The month of June is always Poker month to me, mainly because it is the time when the World Series of Poker officially begins. For six weeks, it’s constant action and excitement for anyone who plays some cards, and while I don’t have enough cash to take a gamble at the poker table, there is thankfully a ton of games out there to simulate that experience.
One such game is Prominence Poker, a title by 505 and Pipework’s Studio that attempts to mix things up by offering what they call a “Poker RPG” experience. Part of that description includes level ups and character progression, mission-based structures for single player campaigns, and even a bluff/tell system that can work in your favor if used correctly. In theory, the idea is not a bad one. In practice, it’s a one-outer from busting.
The big problem with Prominence Poker is that, while the advertised “RPG” experience is there, it's implemented rather poorly. There're missions to go through and a progression system to climb, but a lot of that progression is too easily manipulated and offers very little in tangible rewards. The mission structure has you taking on four crime bosses in the fictional world of Prominence, where gambling is a haven for degenerates worldwide. Your goal after a short and hilariously poorly voice-acted tutorial is to climb to the top of the ladder and defeat the four crime lords of Prominence, then take on the mayor himself in a high-stakes game of Poker.
The story is ludicrous, but offers a nice little arcade-style diversion at best and serves the purpose for the meat of Prominence Poker, which is the mission structure. Each mission has you taking down henchmen of a boss before a “boss battle” where you face them heads up. It’s cartoony but fits the world and style, so it’s not necessarily a bad thing. What is a bad thing, however, is the structure itself never deviates the formula, you beat up five henchmen in a 6-max no limit hold-em table, then a heads-up battle.
And slow. The only stat of any kind you gain on your quest is reputation, which is where the level progression comes in. Every action, every item you use, every win and loss, they all give you a bit of reputation which slowly fills a meter on the side of the screen. The higher your reputation goes, the faster you level up and gain access to boss battles and new items quickly. Seems simple enough, but Prominence Poker struggles with the system because of its base game structure combined with core mechanics.
There are no stats other than reputation, and the fastest way to boost them is through either buying clothing and accessories for small, tangible bonuses each time you play a hand, or dry-cleaning existing clothing for a small bonus for a few hours. Alternatively, you can just go nuts and play manically throughout the game as well. The issue is one of balance; Prominence Poker doesn’t expect players to be versed in poker strategy, so playing “correctly” will net you more losses than gains, not due to luck or skill, but rather the base A.I is rather simple. The A.I will have people back down from bluffs, slink away from all-ins or bet on marginal hands with small bets to pass through to a larger one. Big hands go big, and often-times the A.I win’s with little more than a small two-pair.
It becomes a question of playing recklessly to get ahead. One example had me go all-in for thirty hands straight, and not only did I level up four times during that session, but I knocked out two players and was able to come in second place in a six-man tournament with relative ease. Half the time I didn’t even look at my cards, but the A.I just folded away until they picked up pocket pairs of Queens or above. While such reckless abandon is good for short-term gains, poker in of itself is much more difficult to contend with in this style, and with the A.I being too simple, a lot of the challenge is removed from the game that goes beyond player skill.
Prominence Poker is also slow. One of the features is their bluff system, where the game showcases several different table gestures in real time while you wait for an opponent to make a move, including viewing your hole cards, getting ready to check, raise or fold, or even taunts to mess with your opponents. It is actually quite impressive that the system is so intuitive, granting an edge to players who paying attention. The downside, however, is every single action takes a few seconds to animate on screen, and there is no skip button in Prominence Poker-meaning when you leave the hand the game is still going at normal speed.
It makes playing poker a bit more laborious than it should be, at least concerning a video game. Poker video games almost always have a fast action button for such cases, because less time is wasted between hands. Online poker websites have very short time limits that allow players to act, and even live poker events, such as events at the World Series, are implementing “shot clocks” for players who take too long. This feature missing in Prominence Poker is a big mistake, ultimately, and hopefully, it is added in a future update.
Prominence Poker also needs a reason to play further. The basic rewards are unlocked through the reputation system, where you can rent or buy clothing and accessories to customize your character avatar. Some of the items give you a bonus for a few hands, or a few hours, to your reputation gains, but otherwise, everything is ultimately cosmetic unless you spend chips on dry-cleaning your items constantly for a few hours of reputation bonuses. The rub, of course, is these unlocks, rental or purchase, cost chips, and you can buy a ton of chips with real money if you want.
Yes, Prominence Poker is free-to-play, but the microtransaction system found in it is not obtrusive thankfully. It’s also not necessary either since you can gain reputation at a relative pace normally. The bonuses are ultimately minor in most cases, so spending real cash becomes a waste for most players in the long run.
Prominence Poker is still in a testing phase on Steam Early Access, so some levels and features have not been implemented yet, but the core idea behind the game, the “Poker RPG” experience they are going for, is rather weak. 505 and Pipeworks promise a lot of online content to offset the problems, but any attempts at a multiplayer game, be it a ring game or tournament, have been long wait times so far. Even weekly challenges, such as winning 500 hands or something of that nature, don’t spice up the poker games as much as you think, becoming another progression checklist for players to shoot for with little reward.
There is some potential here for Prominence Poker, but it needs a lot of work. It may not be the RPG advertised by the developers, but as a poker game, it could be promising if they start implementing changes to the games design. Perhaps in the future, Prominence Poker will be on a winning streak, but for now, it’s a one-outer away from busting.
Prominence Poker was previewed on PC via Steam Early Access. It is available for free.