Puzzle & Dragons (P&D) is a series that takes the simple, addicting gameplay of casual matching titles like Bejeweled and injects it into the heart of a light RPG with turn-based combat. Developed by GungHo Online Entertainment, the game launched on iOS, Android, and Kindle devices in 2012. It became a national sensation in Japan, and it didn’t take long for the rest of the world to start matching orbs and training dragons. This month, players have been given the chance to dive into the world of P&D on their Nintendo 3DS systems with Puzzle & Dragons Z + Puzzle & Dragons: Super Mario Bros. Edition.
Puzzle & Dragons Z + Puzzle & Dragons: Super Mario Bros. Edition is a bundle that brings together Puzzle & Dragons Z (released for Nintendo 3DS in Japan on December 12, 2013) and Puzzle & Dragons: Super Mario Bros. Edition (released for Nintendo 3DS in Japan on April 29, 2015). Puzzle & Dragons Z (P&DZ) is a spin-off of the classic P&D series that introduces new elements like NPCs and the ability to explore towns. Puzzle & Dragons: Super Mario Bros. Edition (P&D:SMB) is an interesting spin on the classic P&D formula that adds characters from the Super Mario Bros. series and Super Mario style maps to the matching and dungeon crawling of traditional P&D games. Though P&DZ is the superior game, the bundle is still packed with fun and will keep you busy for dozens of hours.
Let’s start by talking about P&DZ. You’ll start the game in a fashion strikingly similar to a Pokémon game. Today is the day of your Dragon Tamer test! Your mom prepares you and cheers you on before you head to the nearby lab to take the test and, hopefully, get your first dragon. This will be your first opportunity to explore your hometown and talk to NPCs. This does wonders for the game. Having a full environment to explore, houses to enter, and NPCs to talk with and accept quests from makes P&DZ feel like a full-fledged Nintendo 3DS game – not just a port of an iOS/Android/Kindle title. There is also a typically cliché JRPG storyline which tasks you with rebuilding the world by collecting world pieces that are kept in temples under the close watch of ancient dragons. An evil team is determined to keep you from doing so, and the story unfolds from there. Even though we’ve seen it all before, the characters and general plot is still entertaining enough to keep your attention, and side quests help break up the monotony of things.
After your Dragon Tamer exam, you’ll be thrown right into the action. Each stage plays out like a first-person dungeon crawler on the top screen with a grid of colored orbs on the bottom screen. By matching orbs of the same color, you and your monsters will be able to land attacks on your enemies in classic turn-based battle. Each member of your party has a special skill that can be used during battle (provided you have enough skill points), and defeating enemies gives you and your party experience points and money. That’s pretty much it. The game throws in some interesting elements like using a certain color of orb to choose a path to take and performing a certain number of combos to open chests, but the core gameplay remains the same all through the game.
This isn’t a bad thing, though, because the core gameplay is solid, fun, and addicting. Each monster is related to at least one of five elements: Fire, Water, Wood, Light, and Dark. There are also heart orbs that restore your party’s HP. You’re given a chart that shows the weaknesses and strengths of each element, and picking the right monster for the right dungeon is crucial to success, and the presence of these elements make the game more challenging. For example, if you’re facing a group of wood enemies but have no fire orbs, things are going to be difficult for you. You might have a skill that replaces all wood orbs with fire orbs, but you may not have taken the monster with that skill into the dungeon. What is the best way to take care of these enemies? Situations like these are where the game is at its best, forcing players to look beyond the mindless matching of countless mobile games and actually think about strategy and resource management. You’re also not limited to just switching one orb to another orb’s location. You have a limited amount of time to drag an orb of your choice all around the grid, giving you the opportunity to set up future combos or make your move into a chain reaction that sets off even more matches. This makes P&DZ more interesting and fresh than other matching games like Bejeweled or Candy Crush Saga. The closest parallel that the game has is probably either last year’s Pokémon Battle Trozei or Pokémon Shuffle, but these games still pale in comparison to the depth that P&DZ has achieved.
As you progress through the game, you’ll be able to evolve your monsters and hatch new ones, which gives the title much more variety and replayability. This also gives you a reason to replay dungeons you’ve already cleared – you might not have the right materials to evolve one of your monsters, but if you crawl through a few dungeons you’re bound to find what you need. Side quests serve this purpose as well, and they often require you to take certain paths through dungeons – some of which you might have missed out on during your first playthrough. The items on the dungeon paths are randomized, giving the exploration a Mystery Dungeon feel, although the paths themselves don’t change much. Overall, P&DZ is a light, fun adventure that will provide you with addictive gameplay, replayability, and a much higher-quality P&D experience than you could ever experience on a smart device.
Now, let’s talk about P&D:SMB. The gameplay is almost identical to what is seen in P&DZ. The biggest differences are the replacement of the traditional element symbols with Super Mario Bros. items (fire turns to a fire flower, light to a super star, etc.) and the replacement of dragons and monsters with classic Super Mario Bros. enemies (e.g., Goombas, Koopa Troopas, etc.). The map on the bottom screen of P&DZ is also replaced with a side scrolling Super Mario Bros. course that shows your leader (Mario, Luigi, or whoever you set as your party’s leader) traveling towards the end of the course, which is always a boss battle.
While there are only a few major changes to the P&D formula in P&D:SMB, there are some small things that make it an experience that just doesn’t measure up to the heights of P&DZ. The explorable towns and interesting NPCs are gone, as are the side quests. You’re either choosing a stage on a Super Mario Bros. style course selection screen or battling through dungeons that look like they’ve been taken out of Super Mario 3D Land. The concepts of evolving your party members and powering them up are still here. In fact, it is easier to use extraneous party members to strengthen important ones in P&D:SMB than it is in P&DZ. The core gameplay remains the same, and for that reason it’s still a fun experience. However, it feels more like an afterthought than a fully realized vision. Most people will find themselves diving deep into P&DZ while playing around with P&D:SMB from time to time for a change of pace.
In both games, both the visuals and audio do very well to enhance the experience. The classic Nintendo tunes that play throughout P&D:SMB fit the aesthetic, are catchy, and change often enough that no one track will play for such long periods of time that it becomes sickening. Similarly, the music in P&DZ works well, but it’s not really as impressive as the tracks in P&D:SMB. This makes sense, though, seeing as the sound of Super Mario Bros. games has been perfected over a period of many years and dozens of games, while the P&DZ tracks are less recognizable and tend to feel more like background music than a significant game element. As for the visuals, both games are equally competent. However, P&DZ has more diverse environments, which makes it seem more fun to look at. P&D:SMB has all of the classic Super Mario Bros. locales – green hills, snowy ice stages, and fire-based stages. While they look great, there’s really nothing new to see here.
At first glance, this game might seem like a shallow offering, and this is probably because we’ve been primed by the legions of horrible, broken, micro-transaction infested matching games on iOS and Android devices to see this type of game as low-quality. However, there are no micro-transactions or advertisements here, and these Nintendo 3DS P&D games surpass the original iOS/Android/Kindle P&D game in almost every imaginable way. If you’re a fan of puzzle games and/or turn-based RPGs, you’ll find something to love in Puzzle & Dragons Z + Puzzle & Dragons: Super Mario Bros. Edition – you just have to give it a chance to win you over. After a few hours of matching, battling, evolving, and exploring, you’ll be glad that you did.
Have you played Puzzle & Dragons Z + Puzzle & Dragons: Super Mario Bros. Edition? What did you think? If you haven’t played it, do you plan on picking it up? Let us know in the comments and keep checking back with Load The Game for the latest game reviews.