D3 Publisher, the monster-geniuses behind Puzzle Quest, have always been more concerned with iteration and execution than novelty. They weren’t the first to pair match-three puzzling to turn-based combat, and they seem less concerned with being the best at it -- a title that perhaps belongs to Puzzle & Dragons [Free] -- than with laser-focusing on the human brain’s dopamine centers. One hexagonal detour through Puzzle Quest: Galactrix notwithstanding, D3 have made an entire business model out of building better mousetraps.

The bait in Marvel Puzzle Quest: Dark Reign [Free] is the promise of collecting a rogue’s gallery of Marvel characters to duke it out -- turn by turn, jewel by jewel -- over the course of a plot that shadows Dark Avengers storyline. Even for those unfamiliar with the ever-expanding Marvel universe, Dark Reign’s use of collection and randomized drops make it compulsively, sickeningly playable.

The essential structure hasn’t changed since the original Puzzle Quest. Combat is turn-based, and each color-coded match does damage to your opponent while generating action points (AP) required for special skills. When gems are matched, they disappear, only to be refilled from above. Players trade blows back and forth until someone dies (or is “downed,” in the kid-friendly parlance of Dark Reign). At the end of each fight, a reward will randomly drop: one of Dark Reign’s two currencies or a new character. If you don’t have that character yet, he or she will be added to your roster; if it’s a duplicate, it can be used as a level-up token.

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Previous Puzzle Quest games relied too heavily on long, unstoppable cascades of matching jewels filling in from the top, a phenomenon that felt less like luck and more like cheating. In Dark Reign that happens less often, the enemy AI is less prescient, and a few tweaks to the system make for a more calculated and strategic tête-à-tête. Most significantly: instead of a lone hero, Dark Reign’s fights are three-on-three.

This new focus on team fights opens the door for an increasingly complex meta-game of party construction and synergy. For example, attacking with a certain character makes them vulnerable, so managing AP-generation and health is a constant gamble. In general, you wouldn't want multiple characters using the same color matches for special attacks, either.

As your roster expands, so do the possibilities for team composition and skill selection. Thor, for example, plays well with Iron Man and Modern Storm, while Magneto makes a better pairing with Black Widow. Whereas combat in previous Puzzle Quest games sometimes felt roughshod and chancy, Dark Reign is thoughtful, calculated, and purposeful.

Grinding for extra character drops is an unavoidable fact of playing Dark Reign, but it’s not at all tied to the in-app purchases. As is common in free iOS games, this economy uses two different currencies: Iso-8 is used to raise heroes’ stats, buy healing items, and add more space to your roster for new fighters; hero coins, obviously, allow you to buy random hero cards.

The game is mostly generous with both, but even buying new characters with hero coins is randomized -- you could pump a bunch of real-world cash into Dark Reign, but that’s no guarantee that you’d get the character you want or the extra cards needed to level them up properly.

That said, the game’s difficulty spikes viciously between each act, and your first encounter with the Juggernaut will likely send you scurrying back to the prologue in search of leveling opportunities. Replaying old missions will randomly produce a new character, a bundle of Iso-8, or hero coins if you’re in a bind.

For what it’s worth, Dark Reign doesn’t seem any more grind-heavy than previous Puzzle Quest games, and the baseline combat is fun and flexible enough to support it. Dark Reign is repetitive, but it's rarely brainless. If you don’t like Dark Reign, it’s because D3's brand of random drops and incremental progress is a frighteningly effective psychological tenterhook, not because the in-app purchases are malicious or pervasive.

For anyone willing to buy into Puzzle Quest’s signature mechanics though, Dark Reign is -- perhaps surprisingly -- more robust than its fan service or freemium boondoggles would suggest, packing in enough content and new ideas to keep devotees matching jewels until the inevitable heat death of the Marvel universe.

TouchArcade Rating

  • Foghorn Irrascible

    One of the best written reviews on TA. Give this man a lot more work! 🙂

    • EightRooks

      Yeah, just wanted to echo this. Can't say whether I agree with the appraisal of the game yet but this is some really good writing - some of the best I've seen from the new TA writers and much better than the rubbish on most videogame sites at the moment. Thumbs up.

  • mendo

    It' sa great game but it's also EXTREMELY bad for your battery. Since you've to be online all the time, you can't even play the story mode offline, it will drain your battery in few hours. My iPad 3 last less than 3 hours if you play with it. And that's really bad for a game as simple as this one (it's not Infinity blade III...)

    • http://ask.fm/MidianGTX MidianGTX

      Sounds a bit suspicious. I can be online for a good 8 hours with my iPad.

    • xx99

      Drains battery super fast on my 4S too, but it's a blast to play.

  • ramon31

    It doesn't drain my battery and I play this game heaps.

  • worldcitizen1919

    Replaying old missions? The game locks missions that have been completed. How do I replay them?

