Glyph Quest, the new release from ex-Bullfrog designer Alex Trowers, is a slight but enjoyable gem-matching game in the Puzzle Quest tradition. In this case, as you might guess, said gems are glyphs that your budding mage combines to cast spells, damage enemies, gain experience and gather loot. While Glyph Quest offers a few twists on the now-ubiquitous gem-matching RPG formula, it’s ultimately a bit too lean to be fully satisfying.
The most obvious tweak to the gem-matching formula comes in the shape of the “playing field,” which is a circle rather than the typical square or rectangle. By tracing your finger, you draw lines between adjacent glyphs representing six elements: fire, water, earth, air, light and dark. Chaining glyphs casts spells, which damage the monster you’re facing off against. At first you can only combine a few glyphs, and only of the same element. But as you level up—accomplished by defeating monsters in a series of turn-based encounters and earning gold to purchase upgrades—you unlock the ability to combine different elements to create new spells. The game’s art and music are cute, and the codex descriptions for monsters and quests—which include references to Guns ‘N Roses, Game of Thrones and the Predator movies—are just clever enough to be endearing without seeming cloying.
My favorite aspect of Glyph Quest is the “chain” system. If you string together two spells of the same type on consecutive turns, you start building a multiplier that increases the spells’ effect. You can then perform a “reversal” by crafting a spell of the opposite type—say, fire instead of water—which increases damage even further. But you have to be careful, since combining glyphs of opposite types in the same spell causes a “backfire,” damaging you. Glyph Quest is at its best when you are ripping off chains and reversals turn after turn, building long combos; the rhythm of play acquires a satisfying momentum, a sense of inertia that is the core draw of this type of game.
But Glyph Quest also stumbles a bit in maintaining that momentum. The progression curve is rather choppy: Instead of a smooth upward course, there are peaks and valleys as certain quests and abilities are locked by level, making for some tedious grinding in the middle game. Oddly, while monsters will attack you every turn, they do not alter the “playing field” unless they use a special ability. I found myself wishing to be challenged more, forced to adapt on the fly. Instead the most tactical decision I generally had to make was exactly when to deploy a healing potion.
The game is also opaque about communicating certain information, which can lead to some frustration. For example, it’s hard to tell what status effect a monster’s special attack has inflicted on you; a simple “poisoned” icon would have helped. It’s also unclear, at the outset, exactly how upgrading your equipment benefits you, particularly the ability to carry more glyphs. (Fortunately, all this is easily grokked within an hour or so.) Most irritating, though, is the pricing scheme: Glyph Quest is free to download, but around level 4, you need to buy a $1.99 “Mage License” to continue. The demo-then-purchase model is fine by me—games like Triple Town have proved it can work well—but Glyph Quest is again a bit too opaque about communicating what it’s doing for comfort.
When it works, Glyph Quest is really enjoyable, which makes its relatively slim number of levels and lack of features like Game Center support, multiplayer matches, an “endless” mode or leaderboards all the more disappointing. (It’s quite possible some of these features will be patched in with a new release, according to Trowers.) I’m curious to see what new conjurations Trowers may have in store.
J.P. Grant is a Boston-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in Gamers With Jobs and other outlets. He blogs about games at Infinite Lag and is also on Twitter.