Poker Knight slipped past the radar here at MBU for quite a while until a bored afternoon browsing through older RPGs on the iStore led to its discovery. What we found was an extremely satisfying take on blending poker rules with RPG themes.
Most of our long-time readers will be thinking ‘this sounds a lot like Swords & Poker’ a game series we’ve touched on in the past and now sits in the hands of Konami, last giving us the freemium ‘Swords & Poker Adventures’ title a year ago before going quiet on the series. Thankfully, Poker Knight side-steps comparisons to this title and instead models itself on games such as Square Enix’s ‘Gyromancer’ in terms of visuals and some play mechanics. What this leads to is a refreshing take on mixing the two ideas that’s entirely its own creature.
Graphically the title uses a crisp 2D illustrated style that captures a ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ western RPG tone in its art style. Static images for the leading man, his NPC allies and monsters are all drawn in intricate detail, and although some see re-use where additional monster designs would be preferred, their individual behavior patterns and quirks keep matches feeling fresh. Backgrounds are static images illustrated in the same style and dungeons are over-laid paths on these, giving the game an extremely polished feel. Player input is direct and no pop-up user interface is presented outside of menus, allowing for the screen to feel extremely clean and uncluttered. Visually this is a very polished title, though black borders crop the screen on devices newer than the iPhone 4.
In terms of music, Poker Knight focuses on a dark tone that lends some epic appeal to the game, erupting into occasional moments of frenzy that parallel it closely with the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ soundtrack. There are no sound effects for using the menu, however in combat subtle effects are used for all actions to give a sense of feedback to finger presses. Tapping noises, flaps as cards move around and slashing attacks all make appearances and keep the game feeling involving at all times.
In terms of plot, this title manages to spin a decent story out of a very standard concept. You play a professional card player called Derek Foyle who has just arrived at a Vegas casino for a big tournament, one that he narrowly failed to win last year. After a verbal confrontation with the man who beat you, Derek retires to his room where he is magically spirited against his will to a fantasy land. Here he encounters a Knight that believes him to be an agent of impending evil and the two duel using Poker cards as weapons. Awed by his natural ability to use these, the Knight escorts Derek back to his kingdom where events take a darker turn. Before long you’re on a quest to collect multiple powers over your Deck, held by older heroes and facing off against a stream of monsters under the control of an evil warrior. It’s cliche in fantasy terms but the game makes good use of fourth-wall breaking humor on the part of Derek, who recognizes the way the game is going and just wants things to be over. This plot manages to drive the game through some of its more padded dungeons and you’ll find yourself always keen to see where it goes next.
Gameplay revolves around story sequences where dialogue is exchanged over the course of lengthy sequences and dungeon exploration topped with boss encounters. Multiple dungeons are accessed from a world map, each with levels of completion marked by stars that encourage you to return and try to max them out by accomplishing different goals such as exploring every space or killing a challenge monster. Dungeons themselves can however be cut-through at speed to find the boss and progress the story, but grinding health and cash will help to level special moves (won from bosses) and buffer some of the longer battles or harder attacks. Exploration sees Derek follow your thumb as you guide him around the screen with enemies visible on screen at all times. Chests, restorative fountains and special monsters are also clearly marked. Running into a monster triggers a battle that must be won in order to pass through that area, else lose and get kicked back out to the world map and have to start again. Fights consist of you drawing a hand of cards and the computer playing the role of the dealer (monster) who lays 2 cards face up on a podium that can house 5 cards. Making poker hands deals damage to the monster, whilst any cards above the 2 left at the end of a turn deal some to you based on their face numbers, allowing for lower numbers to be used to cushion bad hands. All the standard poker hands apply and deal varying levels of damage based on their rarity and your level. Monsters slowly charge special attacks that add kinks to this system in their favor and you can play spells in your turn to try to over-balance the odds, such as drawing an extra card or taking one off the board. Cash takes the form of chips won alongside experience and these can be used to buy potions as well as levelling spells to give you more uses in each battle. It’s a simple system that works brilliantly. Bosses are much harder than average monsters, possessing life bars that overlap up to three times in a manner similar to that seen in the ‘Kingdom Hearts’ series, and their skills power up over time rather than after you take an action, meaning you’re under more pressure. Challenge monsters also exist that can only be harmed by specific plays and the whole match is on a countdown clock. It all adds up to a satisfying mixture, with battles feeling like RPG combat instead of card games. Obviously, being a free to play title there are elements of freemium content, not least in being offered that chance to pay your way out of defeat or the opportunity to buy more cash, but the game feels balanced overall and doesn’t gate off content.
Overall, Poker Knight is something of a hidden gem from the early iStore that took a while to get noticed. Its developers (Instant Games) did a great job optimizing it for the touch-screen and it’s solid and stable enough to pop you back to exactly the action you were doing when the game closed or was pulled away for a call. I’d recommend it to anyone who was between more epic adventures and wanted to unwind.