    • Evolution888

      each mission has a set # of rewards, if u finish 4/4 rewards then move on to the next mission

  • http://ask.fm/MidianGTX MidianGTX

    Not even retina. I paid for this damn iPad.

    • Stéphane Lachance

      Forget it not being retina. As far as I can tell, the game plays in the iPhone's aspect ratio, with black bars on both sides of the screen. They couldn't even bother making any changes for the iPad.

      • http://ask.fm/MidianGTX MidianGTX

        Yeah it's really annoying. I totally get the whole "gameplay over graphics" argument and generally I agree with it, but I specifically chose to pay more money to have a nicer screen. Supporting default resolutions should be standard.

      • http://ask.fm/MidianGTX MidianGTX

        Yeah it's really annoying. I totally get the whole "gameplay over graphics" argument and generally I agree with it, but I specifically chose to pay more money to have a nicer screen. Supporting default resolutions should be standard.

  • worldcitizen1919

    I've played about 6 missions so far and no ISO 8 ? In the review it says 'generous with both'? After playing a while I still have no ISO 8. And my coins are only what I got at the start of the game. Do they give any currencies to you at all or is it all IAP? Haven't received even knew drop of any currency yet!

    Timers. How do you clear the timers? Has this game changed since utter was reviewed because I don't get any drops of any currencies, there are timers and I can't replay any missions they are locked once you complete them?

    Games like this initially put out a good version to get good reviews then update to the real game. Very sneaky. I downloaded this game going by the review but am finding it an entirely different game to the one described in the review. Is this an updated version?

    • Emotive

      I just played the game not even 3 min ago and I had no timers, replayed missions, and got both currencies in drops.

    • xx99

      You get mostly comic covers at the beginning of the game because they want your heroes to become competent. ISO-8 is very common when replaying missions or playing multiplayer while the coins (hero points) are not random drops but rare drops you can find on certain levels. If you don't get one of a level's 2–4 special drops, you will certainly get 20 ISO-8.

      If you really want ISO-8, head into multiplayer. Then again, multiplayer will be tough until your further in the game. For what it's worth, you should save ISO-8 for leveling up your heroes instead of buying new ones. Hero points are good for new heroes. Both are good for unlocking more comic slots (I recommend at least 6).

  • joaquin_ondamoon

    The reviews on the app store don't seem to be as forgiving as this one. I know there's a preponderance of whining there, but these sound like legitimate gripes. Low level characters that can't be raised up without IAP, nerfing the 1 high level character (Loki) rendering him near powerless. I'm not gonna lie, I haven't played this yet - but even though it's free I don't want to waste my time on a level grinder that hits the paywall early and often.
    Can anyone confirm this, or is it the usual griping of the 99 cent crowd?

    • Emotive

      You don't need IAP for anything.

      • blackbear219

        He's right, you don't. I haven't spent a penny and I have a level 21 ironman as my highest level "starting" character and a level 1 x-force wolverine who is 4 stars. I got him from
        the random pick for 150 coins and I think he is the best one you can get from that so I probably got lucky.

        Fun game. Grindy if you don't want to spend, but do you like the puzzles, or not?

      • xx99

        You got super lucky indeed! My rarest drop has been baghead Spider-Man and he's not that great.

        I'm sitting on a level 32 Iron Man, 28 Modern Storm, and 19 Black Widow without a single IAP.

    • xx99

      It's a grinder but there's not much of a paywall. Waiting for your heroes to heal slows you down occasionally, but in the early game, their health is so low that it takes hardly any time to heal and in the later game you have more than three heroes so you can use healthy ones while you're wounded ones are healing up.

      You also get 4 instant heals that you can use at any time and recover at the approximate rate of one per hour.

      Finally, you can still use your heroes when their injured, as long as their not downed. My Iron Man has over 1000 HP and can easily survive fights he enters with only 500, so I can get a ton of mileage out of him.

      • joaquin_ondamoon

        Excellent feedback. Thanks to everyone who took the time to respond, and in an intelligent and concise fashion. This community is the best.

        Downloading now...

  • Maniacfive

    I'm enjoying this. Playing for a fee minutes here and there. It's replaced Dots as my go to quick fix.

    I'm also accruing a fair amount of both currencies and characters. I've only played as far as the juggernaut storyline and I have level 7 iron man and storm and a level 6 black widow. They're holding their own at the moment.

  • 1uc4

    Mm, really not my kind. For this type of game Tower of Saviors is still the best choice imo.

  • VirtualAlex

    I have been playing this for hours since I first downloaded it. I am very confused by lots of stuff, but the gameplay is fun and I love Marvel heroes!

  • RunningWild

    It's certainly possible to play for free but forking out will help. It's all down to which way you want to go. Best way to earn ISO etc IMO is the SHIELD training room which is just vs mode except the AI plays the other side which uses player made teams.

    • xx99

      Multiplayer and the weekly features multiplayer are both great ways to bring in extra ISO and characters.

