After years of dealing with the stamina restrictions and constant rotation of powerful paid content in the mobile version of Puzzle & Dragons, the pay once, play forever structure of Puzzle & Dragons Z for the Nintendo 3DS sounded like a dream. Sometimes dreams are stupid.
Behind the annoying micro-transactions and frustrating, play-limiting stamina bar of GungHo Online Entertainment's mobile sensation is an entertaining match-three puzzle role-playing game that's kept me coming back time and time again since its 2012 launch. Layer on an element of capturing, powering-up and evolving collectible monsters, and it's the perfect formula for Fahey fixation.
The mobile game has its fair share of frustrating elements. The aforementioned stamina bar, which limits how long the player can play before waiting for or buying a recharge. The rare monsters that can only be acquired through liberal application of real cash money. The constant tie-ins with everything from DC Comics to Hello Kitty — ok, actually I kind of like those.
Released in Japan in late 2013, Puzzle & Dragon Z sounded like the ultimate solution to my Puzzle & Dragons obsession — a game with all of the elements I love (sans crossovers) and none of the bits I hate.
Now that I've gotten a chance to play copious amounts of the North American release, Puzzle & Dragon Z + Super Mario Edition, I'm conflicted.
Yes, it's great to be able to play whenever I want without worrying about stamina. It's nice not to worry about missing out on rare creatures because I'm too cheap to invest in my monster team. I've got a massive inventory, so I'm not too worried about managing the creatures I capture. I can just sit back, relax, and grow bored much faster than I ever did with the mobile game. What gives?
It's not like GungHo hasn't gone out of its way to make Puzzle & Dragons Z more interesting than its mobile counterpart. They have taken the dungeon-after-dungeon structure of the original, injected a story about the world being torn asunder (in puzzle piece-shaped chunks no less) by the forces of evil.
Instead of a series of dungeons interrupted by menus, this game gives us a series of dungeons interrupted by a Pokemon-style central hub and cutscenes that might have been dramatic if the chosen art style didn't scream kid-friendly frolic.
There's my issue with the game in a nutshell — it's too friendly. They have taken a mobile game — the sort of games traditional gamers consider casual — and casual'd the living hell out of it. Party wiped out in a particular dungeon? Don't worry, you can go again and again and again. There's no stamina bar to raise the stakes, so just keep playing. Want rare monsters? Don't worry, they will come.
Crossovers are a common occurrence in Puzzle & Dragons mobile, special events during which players have a limited window to collect special creatures based on popular entertainment properties. Logging in and discovering there's a special promotion going on with Monster Hunter or Batman: Arkham Origins is part of the excitement.
The North American release of Puzzle & Dragons Z comes bundled with its sole crossover, the Super Mario Edition.
Lacking the free-roaming central hub of Puzzle & Dragon Z, the Super Mario Edition is a more straightforward game, a series of levels lined up in a row. The puzzle balls feature Mario symbols. The creatures you collect are Mario enemies. The opening tutorial you play is the exact same set of tutorial levels from the main game with the Mario look.
The Super Mario Edition is fine for a quick fix, but the joy of discovering strange new creatures is replaced with uncovering familiar faces — not quite an equivalent exchange. Oh look, another Goomba. Let's evolve it. Oh look, a winged Goomba. Yawn.
I thought a Puzzle & Dragons game without the free-to-play restrictions was everything I wanted. It's not. It's a fine puzzle game, especially if you've never partaken of the mobile version, but stripping away the micro-transactions took some of the franchise's shiny paint with them. I'm not shouting "Hooray for microtransactions!" here — I'm just saying that sometimes they can serve a purpose beyond making money.
Say as a young child you love ice cream, but your parents only let you eat it once a month. That limit adds to the allure of the ice cream. Then you grow up. One day you're in the grocery store and realise "Hey, I can have as much ice cream as I want, whenever I want!" You stock up, and the next couple of days are the best days ever, but soon the allure starts to fade. It's not as special if you can have it whenever you want.
So if you do buy Puzzle & Dragons Z + Super Mario Edition next Friday, give it to your parents with instructions that you only be allowed to play once a month. It will be much better that way.