- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Fans of comic-book superheroes get the ultimate casual gaming challenge in Marvel Puzzle Quest: Dark Reign (D3 Publisher and Wayforward, reviewed on PlayStation 4, rated Teen, $14.99).

The title, rabidly popular on mobile platforms over the past couple of years, now translates into a fun and immersive entertainment console experience that offers players the chance to eventually direct 50 heroes and villains from the Marvel Universe into battle.

The simple game mechanic involves selecting a team of characters who takes turns against an opposing group to move and matches three gems of the same color on a game board.

Colorful illustrations enhance the action as well as a story featuring over 200 branching skirmishes and multiple layers of role-playing like strategy.

Adapted from the massive Marvel Comics’ story crossover event from 2008, the game demands a player thwart the plans of such bad guys as Doctor Doom and head of H.A.M.M.E.R., Norman Osborne (aka the Green Goblin), while fighting Doombots, Osborne minions and such legendary foes as Juggernaut, Venom, Daken (Wolverine’s sadistic son) and even a clone of Thor.

The objective of each battle involves draining the opposition of health points by matching gems before they return the not-so-nice favor. A player chooses three characters to take to a fight, each with different attributes tied to the colored gems.

The eventual choices are a tempting blend of characters from Marvel’s history, each referenced in a short biographical page with a comic-book cover reflecting his or her origin.

So, early on, I selected a fairly powerful team consisting of a version of Thor from the “Thor: God of Thunder,” Marvel NOW! series from 2012 (a cover drawn by Esad Ribic); Iron Man (Model 35) from a 1998 series (showcasing an awesome Adi Granov cover); and Captain America from his 2012 Marvel NOW! series (sporting a cover by Paolo Rivera).

Let’s forget about the game for minute. I loved the developer’s choice of not only adding a comic-book cover but also crediting the artist of the work on each character’s bio page.

It’s nice to remind gamers that these colorful stalwarts actually originated from an illustrated book that requires reading and not simply interacting with a controller for enjoyment.

Now, in each turn of a battle, a player flips the position of pair of gems to make a match of three gems in a row (vertically or horizontally). The action removes them from the board, filling up the area with new cascading gems and resulting in knocking off some of an opposing lead character’s health points.

More importantly, the colored gems accumulate on the team’s side and can be used to unleash stronger attacks and powers upon the enemies.

For example, I chose Black Widow (her modern comic version from the 2010 series) during early encounters with H.A.M.M.E.R. soldiers for a very good reason.

The gun-toting, gem-stealing pests can suck points and stop strong heroes from delivering major blows if they have banked enough green and red gems.

They also place countdown timers on gems that must be eliminated in a set amount of rounds or can cause health-draining devastation on a team really quickly

Black Widow abilities were a perfect complement to often stopping them.

She could freeze an opponent for multiple turns (called the Widow’s Sting and costing nine blue gems) or steal some of their gems (called Aggressive Recon and costing 10 purple gems) to really save me in many encounters.

Additionally, teams of characters that win battles gain experience points and level up to gain more health points and are rewarded with random power-ups. That’s really important as the villain’s health numbers and attacks increase quickly in subsequent fights. Also, if a player cannot win a match, no matter his team lineup, he can go back to previous levels and replay them to further power up his roster.

Combine the constant, irresistible matching strategies with a story played out through some beautiful, two-dimensional illustrations of the characters popping in with dialogue bubbles and “Marvel Puzzle Quest: Dark Reign for the PlayStation 4” will consume a Marvel-loving casual gamer’s time.

Suffice to report, I am very happy not to be playing this game on an easily accessible mobile device, or I would never get any work done.

This console version of the game also offers a player the chance to take his most powerful squads and challenge friends both locally and online via multiplayer matches.

Now, for seasoned players who can possibly get through all of the story battles, D3 offers a pair of downloadable content packs ($3.99 each) to expand the gem-matching fun.

First, “Science Friction” features a Hulk story within six different episodes and 42 missions. A player can access the Punisher immediately for his roster and eventually add the Green Goliath to teams, if he conquers the pack in a hard difficulty mode.

Or, “The Case of the Cold Chimichangas” offers Deadpool in two massive branching episodes of 24 missions. Players immediately add Doctor Octopus to their roster and ultimately the insane mercenary.

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