You’ve heard it before, and you’ll hear it every time a developer comes out with an XBox 360 Arcade puzzle game: there are just too many. It seems as if there’s a puzzle game for every walk of life: Bejeweled 2 for the familiarized casual crowd, Puzzle Quest for the RPG touch, Hexic HD for the single-player enthusiast (and cheapskate if you’re still playing the one the console came with!), and the list goes on. What niche could another puzzler possibly fill at this point?
How about poker?
Yes, it seems Void Creations wanted to key in on one of America’s greatest traditions: the hustle and grit of five-card poker. Poker is the thing to beat right now: poker on TV, poker in schools, poker halls, poker clubs; poker mania is upon us. And what better way to celebrate the great game of poker than with…a puzzler? Well, surprising as it may sound, it works. More surprisingly is that it works well, and credit Void with turning a familiar table game into a fast, fun and admittedly beautiful puzzle affair: Poker Smash.
The goal of Poker Smash is to match together the best five-card poker hands you can by swapping cards horizontally. All the while, more and more cards come out from the bottom of the pile, pushing the whole stack a row closer to overflow and, ultimately, failure. Thankfully, you only deal with monster cards – tens through aces – so creating hands is not that difficult. The crux of the game lies more in stringing together the matches into huge combos, which turn into multipliers that can cash in a ton of chips. Helping out with this are two cool features: the first is a set of bombs that destroy any one card at a time, great for bringing a card you need down (since you can’t swap cards vertically). Also, you get a somewhat clichéd “bullet time”-esque meter that slows down play for about eight seconds at a time, allowing you to manage your cards deliberately and avert crisis should you be on the brink of overflow. Bombs refill as you string combos together; your slowdown power regenerates over time.
The main gameplay of Poker Smash is divided into Arcade, Timed, Puzzle, Practice and the multiplayer offering. Arcade Mode is straightforward enough: cards come, you swap them to create combos and the board grows increasingly faster as time wears on. Sometimes a ‘challenge hand’ pops up which means you have to create a specified hand in a very short period of time to grab some extra bonus chips. The entire mode is nothing new and for the first few go-arounds it serves as a novel way of introducing you to the game; however, it’s clear fairly early on that this offering alone will grow thin on you without the presence of another person or any variations.
Puzzle mode, thankfully, offers a slower style of play in which a predetermined board is given to you with the simple task of clearing it out. There are 55 puzzles in all and they are separated into groups of five; you must clear enough of the previous set in order to unlock the next. The puzzles grow fairly challenging early on so there’s plenty here for the thinking man or woman. A weird sort of inclusion is that with the chips you earn in the various modes, you can unlock videos of the puzzles being cleared; while you have to work to unlock them and you don’t have to watch them, it sort of marginalizes the whole effort (though, admittedly, walkthrough sites already do the same thing so you can almost think of it as cutting out the middleman).
The practice mode seems fairly redundant. You are given free reign to knock around the play mechanics without fear of failure; unfortunately, no chips or scores are stored, so you may as well just practice in the main modes. Timed mode will serve you well in preparing for the multiplayer side of things. You are given three minutes to chain together as many combos as humanly possible and pump up your score. It’s this kind of fast, think-on-your feet play that will introduce you to the game’s golden core: multiplayer.
Two to five players enter, and one will leave will all the chips. It’s straight-up arcade mode with a twist: as you create combos and match up cards, you steal chips from all your opponents in an attempt to bleed them dry. To simulate the feel of poker even more, a dealer position is constantly circled around the player pool; if you’re the dealer, every odd-numbered combo sends a line of worthless bricks to your opponents, which they must make a combo adjacent to if they want to see the light of day and turn them into real cards. Again, it’s nothing we really haven’t seen before in a puzzle game, but it’s fast, fun, and addictive to steal your opponent’s chips, and in terms of the 360 arcade lineup, it’s arguably the greatest multiplayer around.
Unfortunately, even the online multiplayer campaign feels a bit isolated: you don’t have any real record of your opponent’s status other than a line indicating a recent match and combo multiplier, so it’s impossible to tell if you’re close to knocking someone out with blocks or if they have a killer combo set up that you should defend against. Your only gauge for success is the number of chips each player has. This makes it less about strategy and more about what the single player offering already emphasizes: simply making combos.
Another weird design choice was the angle at which the board is rendered. It’s meant to look like your point of view is near the bottom, so the top looks somewhat scrunched in comparison. This makes it a tad difficult to determine where your cards are in relation to the top; thankfully, there is an alarm that begins to sound well before you ever reach this point, and any columns close to overflowing will shake violently. Still, on the fly, it’s hard to determine whether it’s worth the risk to push the stack up in the middle of a combo.
Otherwise, the overall design and presentation of the game is crisp, smooth and surprisingly nice to look at. The 3D elements of the board and background are detailed and it looks as if a good deal of thought was put into making this game look gorgeous. Compared to the very bland-looking Puzzle Quest, for example, it seems Void Creations really wanted to make this game that stood out beyond its gameplay. The music, although largely forgettable, is appropriate to the various boards and flows well enough with the game.
The replayability of Poker Smash lies largely in its multiplayer mode, though there are unlockables available to those willing to sit down with Arcade and Puzzle. There are some boards and the aforementioned puzzle solutions for sale with your chips, but what I really like is the offering of unlocking gamer pictures. It isn’t much (only two, and they’re relatively easy to get), but I wish more arcade games in particular had this sort of option available. It’s worth getting into a game fairly deeply if there are tangible rewards outside the achievement system.
Overall, Poker Smash is a puzzle game just trying to stand out amongst a bevy of puzzle games. The presentation, with some minor flaws, is top-notch among its field and the gameplay is satisfying enough to merit some replayability. The achievements are spread out among the various modes and it will take at least a bit of work to get the harder ones, though they are easier to achieve than most. Although the single-player offerings are largely forgettable, Poker Smash stands out with a strong multiplayer outing and some online scoreboards to stack yourself up against the community.
Frankly, it’s hard to find that much wrong with Poker Smash. Even in a crowded field, it stands up to its competitors well and smoothly integrates America’s green felt tradition with something a little off-beat. If you’re ready for some fun multiplayer action and don’t mind a single-player side not as robust as some other puzzlers, Poker Smash is ready for you.