I have to say that this is one of the most addicting games I’ve ever played. The sleep mode on my DS got some exercise with it, and my power switch got a vacation. It’s a great game to just pick up and play for either short or long periods of time, and makes excellent use of the touch screen.

Before I get into the actual review, I would like to note that there are a couple bugs in the game. For some reason, it will occasionally freeze up on me. Since the game auto-saves after every fight, and the load time is quick, it’s not a big issue, but it is aggravating and shouldn’t be even a minor problem.

Sound

As with everything else in this game, it can be either good or bad depending on how you look at it. As far as how well it suits the mood, the music is perfect, and it never gets tiring or repetitive enough to make you want to turn it off. On the other hand, it sounds very flat and uninspired, and the quality isn’t up to what I’ve come to expect from modern systems. The orchestration is fine, I suspect it was just compressed in a lousy fashion.

Graphics

On the upside, the graphics are well done for the scales that the DS requires. Every still is quite good quality. The downside, however, is that adise from the animations of sprites on the map, it’s nothing but stills. Which I could get past, especially given the number of different images, except that there is only one for each character and monster, even in conversation. It is rare to see a game that doesn’t at least have different expressions for its talking heads. What the game does have here is good, but ultimately minimalist.

Story

The story of this game is a bit surprising. It involves politics and relations between cultures, giving it a richness that too many games lack. It starts when you notice that orcs are attacking your country and taking prisoners–a strange behaviour for a race that normally kills everything in its path. This also coincides with a resurgence of undead, who haven’t bothered you for decades. You are sent out to get to the bottom of both of these events. Along the way you’ll meet a number of characters to help you, each with a different personality. There’s also a number of sidequests, that add to the depth of the story.

So, the story itself is pretty good, but not presented in the best way. Mainly, the conversations between characters seem artificial, and it’s hard to believe at times that they would flow in the ways they do. Since there isn’t really any sort of character developement, the characters seem quite two-dimensional, and this hinders the conversations, since it’s sometimes hard to understand why they would respond in the ways they do.

Gameplay

This is where the game really shines, or at least digs its claws into you so deep that it’ll never let go. If you’ve ever played any other match-3 game (Bejewelled is the classic example), you already know the basics. Match three like objects in a row to clear them from the board.

That’s about as far as the comparison goes.

Beyond simple puzzles, Puzzle Quest is an RPG, with many traditional elements of the genre mixed in. First of all, you get to pick one of four classes, each with different abilities. The gems you destroy give you either mana (to use those abilities), money, injure your opponent, or experience to level up. Money can be used to either buy new gear, upgrade your citadel, or upgrade your stats–on a side note, while point costs for different attributes vary depending on your class, gold costs as the same for all of them, so save your points for the cheap skills, and use gold to improve the others. Another key difference is that aside from capturing monsters or learning skills, you will be sharing the board with your enemy, and take turns making moves. So aside from just looking for the best gains, you will also be trying not to hand your opponent easy mana or attacks. You will also have up to seven spells at your disposal at any time (six of your own, plus mounts can each give one). And of course, your gear provides bonus effects as well, making this a much richer experience than most similar games.

Ultimately, it’s very addictive, and for that reason alone I would suggest picking it up–odds are you’ll get your money’s worth whether you intend to or not. Since the gameplay is done exclusively through the stylus, it makes great use of the unique capabilities of the system, and not a pixel of screen space–top or bottom–is ever wasted. The music and story-telling do detract from the experience a bit, but the addictive power of the gameplay wins out.

Sometimes a line of games comes along that grips you and you just have to get every version that comes out.  For me, one of those lines is the Mario RPGs.  I’ve enjoyed every one of them so far, so of course when I got my DS I knew I had to get Partners in Time.

Graphics

If you’ve played Superstar Saga for the GBA, you’re not going to be surprised.  The graphics are not a bit better, and could have just as easily been done in the previous generation.  That’s fine though, because they didn’t need to be any better, and any attempts at improvements would have probably yielded a worse result on such a small screen.

