For a solid year, the GZ office was pretty hooked on Puzzle & Dragons on our mobile devices. Hell, there were even multiple instances of spending some good money on events like God Fest, only to be let down by the game's RNG system. Naturally, it broke me after a while. Typically a game with an RNG system will do that (*cough* Destiny), but it does at least keep the game from being unfair. But it's also the reason why I was so pumped for the 3DS version of Puzzle & Dragons. This was a full retail release with a story, new monster mechanics and, best of all, all of the microtransaction aspects completely removed.
The game is actually split up into two separate parts; Puzzle & Dragons Z, which offers a more traditional RPG story, complete with your own character and world exploration. And Puzzle & Dragons Super Mario Brothers Edition, which is more or less a reskinned version of the original game.
Puzzle & Dragons Z's story is silly, though I do have to give it to Gung Ho for actually coming up with some sort of narrative for a game that strictly relies on shifting colorful orbs around the screen. Basically, the world is attacked and split apart by a character named Dogma and his army of Paradox soldiers, and it's up to you, a newly trained Dragon Tamer (boy or girl) to piece it all together again. While the majority of the game still revolves around said puzzles, you can freely walk around the main hub of Zed City. Here you'll have access to various facilities like the Laboratory which helps with hatching, evolving and upgrading your monsters, a shrine that allows you to complete daily dungeons, a Dragon Colosseum and more. You can also pick up various side quests from NPCs that task you with finding some silly items like Hedgehog Shoes or a Big Mushroom (get it?).
The meat and potatoes of the experience is in its puzzle game, and thankfully, it transferred over unchanged from its fantastic mobile predecessor. At first glance, it could just seem like a simple match-three game with colorful orbs, but it's actually much more than that. Each time you match a certain color of orbs, that corresponding color of monster will use its attack. Where things get interesting is in figuring out massive combos to deal tremendous amounts of damage. In fact, unless you learn this early on, you'll have some trouble in some of the game's tougher fights.
Each time you move a particular orb, it displaces the ones around it. Those displacements can be used to move orbs to match other colors. That means the blue orb you picked up can shuffle the other orbs around it, eventually ending up with multiple color matches, which also means more damage. Of course to keep this fair, there is a timer on how long you're allowed to move a particular orb. One that time runs out, the colors match and the damage is dealt.
There are also various skills for each monster, such as being able to heal your party, do extra damage for a few turns, deal damage directly with an attack or even turn orbs of one color into orbs of another. Lastly, you also need to factor in elemental weaknesses, and you have quite a strategic and difficult combat system, but one that feels ultimately rewarding once you figure it out.
The big changes from the mobile version to the 3DS version are the ways you upgrade and evolve monsters. Instead of fusing unwanted monsters into one another, they simply gain EXP as they complete battles. This system alone makes progressing through the game much more manageable. A monster can also be immediately evolved assuming you have the right amount of Chips to feed them, not to mention, their level doesn't get reset back to 1. You actually can fuse monsters into others to boost their levels if you want. Eggs that you don't need to hatch can be directly fused into other monsters. What's great about this is once you hatch a certain Egg, future Eggs with the same monster will be identified by their name, meaning if you know you don't need another slime to add to your roster, you can simply use that Egg as an EXP boost.
Outside of the few instances you'll run around Zed City, the game still is very much a Puzzle & Dragons game. 90% of the time will be spent matching colors, so if you're looking for a deeper RPG experience, you won't find that here.
On the flip side, the game also includes the Super Mario Edition of Puzzle & Dragons, which is surprisingly similar to the core experience on mobile devices. While there still aren't any microtransactions, the game is much more focused on the puzzle gameplay. In fact the monster mechanics here are also quite similar to the mobile game, since you can now once again fuse unwanted monsters into others to strengthen them up.
The game recommends that new players start with the Mario Edition, but I'm not sure if I agree. The game gets quite complex very early on, and unless you grasp the displacement combos quick, you'll find yourself losing matches frequently.
I was hoping the Super Mario Bros Edition would be a little more involved and meaty, much like Puzzle & Dragons Z, but it's basically the core mobile game with a Mario skin over it, nothing more, nothing less. As pumped as I was about the Super Mario Bros Edition, Puzzle & Dragons Z is really the star in this package. However, it is nice that it was bundled in, something that can't be said for the Japanese version which was released in December 2013.
The visuals look great, specifically for the monsters and dragons, as they now actually animate instead of being a static image. That goes double for the Super Mario Edition, as everything from the baddies to the environments look absolutely stellar. The 3D effect isn't really necessary, but thankfully it doesn't slow the game down whatsoever, so if you like your attacks popping out at you, feel free to push that 3D slider all the way up. Some of the sound and music seems to make a return from the mobile version as well, though the Mario Edition once again steals the show with some great remixes of Mario tunes, as well as some classic songs making a return.
In the end, Puzzle & Dragons Z did exactly what I expected it to; Provide me with the same great classic P&D formula that I've obsessed over on my iPhone, but made it feel like less of a grind. It's a far more enjoyable game this time around and has enough content to keep you busy for quite some time. The addition of Super Mario Brothers Edition is certainly an amazing bonus, even if it was inferior.
A fantastic transition from the freemium model to the Nintendo 3DS, removing much of the annoying RNG and grind. Plus, the additional bonus game, though not as great, is still worth checking out.