  • Buzzit

    I played this game like crazy for the first two days it came out then kicked it to the trash heap. The grind is deadly and if it were not for the Marvel tie in I doubt anybody would be playing this lipstick on a pig of a game.

    When someone creates a brilliant online human v human matching game with lots of bells & whistles (maybe including cards you can play to alter the game board / tiles whatever) then count me in - until then - nice knowing you match 1,2,3,4,5,6,7...

  • http://rekzkarz.com/ REkzkaRZ

    Despite all the praise for the review, it's hard for me to see this as a 4-star game.
    It's derivative, uses Marvel content to push a game that seems quite lackluster, and there is a constant push to IAP. I see this, if it is a great version of this kind of game, as at most a 3-star game. 4 stars should be astounding and 5 stars should be reserved for something truly amazing/genre shaking (like Dungeon Raid, or Puzzle Quest, etc).
    Anyway, I'll be passing up on this treasure.

    • http://twitter.com/BeRad_Ent Be-Rad

      You made the right choice. This doesn't tarnish the PQ name quite like Galactrix did, but it's close.

  • Baconpants

    "They weren’t the first to pair match-three puzzling to turn-based combat, and they seem less concerned with being the best at it". The original Puzzle Quest, published by D3, came out on the ds and psp in March 2007. Almost 1 and 1/2 years before the app store launched, and even 3 months before even the Iphone itself was released.It received wide critical acclaim, set the gold standard for match-3 rpg gaming, and basically INVENTED an entire genre. EVERY match-3 rpg ever released on ios is basically a Puzzlequest clone. I'll admit that the ports haven't always run so well on ios devices, but in their original format on consoles, they're still far better than most of the copycats on the app store. Respect the original, yo.

  • B-Rabbit

    I took a chance after reading this review and all of the comments and downloaded this game. I don't know if it will hold up in the long run as a four star game, but for now after playing it quite a bit for the last 2 days, it's a four star game. On freemium games that I like, I will usually dump a few bucks into it to support devs, but also to get a jump start and a little extra to start out with. Sometimes that's all I need, and other times I am quickly made aware that a game is a greedy gaping cash maw. That's when I either flush it or decide to try forge on anyway, in the hopes that I can grind my way past the paywall. I haven't spent quite enough time on Marvel Puzzle to reach a conclusion cash-wise, but I've spent a good few hours total after initially buying a small amount of currency in order to purchase a couple of the rare and higher heroes, as well as a few extra inventory slots to hold them.

    I also spent a few bucks to buy a starting stash of ISO-8 so that I can power-level my heroes up a bit in the beginning without scrounging for resources. I think my expense was around $15. I've leveled several chars up to level 7, a couple of others each got a few levels and I just cycle them in and out of rotation on the missions to allow for the healing of injuries without having to use my 4 actual heals. I'm currently playing through all of the starting missions one at a time until I've gathered all of the covers and ISO-8s for each mission, after which the mission locks and you know that you've gotten all of the goodies for that one.

    I may still hit a paywall, or start feeling that surviving a mission is a difficult grind, but I don't think it's going to be any time soon, and the actual puzzle mechanics are solid and, IMO, fun. I like trying to disable the enemy bomb tiles and make matches that activate certain powers and the Marvel setting just adds icing on the cake. So what I'm saying basically, is to give it a try if you like puzzle quests and/or Marvel because I do think its worth at least that much, and maybe you will find it as enjoyable, and thus far afforadable as I do. :).

  • peteer01

    Remarkably, this game has gotten worse and worse regarding stability over the last three years. This game was a hidden gem three years ago, was an excellent game two years ago, and was a pretty good game last year. Now the game has become so bad that they recently lost their community manager, and the forums are overrun with valid complaints and frustrated people who are giving up the game.

    Customer support for this game is worse than nonexistent. If the game is
    buggy, expect to impact you negatively. If you have technical difficulties around an item not showing up in your inventory, do not expect any help.

    Recent "innovations" include such gems as "view a commercial for this in
    game reward", and new game mode start being introduced are so broken but the game will choose not to award any points for a boss if you do not allow the boss to at least hit you first.

    The game continues to raise the level of characters introduced, which means in game currency inflation has gone wild, but the long time entrenched players are still the only ones that stand a chance of winning any of the major prizes.

    The game has an alliance concept, which means that in order to get the best rewards, you have to join an alliance with very active players. In a completely non-fun meta game, you can go around forums and find which alliance you should join to maximize your game time ROI.

    At one point this was a five star game for me, albeit with bugs, balance
    and alliance issues. At that time, there was a community manager who
    intervened when I had some unpleasant customer support issues, and the game was reasonably balanced, fresh, and fairly bug free. People who didn't want to pay to win could still have a lot of fun.

    In its current format, the game is trying to milk as much money out of the new players, and as many ad use out of everyone, as possible. The new VIP system means that for $10 a month you can (maybe) be remotely competitive in this free to play game.

    In short, stay away.

Marvel Puzzle Quest Reviewed by Joseph Leray on . Rating: 4