We don't know about you, but there's two games in particular that we find can eat up way too many hours of our time - Pokemon and Bejeweled. Whether it's our infamous 460 hour save on Pokemon Pearl or having maxed out our level on the Xbox 360 version of Bejeweled Blitz, our love of the two games borderlines on obsessive. And with their latest game for the 3DS, Nintendo have aimed their sights squarely at our free time, with a double pack of games best described as the product of a steamy love affair between Pokemon and Bejewelled - the dragon themed Puzzle & Dragons Z, and their own Mario-inspired take on the formula, the inventively titled Puzzle & Dragons Z: Super Mario Bros. Edition.
Puzzle and Dragons Z is essentially a cross between the match three role-playing game Puzzle Quest and the monster collecting/raising/evolving of Pokemon. Starting out life as a smart phone game in it's native Japan, with a team of six monsters by your side, it's up to you to 'explore' the game's dungeons through a series of match-three based battles, where each colour of orb corresponds to a different elemental monster's attack. As you defeat enemies, your team accumulates experience points and becomes more powerful, letting you take on more advanced dungeons, hatch new monsters and evolve your existing ones, crafting yourself the ultimate Puzzle & Dragons team as you go.
It's a surprisingly addictive formula, and one that's been hugely successful, particularly in Japan, where it's seen umpteen spin-offs and special event collaborations with other games companies. In a rather unusual move, the latest games company to join in with the Puzzle & Dragons mania is none other than Nintendo, bringing not one, but two Puzzle & Dragons games to the 3DS - in one handy double pack. The first, Puzzle & Dragons Z is a sort of 'enhanced port' of the original mobile game, but with added towns, characters and other such role-playing game elements to make it more of a complete game, worthy of a paid release. The second however adds a bit of a Nintendo twist on things, bringing the core Puzzles & Dragons gameplay to the Mushroom Kingdom, in which is a pretty swish Mario puzzle adventure.
Puzzle & Dragons Z
Puzzle & Dragons Z kicks off with you, playing as a young boy/girl say goodbye to your mother, as you leave your house and set off to the local lab-like Ranger HQ to take the Dragon Tamer test and adopt your first dragons, who'll likely stick by your side through the world-saving adventure you're about to embark on. Sound familiar? That's because, outside of its match three battles, Puzzle & Dragons Z is basically a Pokemon game - which is never a bad thing.
Set on the fictitious continent of Dracomacia, a land where humans and dragons coexist peacefully, things have recently taken a turn for the worse. Following a terrible earthquake, the ground itself literally splits apart into giant, jigsaw shaped chunks, opening up massive chasms all over the place. With the dastardly Paradox organisation likely behind the earthquake, and hypnotising the world's god-like Skydragon deities, someone needs to go and put them in their place and hunt down Dracomacia's World Pieces, which have been spread all over the globe, so the world can be pieced back together again. And, in traditional video game style, that someone is you.
Joined by your friends Sara and Nick (with the former causing a bit of confusion with our character, given our name is Sarah), you set off on a journey through the dungeons of Puzzle & Dragons Z, battling with the local wildlife who've been whipped up into a frenzy by Paradox's actions. Before long, you're joined by a little blue rabbity-dragon thing who soon proves to be invaluable in your quest - but, despite his cuteness, we were a tad disappointed by Syrup, as he came to be known. You see, as part of the story, Sara and Nick argue over a name for your dragon companion, as it turns out he's a bit of an amnesiac. Sara votes for the sickly sweet Syrup, while Nick goes for 'Biceps Rex the Brawny Megabunny', before changing his mind and opting for 'Fuzzy the Pumped-Up Muscle Dragon'. As they can't make up their minds, the decision soon falls to you. Or so it seems, because, despite us siding with Fuzzy the [yada yada], the game was pretty determined he should be called Syrup, repeatedly asking us if we were sure, if we're sure we're sure, and if we're 100% utterly totally completely sure, before reverting to Syrup regardless. He'll always be Fuzzy the Pumped-Up Muscle Dragon to us though.
