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The Puzzle & Dragons journey is a curious one. At first glance, it appears to be a basic match-three puzzle game, and that’s because it once was. But this 3DS repackage is so much more than it let’s on. It takes the original mobile free-to-play game, beefs it up with more RPG elements to make for a meatier adventure, and adds an entire second game especially for the Nintendo audience. It’s a two-in-one package, combining both Puzzle & Dragons Z and Puzzle & Dragons: Super Mario Bros Edition.
The latter feels more familiar, with a healthy dose of the Mushroom Kingdom. It essentially combines matching three orbs with a turned based battle, as if Candy Crush and Pokemonfused, with the cast of Super Mario Bros.
Puzzle & Dragons Z is a more comprehensive RPG, but it too takes significant cues from its publisher’s iconic handheld RPG – you even start in a house with just the one bedroom, and walk down stairs to find Mum in the kitchen as you embark upon a grand adventure.
The battle gameplay between the two is essentially the same. It’s a matter of deciding which you want to play first: the story-based adventure, or the focus on match-three fighting led by Mario. The colours and recognisable faces drew me to the Mario Edition, which condensed a convoluted tutorial into four minutes as Toad introduced too much, too soon. Basically, all I needed to know at the outset was to match the right colour orbs based on the colours associated with the characters in my party to deal maximum damage to an opposing Goomba. The tutorial is way too complicated, and like many games, I only got the hang of it by starting to play on my own terms.
Turning to Puzzle & Dragons Z after I had figured out what Toad was trying to tell me by playing the Mario Edition for a few hours made it much easier to understand. The story introduces the concept of Dragon Masers, who ignore animal activists to command monsters to fight on their behalf, using the same match-three system. The tutorial here makes a lot more sense, as the story relaxes the pacing and it explains the element system better – it’s basically Pokemon, which extends to trading, training and collecting more than 200 monsters.
Employing a team of six monsters, comprising a leader and five allies, you need to move elemental orbs on a six-by-six grid to form combos and deal maximum damage to your opponents. Only one orb can be moved per turn, but selecting the right one can chain multiple combos as half the board disappears in front of your eyes and annihilates everything in your path.
Outside of battles, there’s a small world to explore progressed by a decent story that fits the bill. You can interact with NPCs and venture into a couple of buildings. It’s not a complete RPG world, and only serves to make it more than a mobile game, but it succeeds in breaking up the otherwise extremely repetitive gameplay.
That’s what the Super Mario Bros Edition doesn’t have. It’s more like the type of game I expect to see on smartphones in the future: Nintendo characters applied to a free-to-play match-three game. It’ll be super addictive for some, and boring as hell for others. It lacks the sense of purpose of Puzzle & Dragons Z, but it’s also more welcoming by forgoing a story that isn’t strictly necessary. It still has the same strong RPG elements ingrained with the mobile-esque grid, and by learning to tinker with your team, it becomes surprisingly detailed – for a match-three game – and the difficulty suddenly enters a swift climb, only once any competent player has had time to learn the intricacies of monitoring stats while matching orbs.
From that perspective, I’m conflicted about the two versions being bundled together for $50. On one hand, I needed to play Puzzle & Dragons Z to better learn how to play Puzzle & Dragon: Super Mario Edition — which is probably the opposite of what developer GungHo Online intended. But if I had the choice, I’d prefer to buy the latter alone for $15 from the eShop, which is about its value remembering it lacks the content of P&D Z in favour of the iconic skins. While it’s essentially a Mario version of a free-to-play mobile game, I found it considerably more enjoyable without intimidating microtransactions. The upfront cost might be a bit high, with the Australia tax, but I allowed myself to be consumed by the addictive gameplay because I could just play it; without being asked to pay more or wait six hours.
The Final Verdict
Puzzle & Dragons Z + Super Mario Edition is an addictive two-in-one combo that play off each other well. I suspect I was in the minority that needed to use the more comprehensive Puzzle & Dragons Z to assimilate with the bare bones Super Mario Bros Edition, which is better suited to short burst commute play. It’s overpriced at $50, considering it’s really a match-three battle game with a brief story and some Mario skins, but if you fall for these types of games, the omission of microtransactions will only suck you in further, and if you recklessly spend money of them, the cost of entry might actually be extremely good value.