Match three games have been around since the dawn of human culture; the first recorded board game of the type dates back to the Roman times. These games are still enjoyed today (most famous being Bejeweled) and similar game mechanics have been used in multiple genre-combining games, such as Puzzle Quest. Now the indie developer Cube Roots, run by a single man, is jumping on the wagon with it's match three/RPG hybrid Dungeon Hearts.
The story of Dungeon Hearts is... not there. No grand plots to take over the world, no heart-breaking moments between your characters, not even a single line of dialogue. The tutorial mentions a 'Dark One' and it's minions which you have to defeat with your four heroes. The lack of any kind of a story really brings the game down since most role-playing games are played solely for their stories and the epic moments they deliver. Still, Dungeon Hearts is meant to be a casual puzzle game with RPG elements so the lack of story is acceptable; it's the gameplay mechanics that make or break a game of this type.
The game relies only on combat; there is no world map or anything like that, just your four heroes fighting minions of the Dark One and finally the Dark One itself. The battles are fought real-time and resemble old-school RPGs like Final Fantasy but instead of using a menu to choose what to do with each character you combine tiles (known as runes) that move through the screen in 4 lines (known as the Fatestream). There are multiple different types of runes, each with it's own color; the 4 different colors represent your heroes and grey runes represent your enemies. Combining 3 runes of the same color (known as Chargers) creates another rune (known as Striker) on the Fatestream that allows your character of the same color to attack. Creating combos with the Strikers allows you to deal more damage and attack with multiple characters at once.
If a grey rune reaches the left-hand side of the screen, it comes into effect. These runes vary from an enemy attack to special runes known as Hexes. Hexes carry various negative status ailments that affect your characters; some might inflict poison (your character gradually loses hit points each turn) while some reduce the damage your character inflicts for example. Luckily these grey runes can be destroyed with Strikers and a sure way to victory (at least on the easy difficulty) is to make sure no grey rune reaches the other end of the Fatestream. Along with the regular and Hex runes, there are also runes with special attributes; square runes can't be moved, some grey runes need more than one hit to destroy and others might require a hit from a certain color Striker. This adds the element of strategy into the game and especially the later enemies put your mouse hand to the test.
Once you defeat an enemy the runes on the Fatestream turn into special runes known as Boosters. The gameplay remains the same but this time combining the same color runes grant that specific character experience. Gaining enough experience levels up that character and unlocks special skills that can be used during combat. These skills vary from direct damage ones to skills that heal your characters for example and require energy to execute. You fill each characters energy bar by successfully attacking an enemy with that certain character. Once the energy bar is full, you can click on the skill you want to use. Each character has three different skills and a special mini-game that you have to finish in order to successfully use the skill. These mini-games are small, mostly reaction-based games that have you clicking on different buttons fast enough for example. Nice addition to the fast-paced gameplay.
The game is extremely short; you can easily complete it in under an hour. There's even an achievement that unlocks when you complete the game in 40 minutes or less! Fortunately the combat sequences are randomly generated and the game has three different difficulty settings so you can easily pick it up again once you've completed it. There is no multiplayer (how could there be?) but the game has online ranking system that allows you to easily see how you fare against your friends.
The music in the game strengthens the old-school RPG feeling of the game with classy tunes familiar to anyone who has ever played a Japanese role-playing game. You unlock more soundtracks as you progress through the game. Rest of the sounds are your basic clashes and clicks except the monster sounds which sound excellent. A purple bunny that squeaks like a fluffy toy? You've got it.
The graphics do their part without drawing too much attention; nice looking 2D backgrounds combined with 3D models. The game runs with a set resolution of 1600x900 and there are no graphical settings. The edges of the 3D models are extremely jagged; this game could use some sort of anti-aliasing. Keeping in mind that the game takes up only 300MB of HDD space and the fact that it was made by a single man, the graphics look brilliant.
To sum it all up Dungeon Hearts is an enjoyable little (emphasis on the word 'little') puzzle/RPG hybrid. And it's cheap as butter, only 3€ (around $4/£2.5)! Some players might be turned away by the lack of story or the extremely fast-paced combat but once you get in sync with the gameplay you won't stop playing until the Dark One is defeated. Too bad it's much too soon.