Freemium Field Test: Puzzle & Dragons is a slight, yet compelling match-three battler

puzzle and dragons primary

Free-to-play games often look appealing, but it’s difficult to know at a glance whether the business model is insidious and fun ruining, or reasonable and worth pumping a few bucks into. With Freemium Field Test, we’ll take a recent free-to-play iOS game, put it through its paces, and let you know if it’s really worth your time (and money).

Nintendo may be on the verge of bringing games to smartphones and tablets, but the reverse is already happening: Top mobile hits have been moving over to the Nintendo 3DS handheld for a while now. And one of the biggest international iOS sensations makes the leap this week with the bundled release of Puzzle & Dragons Z + Super Mario Bros. Edition.

Not familiar with the original Puzzle & Dragons? You’re probably not alone, assuming you’re in North America. GungHo’s game isn’t quite as much of a phenomenon here, but it’s a mobile mainstay in Japan and other countries, and last year earned an estimated $1.5 billion worldwide from in-app purchases. Seriously! Only Clash of Clans was bigger. 

With the game about to make a bigger splash in the States with the Mario-flavored 3DS edition, it seemed high time to finally dig into the iPhone version to see what’s made it such an endearing success. What I found is that the Pokémon-meets-Bejeweled pairing is understandably kept simple and streamlined for touch devices—too much, I’d argue—but that it doesn’t take long to see what’s given the game its wide-ranging appeal. 

The pitch

puzzdrag combos

Creating combo chains—where the orbs that fall into view generate new matches—is pretty essential for continued success in battle.

Puzzle & Dragons certainly takes inspiration from Puzzle Quest, the first game to successfully mash-up match-three puzzle gameplay with role-playing aspects. You’ll link up three or more like-colored orbs on the board to make your monsters attack, and here you’ll do so while battling other creatures in straightforward dungeons.

Only unlike Puzzle Quest and many other top match-three entries, Puzzle & Dragons sucks most of the challenge out of the core gameplay. No longer are you limited by awkward orb placement, or having colors scattered around the board: You can simply drag any orb from its starting location to anywhere else. So if you have two red orbs together on one side of the screen and a stray one several columns over, you’re in no bind. Just move it over with your finger.

At first, this was a deflating realization. Why play a puzzle game in which the puzzle gameplay is so clearly neutered? Over time, the answer became clear: Enjoying Puzzle & Dragons is less about savoring the actual puzzling and more about the strategy of building up your team of monsters.

puzzdrag monsters

Your Monster Box will fill up quickly with the creatures you find. Fuse the unneeded ones with your active fighters and they’ll become stronger.

There are many variables that go into concocting an effective team—including elemental alignment, health, and cost points—and you’ll unlock more and more monsters as you go. On top of that, you can upgrade and evolve them by fusing together the creatures. In other words, building your team feels like the real game in Puzzle & Dragons—the match-three action is merely the grind that slowly brings you more and more satisfaction in the other portion.

And to be fair, the puzzling isn’t completely devoid of strategy: As the dungeons ramp up in challenge, you’ll need to put more and more focus on creating combos, all while playing to the elemental strengths of your team. When one match clears, you want another to fall into place, and so on and so forth. It’s utterly essential for later success. Otherwise, expect to start spending big on Magic Stones unless you’re prepared for steady failure.

The catch

puzzdrag stones

Magic Stones are the one in-app purchase option, but they’re used for various abilities throughout the game.

Unexpectedly, for a freemium game this successful, Puzzle & Dragons isn’t overwhelmingly monetized. In fact, there’s just one thing you can buy: Magic Stones. You can buy one Magic Stone ($1), you can buy 85 Magic Stones ($60), and you can buy bundles in between. But those digital items have a fair bit of value in the game, and can be used in various ways to help nudge you along. 

Primarily, they’re used for continuing ahead once defeated. Deep into a dungeon and just had your party wiped out by a boss? You don’t want to lose all that progress—so spend a Magic Stone and bring your monsters back to life right then and there. The stones can also be used to restore your stamina (energy meter) for when you’re playing for long spans of time, or increase the capacity of your Monster Box so you can store more beasts and manage more team variations with ease.

puzzdrag continue

You’re liable to use your Magic Stones most often for continues, as the thought of losing precious progress is tough to take.

Puzzle & Dragons also has a coin currency, but it’s strictly earned via gameplay. The stamina system isn’t too restrictive, either. However, Puzzle & Dragons biggest frustration is a common one: It gets difficult in a hurry, and often suddenly in the middle of a dungeon. I’ve had my monsters utterly decimated by a single round of enemy attacks after breezing through prior battles, and that temptation to spend a Magic Stone—and then again, and again—is very real once you’ve invested hours into the game. 

Ultimately, I spent $10 to grab a dozen Magic Stones after exhausting the several granted via login bonuses and promotions—and then blew most of them trying to take down one intensely challenging boss. In other words, it’s very much possible to pay your way through battles, depending on how much you’re willing to spend. I wouldn’t advise it, but it’s possible.

The verdict 

puzzdrag grinding

I dropped several dollars worth of Stones grinding out this battle against an immensely tough boss. I don’t recommend doing that.

Considering how flat the puzzle gameplay seemed at the start, I gained an unexpected appreciation for Puzzle & Dragons over the past few weeks. It’s less dumbed down than simply different than its genre compatriots, placing its priorities on between-match strategizing and team building rather than challenging puzzle play.

I totally see why people continue to play it for months and months. There’s a real hook here, plus the art design is great and the music is almost obnoxiously catchy (in a mostly good way). What’s missing for me, beyond richer gameplay, is any level of storytelling or world building—something to generate investment in the game beyond simply concocting an ever-improving team. 

Actually, that’s what the 3DS game brings, as Puzzle & Dragons Z crafts a Pokémon-esque adventure around the gameplay, plus the bundled Mario version is totally delightful, to boot. But that’s a $30 game that requires a dedicated portable device. Instead, iOS players get a free-to-play version of just the core gameplay loop. And that seems to be plenty for millions of fans.

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