Anna’s father has gone missing. It wasn’t unusual; as a dedicated adventurer and archeologist, he typically put treasure hunting ahead of his family. The thing is, he always came back. But on his latest expedition, he ventured into the dense jungles of Cambodia and completely vanished. In an attempt to locate and probably save him, Anna has traveled to his last known stop and started her own journey. It’s off to an unpromising start; she has just enough funds to hire Ben, a local guide whose supposed knowledge might prove useful in getting around. With absolutely no information or insight into the whereabouts of their goal, the unlikely duo set off on the Puzzle Expedition.
The story has the makings of some epic adventure, akin to Indiana Jones, Uncharted, and several other titles that keep such a plot so popular. The problem is that it serves as nothing more than an excuse to explain the setting; aside from the occasional journal entries and tidbits of explanatory tutorial dialogue, the characters display little personality beyond their roles. Anna is dedicated to finding her father, but her undoubtedly terrible family life and resentment over his love of adventuring is barely explored. The same goes for Ben, who fulfills his duty as the guide and secondary character without delving into his questionable motives or intelligence. It’s possible for characters to still be compelling, despite lacking significance to the actual gameplay. While it’s great that the game even has a story – most puzzlers don’t even attempt one – it could have been far more fleshed out and entertaining.
On the other hand, Puzzle Expedition focuses on what’s really important: the puzzles. Anna and Ben have to wander through a series of caves, passageways, and tunnels as they attempt to reach the far-flung exits. The goal is to get both characters into the exit; since they usually start off in different areas, they’ll have to figure out their own ways out of the level. Toggling between characters (and pretty much every command in the game) is made easier with a simple control scheme. Most of the earlier stages are pretty straightforward; you walk along linear paths, occasionally crawling down slopes and climbing up ledges. Then you have to contend with giant boulders, pushing (but never pulling) them into precise position to create makeshift platforms and access new routes. You’ve got to be careful, though; even if placing a block a certain way lets you progress, it could also leave your partner trapped. The trick is learning how to have the characters work in tandem and figuring out the exact sequence of commands. If you screw up even once, you may not even notice it until you’re ten steps past it and have to restart from scratch.
It’s more difficult than it sounds; depending on how much patience you’ve got, you’ll occasionally fight the urge to hurl your DS into the nearest wall even before you’ve reached the quarter-way point. But by the time you reach some of the later stages, you’ll realize that the game was being easy on you. The levels become drastically more complicated; you’ll have to deal with exploding, shadowy and magnetized blocks, multiple elevator and lever systems, trap doors, teleporters, and even some crumbling and fiery ruins. The way these different obstacles and items are placed offers some incredibly complex and intricately designed stages. Imagine having to use a series of elevators to transport a block all the way across a level, spending countless retries attempting to match each platform with a corresponding lever. If you thought that the first dozen or so areas were brutal, you might weep when the game starts using both of the DS’s screens to create even more massive labyrinths. The fact that the game manages to make each stage seem unique makes it that much more daunting. You can skip up to three levels at a time, use a grid to determine the height and distance of each item, and review the tutorial, but they won’t save you for long. By the time you’ve unlocked the near-hundred levels and beaten the game, you’ll definitely feel like you’ve accomplished something.
The satisfaction will be fleeting, though; even after you’ve finished the expedition, you’ll find that there’s nothing else to keep you coming back. Aside from a handful of bonus puzzles, there’s no extra unlockables or incentives to go for a full completion. The idea of using two characters in tandem to complete a level would lend itself well to a multiplayer option. Imagine having each gamer control a different adventurer, then discussing strategies and using teamwork. Online gameplay would be a little awkward, but a local multi-cart mode would have worked wonders. Not to mention a level editor; these complex and finely-tuned stages are practically begging for some kind customization and player creativity. It would have been a great way for gamers to come up with even more awesome and brutally challenging level designs. Such features would have gone a long way in ensuring the game’s otherwise limited longevity.
Instead, you’re left with just the expedition itself. While all of those obstacles and level structuring are used absolutely brilliantly, there’s plenty of room left for even more content. Even expanding on just the block types would have been an improvement; the game could have implemented different kinds depending on setting. You spend a portion of the quest traveling through the snowy wastelands of Alaska, but there are no blocks of ice to slide around, or a heat-based item to melt them. You’d think the lost realm of Atlantis would have its share of water-based puzzles. Instead, the game treats its various locales as little more than backdrops. They look decent; you can see sunlight drifting through the collapsed ceilings of the ancient Cambodian temples, highlighting decrepit walls and statues covered by layers of overgrowth. They don’t utilize the DS’s graphical capabilities, though; at a glance, you might assume this to be a high-end GBA game. Even Anna and Ben, our somewhat heroic duo, are nothing more than miniature sprites. While their small size demonstrates the overall scale of the levels, they’re hardly eye-catching.
Don’t let that stop you, though. Puzzle Expedition is a fine, if limited puzzle game. It has a story, something that few other games in the genre even attempt. It features nearly one hundred levels, all of which manage to be unique and challenging. The sheer amount of thought and creativity that went into the structuring and design is staggering; even if you have patience, the brutally difficult and unforgiving nature of the gameplay will keep you on your toes. The variety of obstacles might not seem like much, but they’re used in incredibly crafty ways. The simple controls, tutorials, and ability to skip up to three levels is a godsend. But once you finish the adventure, you’ll find that there’s little else. The game is sorely lacking in its multiplayer options which, thanks to the nature of the gameplay, is a glaring omission. The same goes for a level editor, which would have been perfect for gamers to create even more awesome levels. All of what Puzzle Expedition offers is fine, but it could have been so much more.