Poker Pretty Girls Battle is the latest product of eastasiasoft’s partnership with Japanese developer Zoo Corporation and, like its predecessors Delicious! Pretty Girls Mahjong Solitaire and Bishoujo Battle Cyber Panic, it is very much a casual game.
To most people, the concept of “casual games” has been irreversibly associated with mobile platforms — and all the crap that tends to come with them like intrusive advertising, in-app purchases and games that are designed more around business models than solid mechanics and structure.
But there’s always been an undercurrent of excellent casual games on computers and consoles. These games might not offer anything particularly remarkable or revolutionary in terms of their overall design, mechanics and structure, but they’re great when you’re just in the mood for something and you don’t want to commit to anything long-term. You just want to be entertained in a way that stimulates your brain a little bit more than passively watching videos does, but at the same time you want to keep things simple and easily digestible.
Zoo Corporation’s games, previously released for PC and now in the process of being ported to consoled by eastasiasoft, are excellent examples of how to do this well. They take fundamental, easily understandable gaming concepts such as Qix-style area capture (Bishoujo Battle Cyber Panic), tile-matching puzzles (Delicious! Pretty Girls Mahjong Solitaire) and Texas Hold ‘Em Poker (Poker Pretty Girls Battle) then dress them up with attractive artwork, catchy soundtracks and satisfying visual flourishes and deliver them to us for cheaper than a coffee and a cake from the local Starbucks. And I’m all for it.
In Poker Pretty Girls Battle, there are two main modes of play: Pretty Mode sees you working through a series of stages in order to unlock artwork of the various characters — all of whom are fantasy-themed — while Free Mode allows you to play a custom game against any of the opponents you’ve previously beaten in Pretty Mode.
Both modes unfold as four-player games of Texas Hold ‘Em poker in which you need to be the last one standing in order to win — even in Pretty Mode, whose instructions seem to imply you only need to beat the character you selected to play against.
For the unfamiliar, Texas Hold ‘Em poker is a popular form of the card game in which each player is dealt two cards that are kept secret from the other participants, then over the course of several rounds of betting, five more “community cards” are revealed in the middle of the table. The ultimate aim of each round is to make the best possible five-card poker hand using a combination of your own secret cards and the five in the middle of the table; whoever has the best hand after the last round of betting takes the “pot” that everyone has been slinging their chips into.
If you’ve never played Texas Hold ‘Em, it can initially seem like a game that is largely determined by luck. Unlike draw poker — the type of poker historically associated with the fine art of strip poker — there’s no way of changing your cards once they’re dealt; the game is less about the strategy of using cards and instead all about betting wisely.
At the start of a round of betting you can check, which passes play to the next player; bet by adding to the pot; or fold, which means you sit out for the rest of the hand without revealing your two cards, losing any chips you’ve bet in the process. Once someone has bet, you can either call the bet by matching it, raise the bet by matching it and then adding some more on top of it, or, again, fold. When everyone has either checked, called or folded, the next community card is revealed — or if they’re all already out, the Showdown begins, and hands are compared.
Given that the game involves you having some information that the other players don’t know — what you have in your hand — much of Texas Hold ‘Em strategy involves attempting to determine what the other players might have based on their behaviour, and attempting not to give too much away about your own position while still ensuring you stand to win a nice chunk of chips.
While a lot of real-life poker is about reading your opponent’s natural, often subconscious and instinctive reactions and figuring things out that way, this isn’t an option in Poker Pretty Girls Battle — you can, instead, determine things based on the game actions taken by your opponents. If, after several rounds of everyone checking, one of your opponents suddenly starts betting, for example, that usually means they’re pretty confident they have something — so you’d better be sure you can stand up to what they’re likely to have if you want to take them on.
Sometimes the best choice really is just to fold and lose a few chips rather than throwing a lot of chips into a battle you know you can’t win — though the girls in Poker Pretty Girls Battle tend not to take this option; it seems nigh-impossible to intimidate them through reckless betting, which makes one form of bluffing quite difficult. Instead, a more reliable strategy is to determine what your opponents likely have and if you’re able to beat them — and sometimes to just sit back and let your three tablemates hack away at each other’s stacks of chips before you jump in to finish the job afterwards.
In many ways, Texas Hold ‘Em poker — and by extension, Poker Pretty Girls Battle — does feel like a “battle” of sorts, where your opponents’ “health” is determined by how many chips they have. Extended matches can feel like the pair of you chipping away at each other’s defences, waiting for the ideal moment to launch a killing blow. And man, does it feel good when you successfully land that killing blow, particularly against some of the more stubborn opponents!
In terms of gameplay, Poker Pretty Girls Battle is a fairly no-frills version of Texas Hold ‘Em, though the table is presented in a clear and easy to understand manner, and there are just enough little Japanese quips from each character to make it feel like you’re playing against actual opponents rather than just a computer. Texas Hold ‘Em veterans will likely find Poker Pretty Girls Battle quite easy, but for those with only a passing understanding of poker and the strategies required to play effectively, things feel balanced quite nicely — and you will start to notice some variation in play style between the different opponents the more you play.
It would have been nice to see the game presented from a perspective that made a little more of Ayase Hazuki’s excellent character artwork — which, like Delicious! Pretty Girls Mahjong Solitaire, is drawn from a variety of eroge and nukige that Zoo Corporation’s various imprints have released over the years — but then the character art is the main reward for playing Poker Pretty Girls Battle’s Pretty Mode, so it’s understandable that they took this approach.
It would also have been great to see a bit more variety in music and backgrounds over the course of the game. The jazz-inspired backing for the poker games is catchy, enjoyable and unobtrusive, but after Delicious! Pretty Girls Mahjong Solitaire had multiple unique musical themes and backdrops for each of the characters — not to mention its range of increasingly saucy unlockable costumes — it’s hard not to be left wanting just a little more from Poker Pretty Girls Battle.
But then we get back to the casual gaming thing. This is not a game designed to keep you occupied for hours at a time; it’s a game designed for “dipping”. It’s a game to play when you just fancy a quick game of simple, arcade-style poker action — and in that regard, it succeeds admirably at exactly what it set out to do. As with most games like this, go in with appropriately realistic expectations and you won’t be disappointed; it’s a great game to have on a Switch, in particular, because you can just bust it out in handheld mode whenever you want and enjoy some Pretty Girls poker action any time, anywhere.
What I’m hoping for in the long term is that eastasiasoft will collect all these Zoo Corporation titles together, bung them on a single Switch cartridge as a compilation pack, and sell a nice limited edition, perhaps with a soundtrack CD and artbook. Whether or not that will ever happen remains to be seen at this point in time — but anyone from eastasiasoft reading this should consider an interest officially expressed in such a thing, and if you feel the same way I’d encourage you to make your feelings known!
For now, Poker Pretty Girls Battle is a nice addition to any gamer’s casual lineup — particularly at this nice a price. While it’s never going to win any “game of the year” awards or anything like that, it was never taking aim for that end of the market — it’s simply an enjoyable game, nothing more, nothing less. And sometimes that’s all you want.
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