As is often the way with the ever-changing face of the mobile market, both Sword and Poker and its equally brilliant sequel have been removed from the iStore by Konami in order to further capitalize on their release of ‘Swords and Poker Adventures’ having muscled out original IP creator ‘Gaia Co. Ltd.’ who also worked on ‘Jewel Summoner’ for the PSP and ‘Folklore’ for the PlayStation 3 before vanishing entirely. My Boxed Universe takes a belated look at both Sword and Poker and its direct sequel, Sword and Poker 2.
Existing in a strange state of non-existence, both games in this IP have had their full release pulled from the iStore, whilst their demo edition ‘lite’ versions remain available for free download. MBU was lucky enough to play these titles through when they were still available in their completed editions, but strongly advises people to check out both demos, which still have buttons to purchase full editions on their title screens, thought sadly these do not work. A more polished version of the same game turned into a freemium experience was released by Konami under the altered title of Swords and Poker Adventures, with the ‘S’ in the title heavily implying that they don’t own and haven’t paid toward the rights for the original product, rather moving in to snatch up a market made vacant by Gaia’s demise. MBU has already reviewed that game and our thoughts on it can be summarised as ‘good, but not as strong as the single-payment games that came before it’. As these titles were released only a few months apart by the then-new studio, we’ve chosen to review them together.
Graphically both games share many of the same art resources, though the second does have an additional layer of polish, primarily to dungeon icons. Aiming for a relaxed, cartoon orientated style in the vein of newspaper funny-panels, these games employ imaginative monster designs, many of which would feel right at home in a Nippon Ichi title. Both open with a series of still illustrations with text overlaid to cement the games story before launching into either a dungeon or a world map, as seen in the sequel. There’s more variety in terms of locations in Sword and Poker 2, which takes in multiple fantasy-cliché areas before delving into its final dungeon, whilst the original is set entirely inside a large tower that acts as the central venue for the whole game. In battle there are few differences, with most of the screen given over to the playing grid upon which custom-drawn traditional playing cards are placed, with buttons spread either side of this field and player/monster information top and bottom. Most of the game takes place on these battle screens and though they are well suited to the game’s needs, they do look slightly dull after a while. The style works in the favour of the game however, which maintains a light and breezy feel throughout.
In terms of music, both games make use of a synth soundtrack that sounds like something the SNES would have used over a mid-tier RPG in the 90s. Whilst the original game favours relaxed and ambient tracks with the occasional moment of suspense, its sequel puts some fire under you by changing this up for stronger, more high paced tunes. Both make use of the same sound effects, which as nicely recorded but repetitive and occasionally quite weak when compared to the amount of damage being dealt in battle. Sadly there are a few glitches with the sound, in Sword and Poker its possible for the music to get caught in the same vein as an old record, looping a few seconds endlessly until you change in or out of the screen. I’ve not encountered this in the sequel, but that also had its own problems, with moments where the sound effects failed to play in battle.
This is a story of a magical world based on cards. Sword and Poker sets a narrative that sees an unnamed hero venture into a tower filled with monsters in order to defeat a powerful mage called the Lord of Chaos, and reclaim a magical jewel named the Stone of Creation that many believe to be the source of his power. Others have tried in the past of course, but none have returned, defeated by his five loyal guardians. Regardless, you light your torch, and enter the darkness of the dungeon. The sequel sees you return to the role of that same hero a year later, after retrieving the Stone of Creation you’ve been living the humble life of a farmer, but when a new evil rises wielding a second relic, this time a powerful staff that when combined with the stone could prove unstoppable, you dig out your old armour and head out once again. This time the path isn’t so clear, and aware of you the enemy has created a castle locked with four keys that must first be retrieved in order to confront him. Both games are simple in terms of narrative, but manage to provide enough exposition and dialogue to set up a fairy-tale environment and clear goal for the player. It helps that the player character is drawn in a sexually androgynous manner, allowing both men and women to relate to him/her (though on one occasion the game says ‘he’) easily.
Gameplay between the two titles is extremely similar, with the sequel having a little additional polish and a few added extras to keep the game interesting for veteran players. Aside from exploring each floor of a dungeon one area at a time on route to the exit, with rewards stored until completion of the area instead of doled out as you progress, there’s little to the original game but its combat. The sequel adds several dungeons around the central one you’re trying to unlock an a shop, which replaces simply finding new gear in chests as you progress. Players can equip a weapon, and in the sequel a number of spells too to make combat more complex, and level up their character’s ‘money bag’ which acts as their life points, essentially increasing the amount of HP you take on to each floor. You are given one ‘token’ which you can spend for a single refill of your money bag at any time outside of combat, but completing a floor without spending it bags a better reward. Of course the usual ‘pay a small amount to get a bonus token’ system is in place, but the games never rely on this as a crutch. Both games were released in ‘lite’ and premium pay-once to unlock the full game forms, though sadly only the free lite versions remain available. The bulk of the game is in its combat, which is a variation of ‘Heads Up Poker’ that sees nine cards arranged into the centre of a grid with remaining spaces all around it a single layer thick in which to place any 2 of 4 cards drawn each turn. The aim is to make poker hands and deal damage accordingly to your opponent, which increases with better equipment attached to your character and makes for a decent level of strategy. You can pass a turn at any time, and this is usually a good idea as nabbing the last turn of a round usually means racking up multiple hands and therefore multiple attacks. Monsters have differing HP, attack values and special effects that trigger if they meet required hand types, and stopping this happening is also a tactic you’ll need to learn. Playing long enough builds up a meter from which a ‘wild card’ can be summoned. There’s not a great deal more to it that that in either game, though spells in the sequel are equipped into ‘tabs’ and allow you to inflict your own special manoeuvres back, including shuffling the middle of the pack, healing and dealing extra damage based on the content of your hand. It’s a simple and elegant game.
Overall, Sword and Poker is a short lived series that never made much of a splash outside of Japan, but was popular enough to get an immediate sequel that upped the ante in every way and drew the attention of Konami once Gaia went under, prompting them to make ‘Swords and Poker Adventures’. As you can’t play the full games anymore that version is sadly the best place to get the meaty experience the originals once offered, but a quick hour-long play through of the two demos will quickly reassure you of the quality, fun and sad loss that was the original two Sword and Poker titles.