It's hard to think of two genres more disparate than puzzle games and role-playing games. Simplistic, bite-sized puzzlers are largely played by fortysomething secretaries killing company time, while RPGs cater to the hardest core of nerds—the ones who have no qualms about committing to a 50-hour plus Zelda quest.
Somebody forgot to tell that to the makers of Puzzle Quest, though, a portable game that smooshes the detailed storylines of RPGs with the easy-to-learn gameplay of puzzlers. Like most RPGs, you'll begin by creating a character, and you'll enter a D&D/Tolkien-influenced world filled with elves, trolls, spells, and other magical crap. But here things get more interesting: Instead of setting up turn-based battles against ogres and the like, all of Puzzle Quest's combat is done via a Tetris/Bejeweled-style puzzle game: You and your opponent take turns lining up different-colored orbs, and whoever proves more adept at the puzzle wins. If that's your opponent, you can try again to defeat him; if you win, you'll progress to the next point in the story. It's unexpected and weird, yeah—but it's also cool, challenging, and addictive.
That's not to say that Puzzle Quest is perfect: Its story is as rote and uninspired as they come (evil threatens to corrupt a bucolic realm, etc.), and the game's AI is occasionally (but maddeningly) inconsistent. But that old chestnut about "easy to learn, impossible to master" applies here, making gameplay both accessible and deep—one can choose whether they want to just focus on the puzzle games, or delve deeper, learning tactics and spells.
Most importantly and simply, the game's just fun. But this is important, too: In an industry dominated by boring, safe sequels (another Madden, anyone?), Puzzle Quest not only has a genuinely risky, unique concept, but it justifies it with great gameplay that appeals to gamers and non-gamers alike. And that's something that's way too rare. ERIK HENRIKSEN