On the surface, Puzzle & Dragons is little more than a fancy Bejeweled-style match-three-things puzzle game crossbred with a basic RPG. Each set of three you clear does damage to a series of random enemies that pop on screen. Clearing Fire tiles will hurt Wood enemies more, Wood tiles hurt Water, Water tiles hurt Fire, and so on. You get a little bit of time each turn to move a piece around the five-by-six gaming board and make multiple matches, which adds a fair bit of strategy to the game, especially since doing any sort of decent damage makes combos a requirement, but otherwise, it’s functionally no different from the Candy Crush Sagas of the world. It’s a simple, fun, free, timewaster with a twist.
The mobile titles managed to garner a huge Japanese audience by nature of a vast collection of new characters/abilities to purchase and trade, and microtransactions for new scenarios, which is where the developer makes all their money. It’s a prime example of the nature of gaming in Japan in recent years. Unless you’re making a manga-inspired RPG, story and strong game design are slowly becoming lost arts, in favor of monster-trading titles, digital card collections, and cheapie cellphone games you can knock out in 10 minutes on the train to work. As such, Puzzle & Dragons, as a series, is less of a mentally satisfying puzzle than an engine for obsessive compulsion.
With that in mind, it’s hard to tell who exactly this 3DS port is for. For what it’s worth, the games included here aren’t lacking for sheer volume of content; both have at least 10 hours of content, and that’s if you’re an ace at it. The main Puzzle & Dragons Z game adds a Pokémon-esque overworld, side missions to perform, and a trite story about a teenager sent out to vanquish an ancient evil turning the world into a giant, broken jigsaw puzzle. The Super Mario Bros. edition is much simpler: a reskin of the basic mobile game, using New Super Mario Bros.’s layout, characters, and level design, without the NPC filled overworld, and no story, beyond Princess Peach being kidnapped yet again.
Saddling the game with even more console RPG trappings on top of a flimsy core game only highlights the flaws in both. Typical encounters involve selecting five monsters to do battle, all with different elements and helper skills, and matching their particular set of attributes against the enemy, rock-paper-scissor style, using the available elements available, and unlocked from the board. That’s the game on paper, at least. In practice, progress in Puzzle & Dragons Z and the Super Mario Bros. reskin have less to do with playing the right set of tiles and characters in harmony than the blind luck of actually getting a set of tiles conducive to playing the attacks you really need to slay with style. The more attack elements that get introduced, the less your chances of actually making that happen. In addition, the unappealing, juvenile story in the overworld is poorly juxtaposed and paced with the actual gameplay. When you start, it’s upward of 20 minutes before you even get to play your first tutorial dungeon, and very little of the tactics you will need to truly do well are introduced in it. Most of your time is spent listening to stock anime characters ramble about destiny and the fate of the world for hours. This is roughly the pace of the entire game, which makes playing it in small chunks difficult.
The Super Mario Bros. version is more satisfying in this regard, in that it’s much easier to just jump into a level and go to work in universally appealing environments, with characters everyone knows and loves. It still doesn’t fix the fact that getting through the game is reliant on factors that are in very little of your control, and it doesn’t take terribly long before the enemies drastically overpower you, no matter how well you’ve done in levels prior. It encourages grinding, which isn’t so bad for a simple puzzle game, but it’s still the least fun part of playing an RPG. The result is two lackluster RPGs slapped together with a basic matching game, minus all the gotta-catch-’em-all glee of obtaining new, fancier things. It’s not like mixing puzzles and RPGs can’t work, as Puzzle Quest has proven time and time again, but that’s a puzzle game made for the expressed purpose of being a fun RPG puzzle game. Puzzle & Dragons, as a series, is made for the express purpose of selling more Puzzle & Dragons, and this 3DS port makes that abundantly clear.