There are many things that go together; Strawberries and Cream, Scarlett Johansson and skimpy clothing, but Poker and Puzzling? Developers Void Star Creations seem to think so with their XBLA release, Poker Smash.
Set up like a traditional puzzle title in the mould of Tetris, Poker Smash starts with a selection of card-shaped tiles which you must use to make any of the classic combinations you would usually find in a game of Poker. For example, put three Aces together and you`ll clear that particular line (either horizontal or vertical) and the board will progress upwards, adding more cards below in a random order.
You can make any combination you like, up to and including the ultimate Royal Flush, to clear the never-ending scrolling line which speeds up every so often. The twist is that cards can only be moved from left to right or vice versa, but not up or down. If cards become isolated at the top corners of either side of the playing area, you can quickly move them into any gaps created, and shuffle them from there to where ever you wish.
The game mechanics don`t stop there. You can slow things down with a press of the Left trigger, but a meter limits how long you can use this for. If you ever find yourself struggling to place a card and it`s dangerously close to the cut-off line, you can deploy a bomb (limited to five) by pressing the A button which will explode it. Throw in the ability to fast forward as well (which is governed by the same rules as the slow down command) and there`s enough tools to help the player concentrate on making the best hands.
For every hand you create you`ll be given a set amount of chips. The bigger and better the combinations made, the more money they earn you. All chips are banked to be spent on everything from unlocking extra themes which change the surroundings, to gamerpics (although these can come at a hefty price in comparison to the themes and puzzles).
Speaking of which, there is a superb puzzle section included where you must create a pre-determined hand using only certain moves, bringing to mind the spell research mini-game found in PuzzleQuest. Like all the best brain teasers they’ll infuriate and delight in equal measure, all pitched absolutely perfectly as the answer becomes glaringly obvious sooner rather than later.
What makes Poker Smash work is how approachable it is. If you have zero Poker skills (like this reviewer), you soon start to pick up names and combinations with ease. It’s to the developers credit that they’ve managed to create a setting where high-end playing will no doubt occur, but it’s also inviting to laymen.
Poker Smash maybe shouldn’t work if you look at it in isolation. The two disparate concepts seem so incompatible but Void Star Creations have produced something very unique and interesting. It has that more-ish “one more go” quality to it, coupled with a relaxed and pleasant vibe that is perfect for five to ten minutes of practice, or trying to better your last time/score in the main game. The end result is a unique treat.