Swords and Poker is something of an odd duck, an excellent little mobile title that fuses RPG mechanics with Poker, but also manages to be a total rip off of another property, in this case indie mobile title Sword and Poker by Gaia Co. There appears to be some question online as to whether Gaia Co are involved in this latest installment of their franchise at all, with Gaia Co going dark, however Cozy Okada (founder of the company) gets no mention on the credits of this latest title.
Sword and Poker started as a premium game series on the iStore before releasing a free ‘Lite’ version to entice players a short while ago. It was a big success in Japan, but evidently not enough of one to prevent the doors at Gaia Co from closing. The title had charm and a relatively novel combat system based on poker, seeing you progress from screen to screen in ever more challenging battles against monsters. The art style was simplistic, and it wore its indie badge proudly, but there was always the seed of something greater there for the making. Konami have very much embraced this potential.
Graphically the game is wonderfully luscious with a broad colour palette and lovingly created 2D illustrations that bring the world setting to life in a vibrant manner. You’re locked into the body of a female adventurer with an anime style to her appearance, but the rest of the games denizens are brilliantly designed and drawn. What makes the game look the most impressive however is the world map, a glorious sky-high overhead view of a land full of colourful and interesting locations that has small graphical flourishes to make it pleasing. Flocks of birds fly over, smoke and clouds billow and water moves gently as you watch. Locations on your journey are marked with small golden plaques that scream ‘click me!’ and the menus are tucked off screen and easily tabbed up with icons to make the most of the display. Monsters are fierce and even the early ones avoid the ‘level 1 slime’ cliches by tackling parrot like birds and insects instead. It’s a fresh take on the game world and very much an appreciated one. In combat the graphics for cards are crisp and text is always easy to read. Again icons are the most useful element at play here, with magical spells relegated to a series of small squares on the side of the table that you can quickly recognize and employ to your advantage.
Musically the game sounds fantastic, the soundtrack is big and bombastic with very little modesty to it. Nothing is particularly stand-out in its originality, but the whole thing is put together in such a way that it demands attention. This is one of those games you’ll find yourself finding a quiet space to play with the sound on in order to enjoy it better rather than muting guiltily. Sound effects are par for the course, with magical spells fizzing out as a little shallow, but card based combat leaves little in the way of expressive sounds to use, unlike more conventional RPGs which have a wealth of sword and shield noises to take into account. I found myself thinking that a commentator shouting out what’s happening would add a huge amount to battles, with ‘Flush!’ and ‘Two Pairs!’ seeming like events that needed a fake cheering audience and a cheesy narrator. Alas it was not to be.
The story in Swords and Poker Adventures is bare bones but it does give the player the odd splash screen with a full page piece of artwork and some motivational text when certain landmarks are reached. At the games outset, after the introduction and tutorial segments the game sets up the basic premise. A year ago a meteor was supposed to strike the planet, causing a massive and terrible event. However instead of making landfall it instead hovers just above the ground as a floating continent, just out of reach. The heroine intends to solve the mystery of its being there and explore it for herself. From here it’s a linear journey along roads pre-designed for the player, with you able to scout ahead to see how the landscape changes. The path growing darker and less hospitable as you march onward.
Gameplay is the star of the show here, with a pretty standard ‘explore dots on the map to unlock the next one’ world map, with each location leading to a zoomed in map with a stretch of land and multiple paths/encounters laid out inside it. Some contain treasures and others are easier to take with less encounters, but unless you clear the map and make it to the exit none of the cash you earn will be added to your wallet. The game has HP allotted to each area, so exiting and re-entering a failed zone doesn’t require you to spend time healing, and it gives you a free ‘chip’ to cash in for each zone to fully regenerate all health, but as the toughness increases you’ll find it harder and harder to complete each zone. Luckily HP can be upgraded in the shop with money saved from fights, as well as weapons, spells and shields purchased to improve your stats. Battles themselves take place on a grid where 9 cards are already arranged into a square. You and your opponent take it in turns to lay cards along the outside of this square with the aim being to form Poker hands and deal damage to the other according to the strength of that hand. Racking up multiple effects by using the corners to your advantage is key, as is using the spells you’ve been finding and buying as you go along. Bosses serve to test your skills with sharper AI and deep health reserves. The game unlocks shop and additional content as you progress, and a PVP option exists for additional rewards which has its own dedicated equipment and fusion for items to improve your stats. Occasionally you’ll also climb towers on the world map which consist of four battles per level and have great rewards at the top if you can make it in time before they vanish again. Social elements exist with a plug in to Facebook to allow friends to send you cards you might need and the game employs a premium currency to buy extra items or chips to restore health. Play is however limited by an energy system which can only be removed by an in-game purchase (twice the cost of the original Sword and Poker title) and energy recharges very slowly, meaning you can only enjoy the game in small portions.
Overall the game is a fine addition to any mobile device, the only thing stopping this game from getting higher praise is the lack of dedication to the original team who created it and the misfortune of sharing the app store with the existing premium purchase original game, which still holds up very well. if you’ve never played the original it’s got all the same gameplay without any of the freemium social trappings and makes for an excellent single player experience. If you enjoy your games more social and don’t mind playing based on an energy system then this more polished version will be right up your alley.