a vacuum, I've noticed some of my peers criticising Puzzle & Dragons Z + Puzzle & Dragons: Super Mario Bros. Edition for removing microtransactions, claiming that not having to pay out or wait several hours to repeat stages somehow makes the battles less interesting. I can see their point but feel that they do the game a huge disservice. The lack of microtransactions and the pay-or-wait economy allows us to enjoy Puzzle & Dragons on our terms in the time we have, whether minutes or hours, and makes the adventure feel like a real game rather than a fragmented mess of cynical paywalls.
Or in other words, it's better, and a great fit for the 3DS.
- Two enormous games to enjoy with 3DS-specific features
- Unique match-three mechanics add real depth and strategy
- Addictive and versatile evolutions and progression; handsome visuals
- Fair and well-balanced, no microtransactions and energy systems
- Super Mario Bros Edition has bare-bones storytelling
- Forgettable soundtrack
The Short Version: Puzzle & Dragons Z + Puzzle & Dragons: Super Mario Bros. Edition is a fantastic package, containing two meaty match-3 RPGs and hours of quality content without a single microtransaction. Accessible, deep and involving, it's great for killing a few minutes or an entire evening at a time.
A perfect match for the 3DS.
8 – GREAT: Great games typically provide competent production values with a degree of innovation, personality and soul that's sometimes absent in titles that score lower. Or even just exceptional raw value on top of competent execution. There'll usually be a little something to stop games like these from reaching the very top - innovative but slightly flawed, fun but not groundbreaking - however you can buy games that score 8/10 with confidence.
Platform: 3DS (reviewed)
Developer: GungHo Online Entertainment