Puzzle & Dragons is a phenomenon. The mobile-centric free-to-play puzzler has been downloaded more than 32 million times in Japan alone and has made developer GungHo Online Entertainment over a billion dollars just in the last year. Now, just as Nintendo are about to enter the mobile space with their own franchises, they’ve collaborated with GungHo to bring the immensely popular puzzler in the opposite direction to the 3DS. The game actually includes two versions of the title; the core game of Puzzle & Dragons Z and the Super Mario Bros. Edition, which takes the game’s match three template and replaces everything with a Mario theme.
Puzzle & Dragons Z is set in Dracomania, a continent where dragons and humans coexist. You’re tasked with defending your home from the evil Paradox organisation by aligning like-coloured energy orbs into lines of three or more, which in turn grants your team of creatures the power to attack. The plot revolves around some further supernatural bumph, with the improbably named Dogma The Charismatic Destroyer breaking the world apart, and you going off to seek out World Pieces that can rectify the problem. Unlike the original PAD title, PAD Z overlays the puzzler’s template with enhanced RPG elements and offers a Pokemon-esque world to roam about in.
Frankly, the game isn’t remotely ashamed to wear its new-found influence’s on its sleeve, with the opening scenes seeing your mother waking you up from downstairs, as you’re going to be late for your Dragon Tamer test. A Captain Watari (definitely not a Professor) then bestows three monster eggs upon you, as well as a wrist-based gadget called a D-Gear, which is capable of holding a large number of captured monsters. Just in case the parallels weren’t clear enough, a Professor Tomonaga then shows up to complete your induction. Original it is not, but it does provide you with some context to the puzzling action.
These section’s visuals don’t come close to the standard of the most recent 3D Pokemon titles, but they are bright and clear. Overall, PAD Z’s graphics swing from attractively drawn avatars during the portions of dialogue and pleasant 3D environments to shoddy map screens and ugly cutscenes. The effect is that it appears a more budget offering than we’re perhaps used to being associated with Nintendo.
Both versions have the same fundamental gameplay though, with players aiming to match three or more orbs, with up to six different colours appearing in a level. Each of these coloured orbs has a different elemental attribute, which in turn is stronger or weaker against creatures with the opposite element, so red fire orbs cause more damage against green monster types, but are especially vulnerable themselves against the blue water-type. It’s hardly revolutionary in its mechanics, but it is effective, and compelling.
Adding in further depth to the puzzling action, each encounter sees you selecting a leader for your team which grants you access to a passive skill and a special ability, which is charged as you make matches and create combos. Alongside this you select a helper monster who provides a secondary skill and extra damage during battles. All of your own monsters gain experience during battles, and level up their stats making them more effective for later encounters.
Travelling across the landscape in search of World Pieces sees you working your way through various tiers within an area, with each ending with a battle against a stronger boss character. You collect various items by winning battles, including eggs from which you can hatch new monsters for your team. One of the key changes over the original PAD is the reduction in monster types, which has dropped to 100 compared with the free-to-play version’s 1000+. I assume that without the impetus of getting players to shell out for micro-transactions the roster didn’t need to be anywhere near as large, though the change may upset some die-hard fans and those who like to catch ’em all.
The narrative portions of the game do a lot to slow down the most enjoyable part of the proceedings, and while the story sections aren’t that bad you’ll soon find yourself hammering away at the A button as you try to cycle through to the next piece of action. It’s a problem that doesn’t hamper the Super Mario Edition of the game.
Swapping out the dragons for the creatures and worlds of the Mushroom Kingdom is effective, if a touch tiring. Taking the level structure and appearance of the Mario over-world is at once welcoming and exhausting, seeing imagery that we’ve become perhaps too accustomed to, even if the gameplay hook behind each level is wholly different to what we’re used to. The graphics have a great deal more solidity on the Super Mario side of the coin, with your team being made up of the recognisable face’s of Goombas and Koopas, and led, of course, by Mario and Luigi in various guises. It does work, and the puzzling action is just as effective, but you may prefer to play the PAD Z edition simply to hear different music and see different creatures to those that even Nintendo fans might have had their fill of.
Puzzle & Dragons Z + Super Mario Edition is a generously sized game, offering hours of puzzling action. It’s a disparate package though, with the PAD Z content overly slowed by the narrative sections and the Mario content sporting an overly familiar aesthetic. The match three gameplay is as effective as ever, though the new version’s changes arguably lose some of the original’s focus.