Here’s a neat trick. Take a series that has historically under-delivered, slap a license on it, and then adapt it from retail to a free-to-play model. Sounds like a recipe for disaster, right? But not only is Marvel Puzzle Quest Dark Reign a blast, it’s the first Puzzle Quest to crack its premise. It’s a match-3/RPG hybrid that delivers on both fronts.
Based on Marvel’s “Dark Reign” storyline from a few years ago, Marvel Puzzle Quest isn’t heavy on plot, but interstitial scenes between familiar heroes and villains are breezily written and enjoyable. There’s something to do with a recently discovered alien substance called ISO-8, and a mysterious S.H.I.E.L.D. wannabe called H.A.M.M.E.R., and a bunch of supervillains dressed up as the Avengers. Maybe it made more sense in print. Here, it’s a fine excuse to shuttle players from one action scene to another, switching between protagonists to set up glorious gem-swapping battles.
That’s right: battles. In Marvel Puzzle Quest, swapping colored gems in a grid will, indeed, make them vanish from the board. But depending on their color, they’ll also add to a mana pool for your heroes, and deal damage to your opponents. Once you’ve acquired enough mana of a particular color, you can unleash a special attack. It’s here that the game’s depth becomes apparent. Some heroes focus on offensive or defensive moves, and some can alter the board’s makeup in order to support their teammates. Assembling the right team to take down a specific villain becomes a matter of light strategy.
Unlike previous Puzzle Quest titles, Marvel Puzzle Quest never feels cheap. Super-foes like Juggernaut and Venom possess devastating moves in their arsenal, but one superpower they lack is precognition. They can’t tell what’s falling on the board next. Past games in the series always left me thinking that the dice were loaded, but not here. A good strategy and a team of properly leveled-up heroes usually suffices.
Because this is a free-to-play game, there is a bewildering virtual economy and a nigh-impenetrable character upgrade system. Every hero on your roster is represented by a comic-book cover in your inventory. Your inventory is limited, but you can combine identical covers to add to a hero’s attributes (in fact, you have to). Having gained a new power, you can raise your character’s level with the aforementioned ISO-8, but there are also “hero tokens” and “recruit tokens” and…
Presumably, the hope is that players will get frustrated enough to start hurling real money at the game. Even tightwads can have fun, though. It’s worth grinding through old events to try to mine new items, and an asynchronous multiplayer mode keeps things fresh even as you’re trying to level up your heroes enough to advance in the campaign. Frankly, there’s plenty to do in Marvel Puzzle Quest Dark Reign before you feel obligated to visit the shop page. It’s the first free-to-play game that’s ever made me feel like I was ripping someone else off.
Mitch Krpata is a freelance writer based in Boston. His work has also appeared in the Boston Phoenix, Slate, Joystiq and the book 1001 Video Games You Must Play Before You Die. Follow him on Twitter @mkrpata and on his blog Insult Swordfighting.