Both screens are made use of.  In battle, the top screen is mostly just scenery, but some enemies will attack from the top screen.  In the world it usually shows a map of the area, but occasionally the babies will have to crawl into small spaces to navigate a puzzle, and in those cases their adventures will be shown on the top screen.  I wish a better use had been found for the top screen than an area map though, it brings the difficulty level down too far.

Sound

If  you’ve played Superstar Saga, you know what to expect.  The sound really isn’t much different.  It fits quite well, and I guess Nintendo decided not to mess with something that wasn’t broken.  Nothing sticks out in my mind as wrong, so I guess it was pretty good.

Story

Guess what, Peach has been kidnapped again.   What a shock.  THis time she went to the past, and didn’t come back.  So Mario and Luigi go back to find out what happened.  Well, Mario goes to help her–Luigi happens to fall into a time warp.  When he tries to help he screws up, when he tries to stay out he gets dragged into it, poor fella (I guess).  They meet up with their younger selves (who have already kicked Baby Bowser’s butt), and the younger Peach and Toadsworth, all of whom they wind up bringing back with them.

Anyways.  A bunch of time warps have shown up in Peach’s castle in the present, each leading to a different area of the world in the past.  Each one leads to a piece of the blue star that blew up and created the time portals in the first place.  So the four Mario brothers have to trek out and find them, beat some baddies, get eaten…oops, getting a little ahead of myself.

The story is, unfortunately, rather short.  The game can easily be finished in under 20 hours.  Replay value is pretty low too–I haven’t touched the cart since I finished it.

Gameplay

Oy vey.  This is where things really start to take a downturn.  As in the previous game, each brother is basically controlled by a different button, A and B for the older two, and X and Y for their younger counterparts.  While it works, it also makes it a little less intuitive as you try and remember what button controls each brother, and which ones need to be hit to pull off certain moves (fortunately, at least for puzzle solving you have plenty of time to figure things out).  I can’t count how many times I’ve pulled off the wrong combo on the world screen.  The touch screen gets virtually no play aside from 5 seconds spent wiping off a dirty map, as if to say “See, we didn’t forget about it”.

The real downfall to the game though is how railroaded the plot is.  No area (except the present day castle) is visited more than once, and there is literally an arrow on a map pointing you to where you need to go next, which destroys most of the fun of exploring the world.  In other words, it’s pretty much impossible to get lost, especially as the top screen is displaying said map 98% of the time.  If I needed my hand held I’d call my mother thankyouverymuch.

Overall, after Superstar Saga this game was a real letdown.  Between the shortness of the game, the handholding, and the fact that it barely requires better than GBA capabilities, this game is more of a rent than a buy.  If you’re looking at buying this, I suggest Superstar Saga instead.  It was a much more fulfilling game.

I figure I might as well start with this game, because I got my DS solely to play it. For anyone who’s not familiar with Dance Dance revolution, it’s a music game where players stand on a four-button pad and hit those buttons as they show up on the screen. They do this while listening to music (hence the ‘dance’ in the title), and generally the step patterns follow the beat or melody. It doesn’t look a bit like real dancing, but no one really cares because it’s fun. It’s also good exercise, a rarity in a video game.

Elite Beats Agents takes this basic formula, strips out the exercise and makes it handheld in a great use of the capabilities of the DS. Instead of the floor pad that DDR uses, EBA has numbered circles and lines that appear on the bottom screen, which have to be touched with the stylus at the right times. Circles will close in on the numbers to let you know when to hit each spot. There are four levels of difficulty and 19 song total, which should keep you busy for a little while. And as any DDR fan can tell you, this type of game has a lot of replayability.

