Pixel Defenders Puzzle very nearly does for collapse-3s what Puzzle Quest did for match-3s. You’ve probably never heard of a collapse-3, because I invented the term just now. A “collapse-3″ is a variation on a match-3. In a match-3, you match three gems and they disappear. But in a collapse-3, you match three gems and they collapse into a more valuable gem. If you match three of those gems, they then collapse into an even more valuable gem. And on and on. My first exposure to collapse-3s was Triple Town, which was all about scoring the most points by collapsing everything into more valuable forms before you ran out of space. It was a town themed game, so the gems were mostly buildings and landscaping.

Pixel Defenders Puzzle — that name couldn’t be more awkwardly misleading into making you think you’re about to boot up a tower defense game — is the same concept as Triple Town, but it takes everything into the realm of turn-based tactical fantasy combat. Different colored gems collapse into different classes of characters. The yellow gems are fighters, the black gems are necromancers, the green gems are rangers, and so on. But then each of these classes matches with itself to collapse ever upward into more valuable classes. Play your gems right and you’ll get a grid full of vampires, assassins, paladins, snipers, and warrior monks.

After the jump, what good are vampires et al in a collapse-3?

Pixel Defenders Puzzle then puts these various guys to work. The reason you want advanced units is because they each have unique attacks against monsters who line up along the top of the screen, periodically taking potshots at your king or queen. Your king or queen — sometimes your king and queen! — wanders haplessly around the grid, often getting in your way. Sire, could you please move your royal ass over one tile so I can coalesce my frickin’ rangers and take out that troll before he regenerates himself and thereby gets another chance to throw a boulder at thy pate?

Pixel Defenders Puzzle can get crazily detailed — in a good way — as you take into account your units’ various abilities, the monsters’ various abilities, the powerful support monsters that show up, and the complexity of the grid filling up. For instance, once a unit has used up its limited attacks, it turns into an obstacle, like a rock, tree, or crater. These are normally annoying, but if you can line up identical obstacles, you get bonus turns.

This is a really smart variation on the collapse-3 concept, and it’s even got a bit of metagame for how you can accumulate prizes that you can call onto the field whenever you want. Save up wild gems for easier matches, or free attacks, or eraser gems. You can also, of course, buy these prizes with microtransactions, so there goes the high score list, which is effectively a “buy” score list*. Get it? I just made that up, too. But in addition to scoring the endless mode, which is a long enough endeavor that it really needs to save itself if you stop playing for a while, there are scenarios and puzzles lined up, Angry Bird style, that you can try to beat efficiently to earn the most stars. In case you care about that sort of thing.

And although the name is terrible and terribly confusing, Pixel Defenders Puzzle is serious about the “pixel” part of the title for it’s lovely retro characters that aren’t too harshly retro and the pleasant 16-bit musical score that pulses jauntily in the background. It’s also got a wicked sense of humor. When you play this game, please combine enough priests to work your way up a scientist, who can turn enemies into a harmless chicken. And then please discover why the scientist’s ability is called “science gone wrong” by letting the chicken live out his life peacefully. Because whether you’re playing a match-3 or a collapse-3, special treats like this are just as gratifying as mere high scores.

4 stars

* The developer rightly pointed out — and it’s clearly indicated in the game — that you can only use five power-ups in any given match. My snide comment about a “buy score list” has more to do with my sensitivity to the issue of pure scoring than with Pixel Defenders Puzzle’s relatively restrained use of the feature.