A rapid dash to the finish line
While the Pokémon series continues to sell millions of copies with every release, it’s Game Freak’s experimental output that’s proved to be more interesting in recent years. HarmoKnight and Tembo the Badass Elephant are two games that began as internal passion projects for Game Freak, but each became interesting new IP in their own right. Pocket Card Jockey is the latest in this line of quirky releases, and the wacky factor has been cranked up to eleven.
The fundamental gameplay is derived from the classic card game solitaire, albeit simplified heavily. You’re dealt a table, or tableau, of cards which you must clear by sequentially removing the cards, ensuring that each card you remove is only one value higher or lower than the previous card. For example, if you start with a 5, you must select a card with the number 4 or 6 to progress. If you’ve previously drawn a King, this loops back to Ace which acts as the number one. It’s easy to understand at its simplest, but there’s plenty of other mechanics at play to keep you on your toes — but we’ll come back to these later.
The word “Jockey” in the title isn’t used in vain. Outside of the core gameplay, Pocket Card Jockey takes on the context of a sports simulator. Your manager will negotiate a horse for you to ride, and decide which tournaments are the best fit for your particular horse’s racing style. As the jockey, it’s your ultimate goal to win any race you’re entered into, though a feat that often seems impossible. G3 events are the easiest but offer little reward, while the G1 races are the most challenging. Lose three races in a row, however, and the horse’s owner will take the horse from you in a huff.
If nothing else, losing a horse highlights the game’s witty dialogue; the conversations between your on-screen character and your manager are comically awkward, but there’s nothing quite like witnessing a purple suit-wearing, gold-toothed rich man express his disappointment in your loss with his horse.
Finishing in the top three of a particular race, however, classifies as a win, and you’ll be rewarded with prize money — and the approval of your horse’s owner — for your efforts. This can be spent in the shop, which offers a selection of power-ups for use in the following event. Carrots increase your horse’s stamina, while goggles grant you the ability to “see into the future;” in reality, this lets you see the next card in the deck, allowing you to plan your moves in any given game of solitaire during the next race. Then there’s the Dash Crop, which gives your horse an easy boost out of the starting gate.
So, how does the overlying horse racing theme tie in with the solitaire gameplay? Very well, in fact! Due to an entertaining — if slightly disturbing — event during the beginning of the game, you’re guaranteed to perform well in your jockey career so long as you continue to play solitaire well. It really is as weird as it sounds, but you’ll have to play the game (or try out the free demo) to see what I mean.
Each race is split up into three different types of gameplay: Start Solitaire determines how fast your horse makes it out of the gate, and must be completed as quickly as possible — ideally within the time frame of a few seconds. The word “START” is spelled out across five cards, which are each covered by two further cards. Plus, each of the “START” cards has a rating of one to five. It’s your goal to uncover the highest rated card in the shortest amount of time, and some tactical work comes into play. If you uncover a three-star card in ten seconds, is it worth cutting your losses and taking it, or should you spend a little longer in an attempt to find that five-star card? The better your overall performance, the better start your horse will have.
Once you’re into the race, the gameplay momentarily changes again, and this time you see an overhead map of the horse race. Finally, you’re in direct control of your horse and it’s another decisions game. You’ll need to direct your horse into its “Comfort Zone,” where it feels the most comfortable racing and where it generates the most energy for the final stretch. If you got off to a slow start, do you burn more energy and attempt to get ahead in the early stages, or do you save your horse’s energy and generate a reduced amount from outside the comfort zone — bearing in mind that horses surrounding you will also be dashing around and may well obstruct your path?
Once your horse is in position and has generated its energy for a turn, you’re taken into the game of solitaire as previously described. This repeats for the duration of the race with up to eight games of solitaire per race depending on the length of the course.
Finally, you’re once again thrown into direct control of your horse for the final stretch, as you’re given a side-on view of the track with a virtual D-pad on the touchscreen to control your horse’s movement. The amount of energy you’ve saved often proves make-or-break here as the mad dash to the finish line often sees groups of horses all finishing within a split-second of one another. These parts feel the least polished, with inputs that sometimes feel unresponsive on the touchscreen. Getting “boxed in” by surrounding horses is also a cause for concern, and led to frustration on a number of occasions as perfectly executed games of solitaire — which should have won me the race — have been for nought as I ultimately ended getting swamped by the crowd and finishing outside of the top ten.
In true Game Freak fashion, competing in any race, regardless of finishing position, will net your horse a number of Experience Points which boosts stats. Skill Cards, meanwhile, can be collected when they appear during random games of solitaire or on the track, giving your horse a new skill when a certain amount is collected. Unfortunately, it’s a sad but harsh reality that horses cannot race forever, and you’ll only have the opportunity to enter each horse into a handful of tournaments in the game. This isn’t a negative point, however; in fact, it’s arguably Pocket Card Jockey’s most in-depth mechanic.
Your horse develops its experience and stats during “Growth Mode,” which takes place at ages two and three. Once this phase is completed after a half-dozen tournaments, you’re free to start over with a new horse or move on to “Mature Mode,” where you compete in higher level events. If you lose three races, that particular horse then retires to the breeding farm where, you guessed it, you can breed them. As your manager points out, “it’s not goodbye,” and the more success a particular couple has had, the higher their offspring’s base stats will be when he or she is eventually born. It’s a long process, but this is how you work your way toward success in even the most prestigious G1 tournaments — and ultimately toward a full trophy cabinet.
Pocket Card Jockey is an extremely niche game, but the gameplay is so quirky, addictive, and simply unique that there’s no excuse to not give it a try. I sunk four hours into the free demo before seeing its end, and I heavily implore you do the same. If it’s not for you, you’ll know within just one of those hours and you’ll be forgiven for not taking the plunge. If you like what’s on offer, and still want more after reaching the demo’s cliffhanger, you’ll find plenty more where that came from in the full game. And it won’t break the bank at $7.
The gameplay may grow repetitive over time, but the word “Pocket” in its title does infer that it was designed with “pick-up-and-play” in mind. Play it in short bursts and there’s plenty of depth and variety to keep you interested for the duration of one of those lazy afternoons where you find yourself with a few hours to kill. I’ve taken a few horses from childhood to maturity at this point, and I can still see myself coming back for more in the weeks and months to come. If this review has piqued your interest even a little, get on that eShop and try it for yourself.