Instant Technologies’ Poker Knight (out now, $0.99) presents players with a never before seen mixture of RPG style stat building mixed with a combat engine based around the successful formation of poker hands. It’s a game players have almost assuredly never before seen the likes of, and the grammar in the accompanying prose – even if somewhat uninspiring – is completely devoid of the issues commonly found in many other iOS RPGs. The question that remains to be seen here is if simply being original is enough to catapult Poker Knight to greatness, or if the game instead ends up being little more than mediocrity with a twist.
It all begins one day when Derek – a supposedly talented card shark – is violently transported to a mystical fantasy realm the night before a big tournament in Las Vegas, greatly lowering his chances of winning the competition. Apparently the only way the protagonist can return home is if he collects nine magical amulets, hidden away to protect them from the clutches of evil, that will grant a wish to whomever should possess them all. Fortunately for Derek – who seems to lack any useful skills otherwise – all combat in this other realm appears to be carried out by means of poker matches, or at least through a curious one-sided variant of the game.
During each round of combat you are dealt two of the five cards that will be in your hand, and a selection of cards are dealt face-up to the table from which you will choose the remaining three cards for your next attack. The amount of damage you deal to a monster will be simultaneously based on both the kind of poker hand you have formed, as well as how high the cards used to form that hand were. The controls for selecting which cards to add to your hand are both responsive and accurately reliable, so you’ll never accidentally take a card you didn’t mean to unless you get into a reckless tapping frenzy.
Now this is where things get a bit different than what you were probably expecting when the article started, as the monsters that you go up against during your adventures will never actually draw any cards of their own. If you have more than two cards still left in your hand after an attack – since only the actively contributing cards get used up – then any cards left remaining in your hand, not counting the first two, will blow up and deal damage back at Derek. It is for this reason you will try in earnest every round to avoid playing a hand based around a single high card or a one-pair as either of these empower your enemies to strike back.
Of course it wouldn’t exactly be much of a fantasy world if the enemies didn’t have unique abilities to use against the player during combat, and in fact each enemy does have a special move they can use every three rounds. These can include things such as the ability to curse cards, which causes them to not hurt the enemy if used in an attack while simultaneously becoming twice as powerful if they blow up against the player; the ability to make cards begin rotting, wherein they will explode and do damage to the player if they aren’t used in an attack within a certain number of rounds; as well as various other things. During Poker Knight’s boss fights – so as to make things even more hectic, or at the very least to stop players from trying to count cards on paper – the opponent’s special move gauge will reload based on the passage of time rather than poker rounds.
This isn’t to say that our hero Derek will never learn abilities of his own, for each of the nine magical amulets that he collects will enable him to perform a specific action once per battle. The amount of times these spells can be used during a single fight can be increased by spending Poker Chips to further empower the amulet, which each successive increase costing more than the last. These Poker Chips – which can either be earned from monster fights, or bought with IAP purchases – can also be used to acquire health potions, which are otherwise only found on rare occasion in guarded treasure chests that never respawn on repeat visits.
Where Poker Knight’s controls don’t work quite as stellarly is during the game’s map screens, wherein the player will quickly find out that Derek moves about at a tedious pace and there is little that can be done to speed him up. The problem with the map screens in Poker Knight is a three pronged issue: firstly, everything of interest on the map is placed an excessive number of spaces apart; secondly, the travelable spaces are not connected to each other in a remotely straight line; thirdly, the hero can only traverse more than one space at a time – not counting spaces with monsters on them – if they are all in a straight line from each other. Which each level’s map becoming ever progressively longer, and a good chunk of every level being nothing but empty space, backtracking in later levels to check untraveled paths quickly turns into a tedious chore.
When all is said and done, I must say that – at least in my opinion – the novelty of Poker Knight wears off very quickly. The game’s minor battles – as early as the second level – were beginning to feel more like a chore than engaging gameplay, although it might be different for someone more actively interested in the game of poker. This is exacerbated by the fact that whenever you die you then have to restart the current level entirely from scratch, a move presumably positioned to help encourage IAP sales of health potions. What further doesn’t help here is that your character’s stats increase by tiny amounts when he levels up, where as the stats of the enemies increase by leaps and bounds, quickly leading to boss fights that you can only be prepared for either with excessive grinding or IAP purchased health potion caches.
iFanzine Verdict: Poker Knight is an RPG with a unique twist, but the idea of combining RPGs with the gameplay of poker ends up being bland enough that the game will probably only truly appeal to those already avidly interested in poker. The game – to its credit – is able to claim that it has far more grammatically correct dialogue than most iOS original RPGs, but at the same time also contains a map movement system far more frustrating than most as well. Overshadowing all of this is an unforgiving difficulty curve, which will actively rub salt into your wounds should you ever fail, that was clearly designed to help push people to the game’s built in IAP store.