Presumably the result of Nintendo’s recent forays into the world of mobile gaming, Puzzle & Dragons Z + Puzzle & Dragons Super Mario Bros. Edition is a neat little bundle of two different takes on the very popular Puzzle & Dragons mobile franchise. Each seems to have the ultimate purpose of trying to better appeal to the traditional gaming audience and to help shake off the stigma that the franchise carries thanks to its micro-transaction laden origins. Thankfully one of the two games in this package does manage to succeed in that admirable goal, and much to my surprise it wasn’t the one centered around everyone’s favourite plumber.
Before we start discussing the individual aspects of these two games though, it’d be best if we quickly go over what they have in common, specifically talking about the central Puzzle & Dragons formula upon which both are built. Acting as a cross between Bejeweled and Pokémon, Puzzle & Dragons has you building up a team of elementally flavoured monsters and commanding them in battle by matching various tiles. Matching together tiles of a specific monster’s element will cause them to attack the enemy team, with your monster doing higher damage if you match more than 3 three tiles or if you have a particularly high combo going on. Where it gets tricky is in how you match said tiles, as rather than simply swapping them, instead each turn you are able to move a single tile all around the board for about five seconds or so. As you move a tile about, it will switch with the other tiles whose spaces it’s moving into, allowing you to rearrange the board to your liking. Once time runs out or you put down the tile you were moving, the board will start tabulating matches and feeding in new tiles, often creating further matches. Because you have such a high level of control over the field, your general goal is to try to make as many matches as you can, enabling more of your monsters to attack. They also use these same mechanics to do some interesting contextual stuff, such as having you choose a path or open a chest by making a specific kind of match. It’s a very solid base gameplay system that keeps a pleasant balance between genuine skill and blind luck, as the amount of matches you’ll be able to find and consciously line up ahead of time often correlates with the amount of lucky matches you’ll get from the game just slotting the right piece into place from out of nowhere. It can feel a little basic at times to be sure, but there are a number of RPG mechanics to go alongside this system that do help to add some degree of complexity. Through these mechanics you’ll be able to evolve, combine, and hatch new monsters to fight on your team, as well bolster their special skills and abilities. While none of these systems are especially deep either, though they do still add that distinct addictive quality that comes with the Monster Catching sub-genre. In past entries in the series, this is where the micro-transactions would have come into play, but for better or worse, there is none of that here.
So now that we have a nice solid understanding of just what Puzzle & Dragons actually is, let’s talk specifically about these two games, starting with Puzzle & Dragons Super Mario Bros. Edition as I imagine that’s the one people are most curious about. Storywise it’s exactly what you expect: weird puzzle orbs show up, Toad yells at Mario about them, Bowser kidnaps Princess Peach, and then you must use the puzzle orbs to get her back. Rather than summoning up a team of dragons though, Mario’s party instead consists of his usual stable of enemies, which have somehow been converted (or possibly freed) from Bowser’s thrall. Of course this leads to the somewhat sad realization that the roster of fodder enemies in the Mario universe is actually somewhat slimmer than you might expect, meaning you end up having to field a lot of palette swapped and slightly tweaked Koopa Troopas and Goombas early on. They do somewhat manage to supplement the meager cast by having a separate class of characters that fill ‘Leader’ and ‘Helper’ roles, which provide the team with some extra passive bonuses; these slots are populated by Mario and Luigi sporting their various costumes as well as a rainbow of Toads. Aside from a somewhat anemic roster, there are some other significant-if not subtle-gameplay alterations that Puzzle & Dragons Super Mario Bros. Edition makes as well. For example, the way you execute special skills is handled somewhat curiously, as rather than having a resource you spend on them, instead each character’s unique ability (which can do things ranging from direct damage to healing to changing up the board) must charge up slowly over time. This process is persistent over the length of a course, which generally constitutes about five or so battles. In practice this means that you’ll only be able to use each team member’s skill once, as they take quite a while to charge up and as such are best saved for bosses. Compared to the way that Puzzle & Dragons Z handles things (which we’ll get to in a minute) it’s very restricting and removes much of the exterior strategy from the game, forcing you to hope that the board will be nice enough to provide you with the orbs needed to win. Which actually brings me to the other big difference between these two titles, and that is the relative fairness of their ‘random’ elements, which happen to be completely skewed here in Puzzle & Dragons Super Mario Bros. Edition. Put simply, this feels like a game that was designed for micro-transactions but then never re-balanced once they were stripped out, as the amount of grinding needed to move forward as early on as the third world is absolutely bonkers. Not helping things on this front is the fact that by this point in the game the board is offering up fewer and fewer lucky matches and the flow of new monsters and evolution items is reduced to barely a drip. As a result I was getting absolutely curb-stomped, despite the fact that I had done everything new offered up to me by that point and was making full use of all the extra systems it had given me; the problem is clearly one of numbers, mainly the enemy having about ten times mine in any given area.