In order to piece the world back together, you need to head into increasingly challenging dungeons in and around Dracomacia, beating the bosses, and various Paradox members, you encounter along the way. What that means in practice is that you take on several back-to-back match three battles, where you simply need to match the coloured orbs to perform an attack, with each colour corresponding to one of your team of monsters. Make a match of red icons, and your fire character attacks; make a chain of blue, and your water monster has a go. With five different elements, and six monsters in your team, it makes sense to have at least one monster of each element in your party, as each one has it's own strengths and weaknesses versus the other types - and, perhaps more awkwardly, if you make matches of an element you don't have a monster for, you don't trigger an attack and effectively waste your turn. The more matches you manage to make during your go, the higher your combo becomes, and the more damage you'll manage to do before your opponents get a move in. To defeat them, you simply need to reduce their health bar to zero before they damage you too much - although making a few matches with the heart-shaped blocks on the grid should patch you up, no trouble.
As you defeat enemies, your party earns experience points, becoming more powerful each time they level up. You can also make them even more powerful by evolving them, via the jigsaw piece 'chips' you sometimes get from battles. Each monster requires a certain mix of chips to make it evolve, and sometimes has a choice of evolution paths to pick from, which lead to different monsters with different abilities and skills. You'll also periodically pick up new monster eggs from dungeon excursions too, which can be hatched in the lab for brand new monsters to add to your party, giving you oodles of options with which to craft your perfect team, whether you prefer the tough looking dragons or the more cutesy monsters.
Puzzle & Dragons: Super Mario Bros. Edition
The other half of the compilation, Puzzle & Dragons: Super Mario Bros. Edition is everything it says on the tin - a Mushroom Kingdom take on the winning Puzzle & Dragons formula. Perpetually kidnapped Princess Peach has been snaffled by Bowser once more, and it's up to Mazza and the gang to save her, using the power of the mysterious orbs that have appeared all over the land. Essentially giving Puzzle & Dragons a Mario skin, you'll spend your time making matches, recruiting various Mario characters and enemies alike, and raising your team into something worthy of taking on the King of the Koopas himself.
Generally speaking, how Super Mario. Bros. Edition plays is very, very similar to how Puzzle & Dragons Z plays - you go from stage to stage, this time done up in full Mario World regalia, with pipes, blocks and such everywhere, moving coloured orbs around the grid on the Touch Screen to attack the enemies that pop up along the way. As before, it's a simple case of matching gems of the same colour element as one of your party members to launch an attack, and chaining multiple matches together to power them up for increased damage, until your opponents health is reduced to zero. Boss fights, branching paths and treasure help break up what is essentially a string of match three puzzles up a bit, while Mario fans will certainly appreciate the amount of references the developers have managed to cram in too.
Much like with Puzzle & Dragons Z, your team - which in the early days is almost entirely made up of different colours of Koopas and little else - can be levelled up, evolved and generally improved as the game goes on. By visiting one of the many Toad houses scattered around the map, you can choose to either power up your team members by sacrificing one of your duplicate allies to increase another's stats - such as adding the power of a low level Goomba to a higher one to up it's stats even more - or you can go the whole hog and transform an ally into a more powerful form. Using the items you accumulate from winning battles, such as Super Mushrooms, P-Wings and more, you can go from Koopa to Koopa Paratrooper and Goomba to Paragoomba, making them more powerful in the process.
But, therein lies a potential problem with Super Mario Bros. Edition - the selection of characters to make your team from just doesn't seem anywhere near as varied as in the original Puzzle & Dragons Z. There's theoretically a lot to choose from - a version of Mario/Luigi for each of the popular Mario power-ups, such as Fire Mario, Cat Mario and Penguin Luigi, five different colours of Toad/Yoshi and more Koopa variants than you can count on one hand - plus Goombas, Thwomps and Cheep Cheeps, and many more. But we can't help feeling like there seems way too many recolours and 'now with added wings!' rehashes in the selection - it's not necessarily the fault of either Nintendo or the Puzzle & Dragons developers either, and more a quirk of the source material, but getting a new 'Baddie Box' to 'hatch' into a new party member doesn't seem anywhere near as exciting when the odds are it'll just be yet another Magikoopa variant.
It may have a bit of a clumsy sounding title, but Puzzle & Dragons Z + Puzzle & Dragons: Super Mario Bros. Edition isn't a bad game - it's a rather addictive blend of match-three battling and monster raising, reminiscent of the result of a steamy love affair between Puzzle Quest and Pokemon. While the Super Mario Bros. Edition suffers from a lack of variety in terms of team-mates, the original Puzzle & Dragons Z more than makes up for things, cramming oodles of personality into half a tiny cartridge.
Format Reviewed: Nintendo 3DS