For those seeking commitment
Puzzle Quest 3 is the first mainline Puzzle Quest game to jump into the world of "free-to-play". The original games started out on Sony's PSP, and people swear by the greatness of Puzzle Quest 1 and 2. These games, developed by Infinity Plus 2, take the simple "Bejeweled" concept of a match 3 puzzle game and add RPG elements on top. You fight enemies, level up, build out characters, and play through a fantastical story all via the addictive match 3 gameplay. It's gameplay that your grandma can understand but with the added complexity of RPG stat building. If that sounds like something entirely your jam, I'd imagine that you're excited to get in on the ground floor with Puzzle Quest 3 (full release on March 23, 2022). Well are you ready to commit part of your life to Puzzle Quest?
I'm going to begin this review in the opposite way that Puzzle Quest 3 starts - I'm not going to jump straight into the game's commitment and monetization problems. Can Puzzle Quest 3 successfully navigate the pitfalls of free-to-play games? Well...
Setting out on the right foot
I love the gameplay loop of Puzzle Quest 3, and you will too. There are 6 types of puzzle pieces for you to match in sets of 3 or more, each belonging to a specific element. Those elements correspond to spells that your character can cast once you've matched enough of the associated color. You can also choose from several classes, each with their respective spell types to go along with their battle style. You can choose between the paladin, necromancer, shaman, berserker, and assassin. I went with the paladin because I thought the emphasis on healing/shielding spells seemed interesting, but the game allows you to create multiple characters so you're free to try them all out.
Battles (and the entire game) take place holding your phone horizontally, but this type of game is begging to be played in portrait (vertical) mode and I hope that Infinity Plus 2 implements that at some point. Otherwise enemies have specific weaknesses that are displayed on screen, and in addition to health you also have armor/resistance.
Each time you win a battle you'll earn a chest which can vary in value depending on how well you performed. Chests award new items for leveling up different parts of your character (gear, spells, etc.). You'll either need keys to open chests or you can collect minion creatures that will "go on a journey?" to open your chest after a set amount of time. Every piece of gear/spell/minion has their own rarity, so over time you'll want to collect and level up the higher rarity items.
If all of that sounds a bit complicated, well it is. Puzzle Quest 3's charm is in all of the ways that you can customize and build out your character. There are gear sets and specific spells that you'll want to work towards depending on the type of role you're trying to fulfill. I love games that let me build out the stats of characters, and Puzzle Quest 3 has tons gear types to collect and customize.
Your overall gear is scored with a number (299 in the screenshot above), and then the story will tell you the difficulty number of the next battle so you can decide if you're ready or not. If you don't want to proceed through the next chapter of the story quite yet, there are daily events and dungeons where you can grind more chests to obtain better gear. Puzzle Quest 3 also promises that "seasons" are coming soon.
I can't tell you too much about the story, because after starting the game I found it to be incredibly boring and there's always a skip button in the top right corner. Puzzle Quest 3 is definitely about the gameplay, and the only purpose of the story is to provide you with a path forward for items/rewards. Playing through the story unlocks "followers" with every chapter, and each follower has a specific purpose (usually allowing you to craft items). The game's presentation is also a huge leap forward compared to previous entries as this is the first Puzzle Quest game to feature full 3D characters. The graphics are great and it all runs at a smooth 60 fps, although the music can feel more than a little generic.
So obviously there's tons more here than just the match 3 gameplay, and it's a lot to take in. Beyond looking up guides, which by the way this game has been in beta on PC for nearly a year before its official launch, you can ask friends for help by joining a kingdom.
Clashing with your clan
This game encourages commitment, and not in a healthy way. We'll get to the other monetization methods soon, but Puzzle Quest 3 allows you to join a group of other players (similar to the idea popularized by Clash of Clans). The core concept of playing in Puzzle Quest 3's kingdoms (a group of 30 people) is this - You contribute roughly 5 "kingdom crests" per battle to your group, and there are weekly tiered rewards to redeem depending on the number of kingdom crests that your group has earned.
I joined a kingdom randomly via the official Puzzle Quest 3 Discord server, and it was an interesting experience...
First of all it turned out that the kingdom I joined is actually one of the more well known ones in the world of Puzzle Quest 3, and being part of the group has requirements. If you want to be a member then you'll need to contribute 375 kingdom crests per week. I'm no mathematician, but that works out to 75 games played per week or 11 games per day. Playing a game of Puzzle Quest 3 to earn ~5 kingdom crests takes about 5 minutes on average, so that's a requirement of playing for about an hour per day.
Honey I'm just here trying to enjoy puzzles and RPG mechanics... I'm no math wiz but you're telling me that I need to commit at least 7 hours per week? This kingdom also has a lower tier which requires half the time, but you're highly encouraged to hit those 375 kingdom crests anyway. These requirements are similar among other groups in Puzzle Quest 3, although it seems like I joined one of the more competitive kingdoms. Each week you'll earn better rewards the more that you contribute to the group. Puzzle Quest 3 is purposefully designed to force this type of commitment, and that's far from the only way they're trying to keep you invested.
I am not kidding when I tell you that Puzzle Quest 3 is using nearly every method of the mobile game whale playbook. Here's a small list of what I saw:
Subscription model - You can pay $10 per month for better "free" daily items in the shop
Shop integrated into gameplay - You need to visit the store to claim your free/subscription items every day
Multiple currencies - There are tons of currency types, often designed to hide the true dollar value of items
FOMO - Daily "deals" in the shop, daily quests, constant events that you don't want to miss out on
Disguised pay to win - You can spend "gems" to do a variety of things such as open chests faster, revive when you die, or buy items in the shop
Social proof - Playing in a group encourages habits and spending
The IKEA effect - Putting work into your character makes you value your time/money spent more highly
The amount of ways that this game is constantly trying to get your money is insane. I don't need to say more about Puzzle Quest 3's monetization strategy other than that it's the reason why I won't be playing this game beyond the review. I miss the days of buying a game and receiving a full game. I know from experience that there are ways to make a live-service games fun without constantly asking the player to spend money. I'm a mod in a Pokémon Go group of 2K+ members and I can assure you there is no commitment required when joining.
Early on during my time with my kingdom I asked members if they were able to truly play this game for free. Most answers were along the lines of "yes, but I want to give them some money especially for the subscription".
I'm not angry, I'm just upset
I really wanted to like Puzzle Quest 3. The core gameplay loop is fantastic, but this game will take every opportunity to ask for money and shove it into your face. It will also take every opportunity to subtly ask for money in the background. I understand that there is something to be said for enjoying F2P games without actually spending money. I've enjoyed games like Pokémon Go, Mario Kart Tour, and Genshin Impact without spending money. Puzzle Quest 3 takes things too far and makes it impossible to truly have fun while playing the game for free, although I don't doubt that Infinity Plus 2 has already captured their whales with the game's multifaceted monetization strategy.
Somewhere along the way after Puzzle Quest 1 and 2, most likely with Marvel Puzzle Quest, the series lost its soul.
Match 3 gameplay mixed with RPG elements remains fun and addictive
In-app purchases and monetization ruin the entire experience
Playing in a group should be fun but instead feels demanding