On the surface, Puzzle and Dragons on the Nintendo 3DS is a good fit. It utilizes the dual screens of the handheld very well and playing a matching game with a stylus is just as rewarding as it is on phones and tablets. While Puzzle and Dragons on 3DS has been popular in Japan for quite some time, here shortly, North America gets its first taste of Gung-Ho’s blockbuster mobile hit. Better yet, a partnership with Nintendo has bundled two games for the price of one with Puzzle & Dragons Z and Puzzle & Dragons: Super Mario Bros. Edition.
For those unfamiliar, Puzzle and Dragons is an immensely popular mobile game from Gung-Ho. It’s a free-to-play match-three role playing title, that sends players into turn based dungeons and asks them to match colored orbs to attack and defeat enemies. Players put together a party of monsters and try to trudge through an ever-increasingly difficult dungeon, culminating with a boss battle. While this turn-based combat is fine, the deeper party selection and leveling mechanics for the members of your party are the real hook. Dungeons contain different types of enemies with varying strengths and weaknesses. Your goal is to organize your party in a way where you’ll best be prepared for the types of enemies you are encountering. Matching at least three colored orbs will trigger an attack from your corresponding teammates. Score multiple combos or higher match counts and your attacks will be increased. Manage to target the right orbs that your enemy has weakness to, that’s the real objective. Wade through all the minions to get to the boss, beat them and you’ll get rewarded.
In Puzzle & Dragons players are rewarded with new party members and items that can be used to level up or transform characters into newer, more powerful versions. The persistent objective is continuing to grow and empower your party as you head into more difficult dungeons. The free-to-play version of Puzzle & Dragons has a different set of rules. Ones that will stop you from playing if you run out of continues, at which point Gung Ho asks you for money. Puzzle & Dragons Z + Puzzle & Dragons: Super Mario Bros. Edition asks for the money up front, but doesn’t have any of those pestering free-to-play mechanics.
Having played quite a bit of Puzzle & Dragons’ free-to-play version, there’s a lot that’s different about this game on 3DS when you compare them. They didn’t just strip out the free-to-play stuff, there’s been quite a bit added to both games to give them each a unique feel. Though they both still lean on the core gameplay mechanics of match-3, turn-based combat and party management. However, PAD Z adds an overworld to the mix, while PAD Super Mario Bros. Edition has the look and feel of a traditional mario game.
Puzzle & Dragons Z is most like a full featured RPG of the two. It significantly differs from the free to play version in that it has an overworld to explore, inhabitants to talk to, and actual maps to conquer. As the world is split into pieces, the Dragon Tamers must unite to put it back together. That’s the crux of the story behind the game, and it serves it purpose. Puzzle & Dragons Z isn’t going to blow you away with story, but it’s not meant to be the star of the show either. There’s just enough dialogue and exploration to give brief reprieve from gameplay.
Gameplay is the center of attention, and PAD can be both simple and extremely difficult. You’ve got to manage your party well or you’re not going to do very good against your enemies. It’s an absolute must to level up your characters, transform them into more powerful variants, and team them with party members that can play off of their strengths. In Puzzle & Dragons Z you’re constantly earning new character types, making new ones, and increasing their powers. It feels a lot like Pokemon in some ways, and you’re always encountering new monsters that have unique looks and abilities.
In combat Puzzle & Dragons Z plays almost identically to the free to play version. It’s a simple match three game that offers bonuses for scoring big combos, and the closer you pay attention to enemy strengths and weaknesses, the better you’ll do. Everything’s color coded to correspond with the orbs on the lower screen of the 3DS. Once you learn the simple formula for which elements work best against the others, it’s basically a game about getting the right party together for the dungeon at hand. An added layer of strategy comes from your party special abilities that run off of a meter. Each member has one and there are many, many varying effects, some with incredible damage dealing or healing properties, buffs and more. If you run into problems, it’s usually time to re-tool your party, level them up, or switch them out to something more effective.
The Super Mario Bros. side of Puzzle & Dragons is quite different than Z. There’s far less story, and the game plays more like a match-3 version of one of the classic SMB games. Simply put, you’ll be on a mission to save Princess Peach, go figure. Levels are laid out in a familiar fashion, and you’ll encounter all of the enemies and allies that you would in a Super Mario Bros. title. The gameplay is a re-skin, but identical to the standard Puzzle & Dragons formula. Orbs are fashioned with familiar icons, the characters you meet and add to your party is an extensive line-up of SMB characters. If you’ve seen it in a Mario game before, you’ll likely see it here at some point.
Compared to Z, Mario Bros’ part of PAD is a little more casual. Eventhough the cast of Mario Bros. is massive, it seems like there’s less variety than the main game when it comes to enemies or allies. Super Mario Bros. Edition is just a more straight forward offering, stripping out the deeper mechanics found in Z. If you boil it down, Super Mario Bros. Edition is a lesser game than Z, a dumbed down reskin to put it bluntly. It probably could have been more, and it certainly doesn’t have the charm or attention to detail of games made by Nintendo in-house, but it’s still enjoyable.
Regardless of the mode you play in though, Puzzle & Dragons is type of game that you can pick up and play for a few minutes and put right back down. It’s also one of those games that allows you to multi-task while playing. It’s perfect for just about any setting because of that. You can use Street Pass to meet other players, and add their monsters to your parties, as well. There’s enough going on here to warrant playing these games over the free-to-play tablet or phone versions, if you really enjoy the core gameplay, which is pretty easy to do.
This double pack feels like there’s something here for the very casual PAD player in the Super Mario Bros. Edition, and something for the player who wants a little more, in Z. You’ll also find that in whatever version you play, that the game does have some free-to-play roots showing. It can feel like a grind at times, unchallenging in some spots, and insurmountable in others. The difference is, you aren’t asked to purchase continues in this version, and in some ways that’s part of the fun in playing the tablet and phone versions. You’re always eyeing how many magic stones you have left to continue, making some battles do or die (or do or pay, actually). Taking that out of the equation makes the games somewhat less interesting, weirdly enough.
Puzzle & Dragons Z + Puzzle & Dragons Super Mario Bros. Edition adds just enough additional content to warrant playing these games over their free-to-play counterparts. Match Three with an element of strategy simply isn’t done any better.
Puzzles & Dragons Z + Puzzle & Dragons Super Mario Edition
- Available On: Nintendo 3DS
- Published By: Nintendo
- Developed By: Gung Ho Online Entertainment
- Genre: Puzzle
- US Release Date: May 22nd, 2015
- Reviewed On: Nintendo 3DS
- Quote: "Match Three with an element of strategy simply isn't done any better, but this one is having a hard time shaking its free-to-play roots."