Sound

Being a game where the entire play revolves around music, this is a pretty crucial area, and EBA doesn’t disappoint with mp3 quality. One nice change from DDR is that the NA version has songs that are familiar to its audience, and a nice variety at that. There’s everything from recent hits such as Avril Lavigne and Destiny’s Child, to older groups like the Jackson Five and the Village people. Yes, that old classic YMCA is in there. The quality also does the songs justice in what is probably the best sound I’ve ever heard coming from a handheld. It sounds a little synthetic with headphones–I suspect that’s a hardware issue–but it’s worth putting up with to be able to hear all the nuances that can’t be easily made out with the speakers. (I did, however, discover that the headphone jack is in a bit of a weird position when holding the stylus in your right hand)

It also bears mentioning that all of the music in this game is covered by other artists, which makes the sounds quality even more impressive. Most of the recordings are almost indistinguishable from the originals (Indeed, I didn’t even realise this until reading the end credits), and the rest are still damn good. Overall, and excellent job was done here.

Graphics

In short, good enough. Most of the images in the game are stills, but they’re used quite well for storytelling. The style is cartoony enough to match the theme of the game, but good quality, and there is still an illusion of motion, so overall it works quite well.

The bottom screen also makes use of the 3D capabilities of the DS. While you’re playing, there will be three agents in the background dancing. The quality is about as good as can be expected, given the size of the screen and that they’re not pre-rendered. The dance moves match quite well to whatever you’re doing on the screen, assuming you’re able to pay attention while playing. Overall, the graphics are as good as they need to be, not the flashiest but nothing to quibble about either.

Story

There’s a story? Yes! 18 of them, actually (I’m counting the last two episodes as one story, since they go together). The basic idea is the the Elite Beat Agents through some mechanism that will be from now on referred to as ‘magic’ can aid people in trouble by dancing. The better they dance, the more help the can give. Each song has its own story, and there will be periodic cutscenes on the top screen that turn out either good or bad depending on where you currently are on the meter at the top of the bottom screen. Gameplay stops for these sections, so you can actually pay attention. If you finish a song, there will be a happy ending, but there are two endings (and in one case, three) for each episode, with the better one playing if you get a happy result at each cutscene.

The episodes themselves run everywhere from almost sane (football player using his moves while babysitting–yeah, that works) to completely whacked (retired baseball player using his skills to defeat a giant lava elemental at a theme park), with episode 12 being quite touching.

There’s also multiplayer functionality–up to four players can play using one cart (only five songs are avaliable though–if everyone has a cart then they’re all avaliable), and you can also save game replays to test yourself against later, or trade with friends, essentially adding a one-player multiplayer. Since in these cases there’s a competitive element, different stories are added, possibly even crazier than in the main game.

There isn’t much of an overarching story, but it’s still fun as hell. A number of the songs are also well matched to the stories, although some have no relation that I can determine.

Gayness

Alright, so it’s not a usual point that gets talked about, but when you have three men in suits dancing to pop music…well, you get the idea. The first level isn’t too bad, with Agent Spin, since the dance moves are very simple at this point. The second level you get Agent J, and more complicated moves, so the gay factor goes up a little bit. The third level you get Agent Chieftain (a big guy with long hair and a cowboy hat), and while the moves are more complicated than before, he’s macho enough that I don’t think it’s possible for him to look gay. Then, on the forth level, you get the Elite Beat Divas, three girls in red leather chaps wielding pompoms. They look a little…actually, I won’t go there, but obviously the gay factor goes way down here.

Once you finish the forth level though, you unlock Khan mode, which is basically a alternate version of the forth level where the blond chick gets replaced by Commander Khan himself. And he does the same dance moves as the girls (only, without the pompoms).

And that is absolutely the gayest thing I’ve ever seen in a video game. Not that it detracts from the fun, but, well…it’s hard not to snicker at that point.

Overall, it’s a pretty fun game. The song choice is broad enough to appeal to most players, the difficulty ramps up nicely, it makes excellent use of the touch screen, and even after you’ve finished you can go back and try for higher scores to attain the highest possible rank. I recommend it to just about anyone.

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System tip: I got a DS travel case for Christmas, and I absolutely adore it. It’s made by Realtek, with space for a number of games (including a few GBA carts) and a bunch of accessories, including, of all thinks, a car adapter. Yes, I can plug my DS into the cigarette lighter if the batteries run low. Very handy.