At first glance you could be forgiven for thinking that Puzzle & Dragons Z + Puzzle & Dragons: Super Mario Bros. Edition is no more than a colour-matching puzzle game with fancy visuals, and whilst there is certainly a level of truth to that, the grander picture is something quite different.
To start off with Puzzle & Dragons Z, you take on the role of a silent protagonist that you name after yourself – or whatever amusing title you can think of – in order to tackle the great looming evil that threatens to break the world into convenient puzzle piece-shaped islands. In order to best your foe you must traverse through 'dungeons' that more often than not take place in the open air, defeating enemies as you go. The plot is nothing terribly special, but the game insists that the story must be progressed inch by inch practically every time you complete a dungeon, which feels largely unnecessary unless there is some information of actual importance that you need; that doesn't happen as frequently as perhaps it should. Some characters will chime in with surprisingly funny dialogue on occasion which is certainly a nice touch, but these instances are mostly buried amongst piles of tiring lore.
Luckily the storyline is only a very small part of the overall experience, and the gameplay is where things really matter. Whenever you enter a dungeon you have to select a team of Dragons in a process not dissimilar to Pokémon, but rather than commanding one monster at a time you have to use the touch screen to re-arrange coloured Orbs to complete a line of three or more of the same colour. Each colour represents one of five elements, namely Fire, Wood, Water, Light, and Dark, and every Dragon also bears at least one of these elements. If you successfully create a line of appropriate size any Dragon in your team who shares that element will attack, with power dependant on their level, how many Orbs were cleared, and whether or not their attack type is strong against the enemies'.
The way that the Orbs are moved is easily the most unique aspect of the gameplay, as rather than simply swapping them around or rotating a group you can slide an Orb over the entire grid for a set period of time, repeatedly switching places with any others you glide over. This allows you to re-arrange a great number of Orbs in any one turn, like a traditional sliding puzzle game, meaning you can set up several lines in a single turn that results in massive damage to the opposing side. It's an ingenious way to make the game not only more difficult, but more involving and exciting. Other puzzle games feel pedestrian in comparison, and the quick-thinking required is beautifully balanced out by the ability to plan out your movement path in advance.
As for your dragons, you must raise them and increase their level in order boost your fighting ability. Every Dragon has a unique ability that can be activated in battle, such as changing one type of Orb into another should there be a drought of a particular kind, or simply increasing your attack power. Some also have passive Leader Abilities that are activated by putting the Dragon first in your team, and these usually involve strengthening a particular elemental attack. All Dragons are hatched from eggs that are sometimes dropped when a foe is defeated, and they do not require any resources to do so. However, these eggs can also be sacrificed to bolster the strength of another Dragon in your team, meaning that what would have otherwise been a useless egg that you had no use for can have a very important role in raising the level of your favourite Dragons.
The variety in Dragons is fairly nice as well, ranging from your more typical draconian-themed lizard to huge suits of armour that supposedly have some sort of Dragon inside. These can not only be levelled up, but in true Pokémon style they can also be upgraded into new, more fearsome forms with stronger abilities and stats. The Dragons certainly look good for the most part and all have a level of uniqueness to them, but considering you only see a static picture of them when actually in battle it's difficult to feel any real attachment to them. This does make it easier to be ruthless in cutting members of your team for a strategic advantage, but it's a shame nonetheless.
The overall presentation in Z is mostly very good, with a few hiccups here and there. The overworld and artwork look very nice, but the character sprites look out of place in their surroundings. Thankfully you rarely see this, as most of the time you'll be locked in combat where the art style and bright colours are a joy to look at. Animations are mainly smooth and silky, and the attention to detail is laudable.
Puzzle & Dragons Z also comes with Puzzle & Dragons: Super Mario Edition, which as the name implies is a Mario-themed adventure which features the same gameplay as the main game. Unfortunately the experience is significantly less involving in this spin-off variant; the Dragons being replaced by enemies from the Mario series feels inherently wrong as they battle their fellow Koopas and Goombas alongside Mario, and the number of available allies is significantly less compared to the Dragons in the main game. There's no storyline to speak of as one might expect, but whilst this omission doesn't take away from the experience the lack of variety certainly does. Enemy animations are bland and some even feel unfinished, which is not really acceptable in a completed product.
The entirety of the Super Mario Edition portion of the game seems like an afterthought - though it had its own release in Japan - that doesn't really pay off. The gameplay is still just as good, but it generally feels lifeless and lacking in character compared to the main game. There's still plenty to be enjoyed in the Mario mode, but there are no unique gameplay features or anything that sets it out against the main game, other than the visual differences. You'll still get a lot of enjoyment out of it as it's essentially just more of the same, but it's definitely better to play this in tandem with the main game for a bit of variety rather than as a completely separate experience.
Puzzle & Dragons Z + Puzzle & Dragons: Super Mario Bros. Edition is a decent offering - the gameplay is absolutely rock-solid and the visuals are bright and engaging. It's not without its blemishes, but once you learn to largely ignore the cookie-cutter characters and simply pay attention to the occasional amusing dialogue this really is an entertaining game. The Super Mario mode isn't as enjoyable as the main game; it's a nice change of scenery if you become bored with overgrown lizards parading in front of you, but it's best to stick with Puzzle & Dragons Z for the most part.