Puz­zle & Dragons Z

EDGE - - PLAY - Pub­lisher Nin­tendo De­vel­oper GungHo On­line En­ter­tain­ment 3DS Out now

So this is what it looks like when Nin­tendo tries to pre­serve the value of soft­ware. Sa­toru Iwata’s in­fa­mous GDC 2011 jibe at free-to-play games felt naïve at the time and sounds even sil­lier four years on. Now Nin­tendo makes free-to-play games for 3DS and is tak­ing its IP to mo­biles. Yet here is the most pop­u­lar smart­phone game in Ja­pan, tweaked and pre­sented as a full-price re­lease with nary a mi­cro­trans­ac­tion in sight.

Those changes are il­lu­mi­nat­ing, say­ing much about Nin­tendo’s sweetly old-fash­ioned view of games, but also what makes a free-to-play game suc­cess­ful. Gone are the F2P hooks: there’s no stamina bar to re­strict free­loaders’ play­times; just the one cur­rency, ac­quired en­tirely in-game; and no pre­mium Egg Ma­chine hold­ing the game’s best mon­sters. The in­cen­tive to re­turn on a reg­u­lar ba­sis is dras­ti­cally reduced, too, with no ro­tat­ing daily dun­geons or fluc­tu­at­ing mon­ster drop rates. PAD has been turned from a the­o­ret­i­cally end­less dun­geon crawler into a tra­di­tional lin­ear story-driven RPG.

These changes are log­i­cal, ex­pected con­se­quences of turn­ing a free-to-play game into a paid one, but they have other knock-on ef­fects. It’s ter­ri­bly slow, for one thing – on mo­bile, GungHo wants you to burn through that stamina bar quickly, but here lav­ish an­i­ma­tions

stock RPG story – young un­known saves the world from peril – is livened up by Syrup, an ever-so-Bri­tish dragon that cel­e­brates vic­to­ries with “Back of the net!” and re­acts to the un­ex­pected with “Blimey!” mean bat­tles lack pace and fram­er­ates plum­met. Death means a warp back to the hub town, the ac­tion a short trek and too many di­a­logue boxes away.

The Su­per Mario Bros Edi­tion – re­leased sep­a­rately in Ja­pan but bun­dled here – takes a slightly dif­fer­ent tack, bor­row­ing the Mario as­sets and plac­ing re­stric­tions on how you con­struct teams by sep­a­rat­ing out lead­ers, helpers and reg­u­lar team mem­bers. It feels a good deal less flex­i­ble as a re­sult, and doesn’t help it­self by giv­ing you the strong­est leader and helper at the end of World 3, dis­cour­ag­ing ex­per­i­men­ta­tion there­after.

That, in fact, is the big­gest prob­lem for both PAD Z and its spinoff: the vastly reduced mon­ster pools, which erode the thrill of as­sem­bling the per­fect team. On mo­bile, Puz­zle & Dragons’ peaks lie in out­putting dam­age in the mil­lions with a de­li­ciously over­pow­ered, hard­won squad. Here, you just scrape through fights with a so-so set of mon­sters with hum­drum abil­i­ties.

Sa­toru Iwata wants to pre­serve the value of soft­ware, and by bundling two games for a gen­er­ously dis­counted price, PAD Z makes a fair case for pay­ing up front. But it also shows that there’s far more to well-done F2P than a price tag; that me­chan­ics have to work in con­cert with the mon­eti­sa­tion. It’s a fine les­son for Nin­tendo, but that’s no help to a game which is po­ten­tially a good deal cheaper, and cer­tainly a whole lot bet­ter, on phones than it is on 3DS.

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