I like VooFoo Studios. It’s not because of the quite cool name, nor the fact they’re based just a few miles down the road from where I live, but because they do things that other console developers don’t do. They make pool games with incredibly shiny balls, they made Pure Chess which still remains a game which I fire up to lead my brain away from my day job, and they’re not scared to make games which have a slower pace to your average AAA blockbusters. Step forwards Pure Hold’em, their latest title which takes Poker, a game which has spawned several dull and awkward games before now, and makes it interesting, intuitive and very pretty.
One of the obviously key elements of Poker is the ability to figure out your opponents; working out whether they’re bluffing, holding back on a killer hand or just having no idea what they’re doing is a sure fire way of knowing when to keep your chips in your pocket or go all-in on a pair of 5s. That’s something which, traditionally, poker video games have roundly failed to do especially with their offline AI game modes. Robotic opponents with no personality and a random number generator ticking over behind them doesn’t really make for a fun experience, but VooFoo managed to get round that by giving your AI opponents personality, providing an insight into their potential playing styles and dropping some vital clues as to whether they’re likely to be conservative with their risks, take huge gambles on small hands or whatever else. It gives you a reason to try and get to know your fellow players, and in doing so have that all important advantage when weighing up your own moves.
But while the AI works well and trumps pretty much every other poker AI on offer, it’s other humans which make poker what it is, and your choices for doing that in Pure Hold’em are reasonably well varied and enjoyable. Most people will probably start off hopping into one of the ongoing exhibition games, full of folk just wanting to dip in and out of tables and playing a few hands before dropping out again. These tables generally consist of people hoping to win big and increase their pot of coins, certainly when you join a table with a low (or non-existent) buy-in price, and it’s not uncommon for someone to go all-in from the start. Fine if you’ve got more chips or a strong starting hand, but a bit frustrating when you don’t even get the chance to see how the cards progress and then find out that nobody who went all in have got anything other than a high 9. Higher tables carry far more careful players who presumably aren’t keen on the idea of losing all of their hard-earned coinage on a stupid non-gamble, but making the money to get onto those isn’t an easy task at all.
Along those lines, one of the big problems here is when you lose a lot and your coin reserve get very low. While the free buy-in tables let you get your money back on track, the winnings are very small and it’s a long, slow road back to being able to join the slightly more wealthy tables. But in that sense, it’s not far from real life – let’s face it, if you had £5000 which you’d just lost on a poker game, most people wouldn’t be able to magic another £5000 out of thin air. They’d need to join games which cost nothing or very little, and build their balance up from scratch.
One way to win bigger wads of cash is to go the tournament route and join other online players (there are no offline tournaments sadly) with the sole intention of taking every other play out of the game until you’re the last one standing. Well, last one sitting. These tournaments obviously need everyone starting together though, which with a relatively small user base so far means you might be waiting for a little while until the required numbers are brought together to start. That said, once you’re playing the odds of someone going crazy and betting their right nut on a pair of jacks drops considerably, and the threat of having to wait for another tournament seems to do a good job of calming people’s recklessness down a little.
There is, as you might expect, some customisation on offer here with things like the card designs and table cloth patterns changeable to a certain extent, and while the choices aren’t huge the differences are big enough to make it easier to see the values of some of the cads, pretty valuable when you’re using Remote Play on the Vita and the cards on the table are about the size of a baby ant.
As with Pure Chess and Pure Pool before it, Pure Hold’em serves a very specific purpose and will have a very specific audience, but that’s perhaps a little unfortunate. We have a game here which is very relaxing to play while also allowing you to pit your wits against other gamers in a battle of minds, luck and patience. There’s no other poker game quite like it, and anyone intrigued by it should really just stop thinking and grab it.
Reviewed on PS4