Disappointed and broken by grind I moved onto Puzzle & Dragons Z, and much to my surprise this is where I found a viable premium version of the Puzzle & Dragons formula. Cast more in the mold of a traditional JRPG, P&DZ has you taking on the role of a new member of the Zed City Rangers, a group that protects the world with the power of digitized dragons. Not long after your initiation though world splitting events start to happen, which I mean literally, as an evil cult uses the power of the Death Skydragon to break the world apart into the shape of massive puzzle pieces. With the help of a tiny anime dragon who conveniently falls out of the sky, you must restore the world by defeating the evil cult, slowly taking on their generals until you’re strong enough to defeat their leader, Dogma. It’s a very typical JRPG plot, but they seemed to understand that going in and actually use it to toss out a few fun jabs at the genre. The writing and dialogue are upbeat and well-paced, the (surprisingly decent) jokes fit in well with the setting and tone, and the characters are all fairly likable; it’s no Chrono Trigger or anything like that, but as a fun little framing device it does a fantastic job. As for the gameplay, the big differences here are the same as those of Puzzle & Dragons Super Mario Bros. Edition, just in the opposite direction. Rather than having to wait for skills to charge up, instead you have a universal MP meter that is persistent across the entire game and slowly fills up every time you make a match. This means that you can use skills far more often and devise more cunning strategies. It also means that you have more options for getting yourself out of a jam, as you can bring along a dragon with a healing skill and then use that skill multiple times in a row within a single turn. Puzzle & Dragons Z is also just more generous in a general sense as the difficulty curve is far smoother, new dragons and the means to evolve them come more readily, you’re given plenty of side content to do, and even the board seems to drop down more free matches for you. It makes for a nicely gradual and enjoyable progression that moves forward at exactly the right pace and provides you with ample means to catch up if needed. In comparison to Puzzle & Dragons Super Mario Bros. Edition, this feels like a game that was properly considered and redesigned for the platform, eschewing micro-transactions and smartly re-balancing the core gameplay to compensate.
Lastly we come to presentation, which is different in both games but very similar at the same time as they primarily use the same visual style, though not the same art style. In both games, the in-combat sprites are very large and complex and have a natural layered movement to them as they bob back and forth, it leaves a very distinct impression and helps to breathe some proper life into these creatures. As for the art styles on display, they’re exactly what you would expect; P&D SMBE uses the standard modern day Mario designs and P&DZ uses an anime look that despite having some great monster designs ends up feeling fairly generic. It’s more or less the same deal when it comes to the soundtracks as well; P&D SMBE sounds like a Mario game, specifically evoking the more upbeat remixes of the New Super Mario Bros series, and P&DZ has a pretty standard JRPG style soundtrack, that while not being overly memorable does manage to deliver some good motivational battle themes. Overall it’s perfectly serviceable and while there’s nothing especially striking about the presentation, it does its job and the various monsters on display (Dragons and Koopas alike) feel well realized.
Taken together these two games make up a hefty package of puzzle-centric action, and while it can certainly get a bit tiresome after a while, that’s more due to the simplicity of the well-worn “Match 3+RPG” formula than anything else. I will say though that it’s a pity these two games cannot be purchased separately, as Puzzle & Dragons Z is far more enjoyable than Puzzle & Dragons Super Mario Bros. Edition and having to pay for them both seems like a bit of waste, even if the price is already lower than that of a regular 3DS game at only $35CDN. That’s why, considering them together as a single product, I’m giving Puzzle & Dragons Z + Puzzle & Dragons Super Mario Bros. Edition a 3 out of 5 stars.