After decades of largely being overlooked for localisation, the Puyo Puyo series is gaining some long-deserved recognition. Puyo Puyo Tetris was an early highlight in the Switch’s library, and a Sonic Mania nod to the game’s original western release (Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine) was a highlight in a game packed full of highlights. But can the series succeed without bringing some of the most famous names in gaming along for the ride? It certainly deserves to, but by focussing primarily on online play Puyo Puyo Champions doesn’t make as strong a case as it could do, despite undeniably strong fundamentals.
To recap those fundamentals: with an eye-catching cutesy, off-kilter sense of style Puyo Puyo’s brand of quick, competitive falling block puzzling sees you arranging coloured pieces (puyos) into groups of four (or more). When these connected puyos disappear from the field of play, those resting on top will fall, allowing you to arrange and trigger multiple clearances (chains) sequentially for higher scores.
More importantly, large chains will send larger numbers of colourless ‘nuisance’ puyos into your opponent’s play area. If their puyos reach the X at the top of their playspace, you win. Layer in a tactical timing element via the opportunity to counter nuisance puyos in your queue with your own chains, and you have an easily learnt game with a high skill ceiling. Notably, in place of Tetris, Puyo Puyo Champions brings back the Fever ruleset from Puyo Puyo Fever. This is a solid choice, though somewhat inevitable considering the mode’s enduring popularity in new Puyo releases since 2003.
Aside from adding three and four Puyo clumps into the mix of pieces thrown your way, Fever’s big addition is a gauge that fills every time you counter enemy chains. It’s a slightly more methodical and tactical way of playing – instead of a mad rush to set off the biggest, baddest chain before your opponent (or to rapid fire enough nuisance to trip them up), Fever encourages you to hang back, build chains and wait for the right moment to fill the gauge. There’s scope for mind games too – firing off small chains in the hope that your opponent will commit, only for you to break off and start countering them.
Your reward for filling the gauge is a succession of pre-made chains to build upon and set flying – clear the screen and you’ll be rewarded with an even larger pre-made chain sequence. Ideally, you’ll inundate your opponent before they have a chance to build up their own gauge and counterattack. Beyond bringing Fever rules back to the west (and to modern consoles), Champions doesn’t present much else that is new, save for some largely cosmetic additions such as new playable characters, backgrounds and music tracks.
As a budget release, this is largely forgivable – it was unlikely that we would receive a repeat of the generous, and entertaining story mode from Puyo Puyo Tetris, for instance. The 2-4 player battle and endurance modes available to single players present enough entertainment for short morning commutes and the fuss-free split and wireless local multiplayer modes make Champions good party game fodder. Ultimately though, these modes are a supporting act, and if you’re not going to play online, expect to get only a modest amount of mileage out of the game.
Champions’ online is structured very similarly to Puyo Puyo Tetris, with ranked (‘Puyo Puyo League’) and unranked (‘Free Play’) modes to play in. The player population seems to be healthy, though not extensive – stick around for a few games and you’ll see a good number of faces (the game has been out since October in Japan under the name Puyo Puyo eSports and has been regularly and aggressively discounted to lure people in).
Encouragingly, the netcode appears to be completely up to the task of flinging puyos back and forth between hemispheres without too many hitches. Meanwhile, the matchmaking code does its best to pair you up with someone at your own skill level. Despite the Japanese Puyo community being inevitably overstocked with fantastic players, if you’re capable of efficiently stringing together some decent but low complexity chains, you’ll find opponents capable of giving you a tense, but winnable match.
Newcomers, on the other hand, are likely to be disappointed. Unless you’re a particularly quick learner, the current state of online play will feel very hostile: it doesn’t help that the minimal offline modes (including the omission of Puyo Puyo Tetris’ interactive lessons, though a chain hint mode is available with the singleplayer handicap set to 'sweet' or 'mild') offer meagre space to experiment and improve.
Puyo Puyo Champions ably covers the essentials of the series at a great price point. The inclusion of the Fever ruleset provides something of interest for veteran players and the most enthusiastic of new fans created by Puyo Puyo Tetris, and should be at least considered for any party game library. However, the lack of other single or multiplayer modes or a real tutorial make this less of a definitive entry-point or second helping for newly created casual fans than it perhaps could be.