Bejeweled, PopCap's cascading "match three" puzzler, is frequently cloned but rarely improved. Zoo Keeper simply swapped the gems for cartoon animals. Paris Hilton's Diamond Quest didn't even bother to hide its mediocrity beneath a new skin. But Puzzle Quest: Challenge Of The Warlords is an ingenious hybrid of casual, pick-up-and-play puzzling and dork-centric, Dungeons & Dragons-style adventure. The game's one big innovation is its borrowing of Bejeweled's addictive line-'em-up game mechanic as the way to resolve RPG combat. Bump into an ogre while traveling from Gravia to Egor's Bridge? Align enough skulls, and the monster is toast. Matching triplets of other onscreen items generate mana for spells, gold to purchase new armor, and weapons or experience points to buff your character's stats.
The story is as lightweight as the game play. Some creep's undead minions are wreaking havoc on the kingdom, and the king has assigned you to put a stop to their shenanigans. The tale isn't exactly woven from the same genre-redefining cloth as A Song Of Ice And Fire, but who needs blow-your-mind twists when you've got one of the world's most addictive puzzle mechanics sandwiched between every plot point? Handheld consoles feature no dearth of puzzle games, but Puzzle Quest does such a great job of melding two seemingly disparate game genres that it's worth nabbing—if only for the novelty.
Beyond the game: The Nintendo DS stylus is handy for puzzle play and map movement. The PSP's larger screen makes the game slightly easier on the eyes. The two versions finish neck-and-neck.
Worth playing for: The game is way deeper and more varied than it ought to be. Puzzles change up depending on whether you're capturing beasties, crafting items, or learning new spells. Cities can be captured and will pay out taxes once they've been strong-armed with siege towers.
Frustration sets in when: You look up at the clock and it's four a.m.
Final judgment: More compelling than a glorified Flash game ought to be.