Poker video games can be challenging to design well. Some of your audience will be amateurs to card games and simply looking for a relaxing game to play for fun. Some of your audience will be hardcore poker players who are looking for a game that will simulate the card house or casino experience from their home. The rest will fall somewhere in the middle of that canyon. As such, poker video games have to walk the line of trying to separate the talented players from the amateurs while simultaneously incentivizing players to play well. Few have been successful on a large scale. Prominence Poker is the latest game to attempt it.
The developers, Pipeworks Studio, previously developed World Series of Poker : Full House Pro on the Xbox 360 along with a variety of indie games dating back to 1999. In developing Prominence Poker, their design goals were to create a poker game that simulated the feel of playing a local poker game while trying to build your reputation (which in-game roughly equates to experience and thus, leveling). The game initially released on Steam Early Access in May and has since been released on the Xbox One (August 16th) and Playstation 4 (August 23rd).
Character customization is likely where you’ll spend your time at first. Making a player that represents you, or your persona, is fun and easy and there are enough options to create good player variety. A few basic outfits are given to you to start and you can then unlock and purchase additional outfits as your reputation level increases. You are also able to equip a table item, ranging from drinks to smokes, which provide a small bonus to your reputation gain. These can be equipped at any time, provide a small reputation bonus for a set number of hands as you play, and can be refilled using a small amount of chips.
The amount of chips you have at any given time is represented as your bankroll. When you start the game, you are given a small amount of chips to get your bankroll started. From there, you can earn additional chips in a few ways beyond simply beating other players. Ranking up, in either your core level or affiliation level, intermittently provides you bonus chips and every day you are also eligible for a “Daily Cut” which gives you another small dose of chips. As the game is free to play and revolves primarily around your bankroll, your chips also act as your in-game currency. Chips are used to buy everything in the game including new outfits, character customization accessories, table items, and boosts. This of course means that even as you build your bankroll, you’ll inevitably want to spend some of it on customization. If you want to buy some of the more expensive shop items immediately, you can do so buy purchasing chip bundles with real money. As free to play games go, we think it’s an admirable model. At no point do you need to spend money if you don’t want to and people who have spent money gain no advantage over anyone else due to the set chip buy-ins for each game.
The single player mode is built around four factions, based on the four card suits, which are each led by an individual boss and have a theme. For instance, the Clubs represent a biker gang while the Hearts represent Italian mobsters. The single player story mode enters you into the faction of your choosing and has you playing A.I. opponents as you try to build your reputation and gain levels within the affiliation. Your goal is to beat a faction’s goons and bosses thus gaining reputation to eventually reach the highest level of the faction. Along the way you will unlock additional chips and clothing items relating to each respective faction. Once you beat a faction’s boss, you are given the chance to play against “The Mayor” who essentially acts as a final boss character. It’s worth noting that at the time of this review, only the Hearts and Clubs are available with the Spades and Diamonds simply showing as “Coming Soon”.
If you’re a true poker player however, you’ll be more interested in the online tables where you can play against other real players. As it stands right now, you have a choice of ring games, single table tournaments, or head to head play. All have varying buy-in levels with the ring games and tournaments being played on six player tables. While in early access, the game originally attempted nine player tables but according to Pipeworks, they felt that moving to six person tables resulted in more engaging gameplay. Right now, these are the only options for online play. Pipeworks has stated the game will be continually updated for free with additional features including multi-table tournaments and ranked play in the near future.
While the modes of play are limited at the moment, fortunately the gameplay itself is where the game truly begins to shine. First, the environments well modeled and have features that add to the ambiance of playing a digital poker game such as unique settings, sound effects, and background animations. Pipeworks has confirmed that more environments will be added with the new factions also being represented by a unique environment each. Once you take your seat at the table you can adjust the camera to any angle you like, at any time, which is a nice touch as well. The core functions for betting, calling, raising, and folding are intuitive and it’s important to note, that in going for realism, you are able to preview these actions using your character. For instance, say you raise pre-flop and get a few callers. After the flop, you are able to show your character reaching for chips to aggressively bet even before the action gets to you. Thus, you have the ability to silently tell others at the table that you’re playing it strong while they are still deciding their own action – something that can be very difficult to represent when not physically at a table with others. Another small but relevant feature is that the chip stacks in front of the players represent their actual chip count. While you can highlight all the players at any time to see their name, nickname, rank, chip count, and affiliation, it’s nice to be able to judge a player’s strength at a glance ; again more representative of playing at a table. Other animations and small touches add to the experience as well including your character studying others, standing up when pushing all-in, and showing either elation or disdain when the cards eventually fall. All in all, the table play is core to the poker game experience and it’s apparent that Pipeworks chose to focus on that aspect before adding features. In our opinion it was the right decision and they have done an excellent job.
At this point, I’d normally highlight some of the areas in which a game struggles. With a game whose sole focus is poker, there are a finite number of qualms I could have. At its core, Prominence Poker is a very well designed poker video game. It’s engaging, fun to play, and represents playing poker about as well as you can do while in front of a screen. Where it stumbles is primarily around the lack of modes and options of play. While the current options are well done, the need for skill rankings and multi-table tournaments are quickly apparent if you’re a competitive poker player. The good news is that these features, and more, are coming. And knowing that, I feel I can highly recommend Prominence Poker for those looking to scratch that poker video game itch.
Highly Recommended : My favorite poker video game on the market today and one that’s only going to get better over time.
My review has also been posted on OpenCritic.com!