Xbox ONE Reviews

Marvel Puzzle Quest: Dark Reign Review: Pay to Play Turns Out to Be Better Than Free to Play

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I’ve been playing Marvel Puzzle Quest off and on since the game came out on mobile around two and a half years ago. I’m a big Puzzle Quest fan from all the way back to the original so the idea of the addicting Match-3 gameplay mixed with all kinds of Marvel heroes and villains sounded like a win-win to me.

Well the free to play nature of the game on mobile has led to a roller coaster of changes and revamps over the years as well as tons of opportunities for the game to milk every last little penny out of you for playing the game. All I ever wanted was a version like Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords where I paid a flat fee and got everything the game had to offer. Well, enter Marvel Puzzle Quest: Dark Reign on consoles.

Marvel Puzzle Quest: Dark Reign does exactly what you would expect it to do for a title on consoles with a price tag of $14.99. It ditches all of the free to play aspects of the mobile game, leaving you with the full roster of heroes and villains to unlock and level up over the course of the game’s lengthy story campaign. You’re no longer required to pay for card packs to unlock characters, no waiting to use your characters because they are injured and no dumping Iso-8 into characters to level them up. Instead you earn experience by using characters in battles and unlock new characters as you progress through the story. You know, like a real video game!

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If you’ve never played a Puzzle Quest game before, first off what have you been doing with your life? Secondly, you’ll find the game takes place on a large grid of icons similar to video game classic Bejeweled. You swap pairs of tiles horizontally or vertically to make matches. Unlike past Puzzle Quest games, each match is going two different things: dealing damage and earning your points in that color.

You enter combat with three different Marvel characters of your choosing. The roster in Marvel Puzzle Quest is impressively large with a host of heroes and villains from all lines of Marvel properties, sometimes including unique versions of the same character with different abilities. Each character has two or three abilities based around a color. Getting enough points in that color lets you unleash that special ability.

The real uniqueness of Marvel Puzzle Quest over past Puzzle Quest games comes from that three character team that you assemble. With dozens of characters to choose from each with their own, unique abilities, it really comes down to fine tuning a team that works best for how you want to play. You’ll start off with a variety of characters to choose from and new characters are added as you progress through the story. Fortunately these new characters are already pre-leveled so you can slide them into your lineup without having to focus on grinding them up all the way from level one.

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The variety of abilities at your command is staggering and the tactics you can employ is equally impressive. You can deal direct damage to enemies, change the colors of tiles on the board, place counters on the board that have a powerful effect when activated. You can increase your own damage or protection by morphing the board into attack or protect gems, giving you aid but also allowing the enemy to clear those away to remove the effect. You’ll shift stun enemies so they can’t act, you’ll move tiles around the board, you’ll steal special tiles away from the enemy. The options and combinations of powers are practically endless. The gameplay of Marvel Puzzle Quest is the strongest we’ve seen in a Puzzle Quest game so far.

With all the positives of moving away from free to play, there are unfortunately an almost equal amount of negatives. The entire experience of Marvel Puzzle Quest feels almost lifeless on the console compared to mobile. You go into the menus, you pick a story section, read through some dialog, beat up some bad guys, rinse and repeat. On mobile there are daily bonuses, constantly changing missions, asymmetrical PVP missions and more that constantly make the game feel alive and living, something that is essential for any free to play game. On consoles the game is neat and tidy but it goes way too far, leaving out a lot of the cooler reasons to keep checking in on the g

There is also something to be said about how they handle leveling and upgrading characters in the console version. Leveling up characters is as simple as earning experience for having them in battle. However with 300 levels to climb through, the characters you don’t play with are quickly going to be left behind and become completely unusable at later levels without serious amounts of replaying older levels to bring them up.

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There is also the aspect of unlocking abilities for characters. You unlock and level up abilities by collecting comic book covers of that character. The only way to get these covers is by beating levels, in which you are rewarded a single cover at random. In other words it could be for any ability for any character in the game, whether it’s a character you use or not. I’ve been using Wolverine, Black Widow and Iron Man as my main team and with all three of them sitting around level 220 I’m not even close to maxing out their abilities. Most of their abilities are at level one or two out of a total of five levels.

Maxing out your characters and upgrading all of their abilities isn’t crucial to beating the game – honestly with some good team building and strategy the game never really gets that difficult – but coming from the mobile side I know how powerful some of those abilities can get when they are leveled up. For example, my Iron Man has an ability that gains a bunch of yellow points at the expense of stunning himself for a couple of turns. At higher levels of the ability he gains yellow, blue and red with a slightly higher cost. When will I get the ability to see that? Who knows.

The story of Marvel Puzzle Quest is mildly interesting but never really rises to anything special. A mysterious element dubbed Iso-8 has shown up all over the world and it has enormous energy that can be used for good or evil. Norman Osborne wrestles control of SHIELD from Fury and leads a group of Dark Avengers to uncover and capture all of the Iso-8. It’s really interesting to see their take on evil versions of the Avengers, such as Juggernaut being the evil equivalent of The Hulk, Venom as Spider-Man, Bullseye as Hawkeye and so on. Still the story really only serves to get you from point A to point B.

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Marvel Puzzle Quest on consoles is a really weird title. On one hand the ability to run through the game without having to deal with any of the free to play stuff is basically all I’ve ever wanted to do with the game. Stripping out the free to play stuff drastically changes the way the game plays in so many positive ways. However, it also has the side effect of making it a mildly hollow experience with a lot of stuff from the mobile game missing. The removal of the free to play elements also didn’t do a ton to negate the amount of grinding required to fully level and upgrade a roster of over 50 heroes and villains. Even with all of those caveats, I think it’s still the best way to experience the sheer joy of the best Match-3 puzzle gameplay out there.

SCORE: 8.5 out of 10

A code for Marvel Puzzle Quest: Dark Reign was provided to Pixel Related for review.

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