If you’ve not heard of Puzzle and Dragons before, odds are you don’t play many match-three style games on Android or iOS devices. The game is insanely huge, especially in Asian markets, and now the game is coming to Nintendo 3DS, along with a new Super Mario Bros. mode. I got a chance to review the bundle, so let’s dive in.

Both Puzzle & Dragons Z and Puzzle & Dragon Super Mario Edition follow the same gameplay format: a match-three tile game where creating matches determines which of your allies attacks, and how much damage they do. The five different types of tiles–fire, earth, water, light, and dark–correspond to various types of ally, and each have varying effects on enemies of an opposing nature. Fire attacks earth, earth attacks water, and water attacks fire, while light and dark simultaneously attack each other. That’s not to say that a fire attack won’t hurt a light enemy or a water enemy: it will, just not as much as it would an earth enemy. Match three puzzles come in several varieties: the Bejeweled style, where you switch tiles adjacently, the Pokemon Shuffle style where you swap tile positions, and the P&Z style, where moving a tile displaces other tiles. This mode offers far more strategic play, so while making a match, it takes some thought and movement to make combos and matching sets of four or more tiles.

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I’m going to start with the Super Mario Bros. Edition of the game, because it’s easier to get going with here. You can think of it as a weird cross between Super Mario Bros, Paper Mario, Pokemon, and a match three game. Super Mario Bros because that’s how the maps and worlds are laid out, Paper Mario because you’ll be recruiting allies from those you normally count as enemies, Pokemon because you’ll be collecting creatures and it’s nice to “catch em all”, and match three because…I don’t really have to explain that bit, do I? The story of the game is hauntingly similar to past Mario games, meaning that Princess Peach has gotten herself captured again. This time, though, Bowser has taken advantage of strange glowing orbs that have appeared around the Mushroom Kingdom, and it’s up to Mario to save the princess and save the day.

You select stages in the same manner as in New Super Mario Bros. In fact, the map is fairly similar, too. Obviously, once you start a stage, you don’t directly control Mario or his allies, but instead match tiles to determine which of Mario’s allies attack, and for how much. The tiles themselves are familiar Mario icons: a fireflower for fire attacks, a leaf for earth attacks, a penguin suit for water attacks, a superstar for light attacks, and a poison mushroom for dark attacks. Each creature you put into your team also has a unique activated ability that becomes available after a certain number of moves, and sometimes you’ll be trying to figure out how to trigger the abilities at earlier points in the game. The upper display shows your current enemies and how many turns you have before they attack. Occasionally, you’ll encounter a fork in the path, allowing you to choose which way to go. Some paths offer more reward than others, so it’s worth playing some levels multiple times.

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In between levels, you can upgrade the individual members of your team, either by using items you’ve collected in the levels, or by combining two or more collected allies. Allies of the same type will impart more experience than allies of differing types, but throughout the game, you’ll find you don’t lack for creatures to combine.

Surprisingly, while the game starts off fairly simply, the difficulty ramps up with ridiculous rapidity, and by around world three, you’ll find yourself having to go back and farm for experience points and items. It was around this point in things that I got a bit annoyed with the progression of the game; by the later levels, it seems that you need to spend a goodly amount of time just getting your team up to a level where they can cope with the enemies on the stages. It’s still fun to play, though, and while the match three gameplay offers very little variation in play, it’s still something as addictive as digital candy.

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The other side of the bundle is the game Puzzle and Dragons Z, which is, to my mind, a far superior game. It’s closer in nature to being a match three game crossed with Pokemon. While the game contains the same basic idea as the Super Mario Bros Edition, they feel like two vastly different games. For one thing, in Puzzle and Dragons Z, you roam around the world much like you would in Pokemon. The graphical style of the game is far closer to a JRPG, too, so it feels noticeably different from the other game in the bundle. The story is also far more intricate, and follows the adventures of a Dragon Ranger as they seek to oppose a threat to the world by a secret organization.

While there are many similar elements to both games, Puzzle & Dragons Z has a number of slightly different mechanics. For one thing, the special abilities aren’t triggered after a certain number of turns, but are tied to a combo bar shared by the entire team, meaning you have to be a bit more strategic about which abilities to deploy at any given time. However, it also means that you’re able to trigger the same ability more often. This offers a greater strategic element to the game. Furthermore, the maps aren’t laid out in the same linear fashion as in the Super Mario Bros Edition, but instead are a smaller number of maps laid over a greater number of areas. The hub is the main city, and the lab in the city allows you to upgrade monsters, hatch monster eggs, and buy goods. There are also daily dungeons to attempt, allowing you the chance at rare monsters and items. And of course, no RPG would be complete without a series of sidequests to attempt, and there are those aplenty too, meaning you have to re-run certain stages in search of the goods you’re tasked with finding.

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The story itself in Puzzle and Dragons Z is not that much more complex than what you’d find in any standard Pokemon game, but the story isn’t what we’re after here. The gameplay is fun, complex, and can get a bit hairy. There’s always the thrill of discovery when you find a new unknown egg.

For both games, while they were truly enjoyable and free from big niggling issues, there were smaller ones. For instance, I, as a colour-blind person, was completely unable to read the health bar of red-aligned creatures, since the shade of red and the shade of grey used were indistinguishable to me. The tiles themselves posed no such problem, though, since they each had an icon or motif that allowed me to easily tell them apart. While I was immediately familiar with the various creatures in Super Mario Bros Edition, I had a lot of learning to do in Puzzle and Dragons Z. I feel that a Puzzle and Dragons Pokemon Edition would go down one hell of a treat.

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Overall, if you enjoy match three casual style gameplay, but wished it had deeper strategic elements and a decent story, then this game is exactly what you’ve been after. And while the Super Mario Edition lacks the story, it has the familiarity of the Super Mario franchise, meaning it’s far more appropriate for younger players. Either way, it’s something fun, if a little on the shallow end, but it’ll keep you busy for a good long while.

Final Score: 8 puzzled prawns out of 10

Detailed Information:
Developer: GungHo Online Entertainment
Publisher: Nintendo
Distributor: Nintendo South Africa
Platform: Nintendo 3DS family
Release Date: 8 May 2015
Age Rating: 7+
Website: http://www.nintendo.co.za/Games/Nintendo-3DS/Puzzle-Dragons-Z-Puzzle-Dragons-Super-Mario-Bros-Edition-981211.html