Puzzle Fighter is a series I have huge amount of nostalgia for. It's a great premise, puts a unique twist on matching puzzles, and-most importantly-is a super fun multiplayer experience. This latest entry of Puzzle Fighter finally brings the game to phones, but it's not exactly the experience you might be expecting. Although this free-to-play version of the game retains a lot of the same base mechanics of the original Puzzle Fighter, parts of it have been tweaked to turn it into more of an upgrade grind instead of the fun and dramatic game that it should be.
Kick, punch, block
The basic idea behind Puzzle Fighter is right there in its name. It's a one-on-one competitive puzzle game where players match and break blocks to make virtual fighters on screen fight each other. As a Capcom game, these characters are mostly from Street Fighter titles, though there are other challengers from things like Resident Evil and Mega Man on the roster as well.
In any given match of Puzzle Fighter, your goal is to have your fighter KO the other one, and you do that by matching blocks better than your opponent. Unlike a lot of other puzzle games though, Puzzle Fighter doesn't just automatically break blocks once you've matched a certain number. Instead, matching blocks can be stacked ad infinitum and can even be combined into large, single blocks (called Power Gems) until you drop a Crash Gem of the same color onto it. This makes the action of Puzzle Fighter more about building up combos of blocks to crash instead of simply keeping your board as clean as possible.
A new challenger
This base gameplay has been core to Puzzle Fighter for ages, but this new mobile version introduces some additional mechanics, most of which change the game for the worse. There are some neat things added, like the ability to call on support characters and specific block arrangements to perform specific special moves, but there's also the addition of life bars and super move buttons that tilt Puzzle Fighter away from its puzzle-based roots.
These additions make Puzzle Fighter so much more about getting your own combos off quickly and filling your Super meter before the other person. Games no longer end when opponents' screens are filled with blocks. Instead, you can just do enough attacks to win. As a result, most games of this new Puzzle Fighter don't really create the opportunity for comeback moments from playing against enemy characters the right way. You can just lose because your opponent has a higher level character or matched an arbitrary amount of blocks better than you did.
To make matters worse, Puzzle Fighter has a free-to-play model that throws off the balance of the game and disincentivizes free players from grinding to keep up with those who play. This is all built around the concept of move cards, which are special moves for each character that you can level up to make more powerful.
With this system, players who can collect more cards and afford to level them up have the upper hand in every match they go into. As a free player, you can play matches to grind out currency to afford these upgrades, but your rewards are severely limited once you hit five wins in a day. If you want to give yourself an advantage though, you can simply buy premium currency that lets you refresh your rewards, and even do other things like buy newer, rarer cards and characters. For a one-on-one competitive puzzle game, this sense of imbalance makes every match feel completely frustrating.
The bottom line
In this mobile version of Puzzle Fighter a lot of the base action feels the same, but it's hard to tell if you ever deserve your wins or losses. Did you win that match because you outplayed your opponent, or did you simply have better cards than them? The free-to-play model obscures the answer to this question so much that Puzzle Fighter never really feels satisfying, at least not in the way it used to. Instead, the main draw is the appeal of unlocking things, rather than developing your puzzle-matching skills.