At times, it feels that the boundaries we use to categorize games grow blurrier by the day. It is wildly apparent by now that genre blending is a gaming trend with legs. RPG elements, in particular, have sunk their heroin-coated hooks into nearly every type of game over the past five years.
There’s certainly nothing wrong with combining disparate gameplay elements, despite the vocal outrage of a few misguided retro purists. Let’s be honest; everything tastes better with some character progression or dice rolls tossed in the mix, no?
Japanese developer Gaia certainly thinks so. They combine simplistic character progression and dungeon crawling with a unique twist on turn-based card strategy in their release of Sword & Poker for the iPhone. Read on to get the official Gamer Limit verdict!
The conceit behind Sword & Poker is simple. The Lord of Chaos has captured the Stone of Creation. In order to get the stone back, the player must battle through over 25 floors of monster-infested dungeon. It’s a laughable storyline, to be sure, but trust me, once you get into the gameplay, the generic premise will cease concerning you.
Monster battles take place on a 5 by 5 grid, with the center tiles (3 by 3) are populated by community cards that can be used by both the player and the monster. The fights are a turn based affair, where two cards are placed on the grid using the community cards to make a five card poker hand. The stronger the poker hand, the more “damage” you inflict on your opponent.
The strategy here is easy to learn but has some interesting depth to it. As the turns progress, you must consider not only how to maximize your own damage but also how to balance that with blocking off tiles that your enemy may use to make strong hands with.
You must employ strategy not only in the battles, but also in how you traverse the floors due to a limited amount of coins (HP) and items to recharge your coin purse. If you die at any point, you must restart the floor. Luckily, battles are mostly short and sweet, so having to restart a floor isn’t the end of the world.
Since finishing floors is the best way to accrue income to improve your character, it pays to carefully pick and choose your battles. As your strategy improves, your ability to clear floors yields you more rewards, as you can take more risks to defeat treasure bearing monsters who aren’t directly in your path to the next floor.
Defeating monsters and completing floors skillfully earns you currency that you can use to upgrade your character, and here’s where the character progression elements begin to surface. You can buy upgrades to your coin purse, shields to deflect damage, and better weapons to inflict more damage with each tier of poker hand.
Visuals are uncomplicated and clean; the cartoonish vibe of the whole art style matches well with the gameplay.
The music is appropriately JRPG in style and well executed, but a lack of any variety in the battle and non-battle themes may have you switching to silent before long.
The touch controls for Sword & Poker work quite well, and the gameplay doesn’t require a lot of finesse or razzle-dazzle. Easily within the scope of the iPhone’s limitations, most of the action is controlled with a “click and drag” style of pulling cards to the tiles; this should be both instantly familiar and comfortable for anyone who’s ever played Solitaire or Freecell.
Sword & Poker is suited well for both shorter and longer play sessions. You can finish up a single fight in a few minutes, and many floors can even be cleared in a 15 minute timeframe. You may find yourself playing on for much longer than that, however. The RPG-lite progression kept me engaged for hour long (and more) chunks at a time.
Anyone who is familiar with RPG games knows what grinding is. A poker player who plays optimal strategy (waiting patiently for strong hands) in order to make consistent profit with minimal risk much is also said to be a grinder. One of the great thing about Sword & Poker is that it avoids grinding in both senses of the word.
On the poker side, the 3 by 3 layout of community cards makes it so that opportunities to make powerful hands come often enough to keep the action interesting. On the sword side, there’s almost always another upgrade within reach after completing a floor, which reaches into the RPG addicts’ “just one more level” pleasure center and squeezes softly.
Additional abilities that can be activated during the battles continue to add motivation for returning to the gameplay. Once the main boss has been defeated, you can continue to delve deeper into the dungeon to acquire even more powerful weapons and equipment.
Throw in the option for multiplayer battles, and you have a title that offers an insane amount of value for the minuscule price tag. Did I mention this game is currently being offered for $.99 in the U.S.? Even at the non-Yankee price of $3.99, there’s more than enough gameplay here to justify a purchase.
The game also offers one of the most hilarious spelling snafus I’ve had the experience of seeing. The main boss is the victim of a typo that turns him from the “Lord of Chaos” into a “Load of Chaos”, which you must admit is infinitely more awesome. I have to forgive the mistake for the comic relief value alone.
Overall, I found Sword & Poker to be a highly enjoyable title. It’s a genre mash-up that really works due to its deep but accessible strategy, addictive progression elements, and a huge helping of gameplay for a tiny investment. This is the best dollar I’ve spent on gaming since I MAED A GA3M W1TH Z0MB1ES 1N IT found its way into my living room. Go get it.
Gamer Limit gives Sword & Poker for the iPhone a 9/10.