Gyromancy, Magic of Gyroscopes
Of all the games you’d expect to have started a trend, Puzzle Quest seemed like an unlikely candidate to say the least. I mean, the game as an admittedly bizarre blending of two or three totally unrelated games, and while it was fun it was also the sort of game where the random number generator ruled. One wrong move – or even one right move – could start a cascade of bolts to the face that ended with your destruction, and you couldn’t help but feel like balance wasn’t really in the top ten priorities of the designers.
Apparently, PopCap and Square-Enix felt that this was as good a foundation to improve upon as any. Hence, Gyromancer, a collaboration between the incarnate deities of casual gaming and the lords of… well… whatever it is Square is the lord of these days. The game fell into the trap of a lot of really neat projects, however, where the concept attracted a lot of attention and the actual game sort of fell off the radar after a couple of weeks. Even I forgot to purchase it when it came out a couple years ago, remembering early the following year as part of my “I am making money from journalism, let’s buy games!” rush.
To be fair, it’s at least sort of similar to work.
Anyhow, the whole thing sat unplayed until this weekend, when I felt the urge to do a little single-player gaming and I finally got fed up with Half-Life 2. (I keep playing it hoping I’ll find what people thought was so brilliant, but that’s a story for another time.) I wasn’t expecting a whole lot aside from various annoyances, but as it turns out, most of the annoyances aren’t a result of crappy gameplay. There are things to be annoyed about, but it’s really a pretty slim list when you get right down to it.
The core gameplay is apparently derived from Bejeweled Twist. Clicking on a block of four colored gems rotates it clockwise, match a group of three or more and you destroy those stones, same as we’ve seen for years in these sorts of games. As you clear sets of gems, your abilities show up on the board as flashing gems. Destroy one of your gems, you unleash the ability and (usually) deal damage. When your opponent’s abilities trigger, they show up on the board as flashing gems with a skull and a countdown timer. Let the timer run out and the ability goes off, but destroy the gem early and they’re out a chance to deal damage to you.
Oddly, this actually makes the game feel less frustrating than Puzzle Quest by several orders of magnitude. Instead of waiting while the computer makes a move, the responsibility for every success and failure is squarely on your shoulders. Getting lucky cascades certainly helps, but usually clearing the board is a matter of knowing what you’re doing and paying attention as things drop. The only part that’s really frustrating is the fact that the combo meter resets every time you make a turn that doesn’t result in a destruction, which means that once gems start showing up that you need to target right away, you’re essentially forced into dropping whatever combo you had up to that point. It’s not game-breaking, but it is annoying.
Equally annoying is the whole pseudo-Pokemon angle that the game foists on the player. Essentially, you’re summoning monsters to fight rather than fighting yourself, which means that you have three different monsters to take with you into battle. Each one has different abilities, but since you don’t really have the option to teach any new ones, it mostly comes down to balancing strengths and weaknesses so that at least one monster isn’t weak against a given element. It’s like they wanted to go for a whole collecting aspect and then lost interest halfway through. Equally obnoxious is the way the map is set up, which brings to mind Unlimited SaGa, a game best brought to mind only when you realize that you are damned to an unpleasant circle of Hell. Navigating is way more frustrating and ill-functioning than it ought to be.
The story is… well, it compares favorably with Puzzle Quest. You play a tremendous douchebag named Rivel who is a master summoner and arrogant prick. He’s accompanied by Laska, a female ranger, on a quest to do something. The entire backstory is relayed via a text dump before the game opens, and while it seems like the staff was going for a sort of Vagrant Story feel, you can’t really identify with these people. It’s the worst sort of Square plot, where all of the elements of a story have been assembled and then the whole thing is just tossed on the floor in the hopes that fans will force it to make sense. So, you know, like Final Fantasy VIII with less emo.
So the plot is pretty bad, and the extraneous stuff is kind of annoying, but the actual battle gameplay is fun, and when you get right down to it that’s the most important part of the game. Of course, the same is true of Puzzle Quest (and presumably Puzzle Quest 2), even though it’s frequently filled with searingly annoying cascades of gems that feed your opponent enough matches to choke a horse. Seeing as Gyromancer costs just a bit more than its inspiration, it’s likely to have gotten its one and only hurrah already, but I have to say I like its style. Heck, if we could just get Infinite Interactive to take some lessons about the puzzle gameplay to heart, I’d be happy with that.