Poker Night at the Inventory is one of the more bizarre projects we’ve seen this year. It’s essentially a parlor game from Telltale Games, a developer that has made a name for itself in recent years by making episodic point-and-click adventure games, most relevantly Strong Bad’s Cool Game for Attractive People, Sam & Max, and Penny Arcade’s On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness. They decided to utilize their proximity to these disparate franchises in the most logical way possible: by having their characters meet in a seedy club for a game of high-stakes Texas Hold ’em poker.
The result is one of the funniest games I’ve played all year. When a set of characters like this meets, the one thing that absolutely has to be spot-on is the writing, and Telltale has not dropped the ball in that regard. Each individual character talks, acts and interacts in a way that’s totally true to their respective source materials, and they mesh even better than you’d expect, and they’re all entertaining whether you’re familiar with said materials or not. The dialog itself was a collaboration between the writers at Telltale and the owners of each intellectual property: Jerry Holkins wrote a lot of Tycho’s dialog, the brothers Chaps wrote (and voiced, of course) Strong Bad. Personally, I’ve been a fan of both Homestar Runner and Penny Arcade for more years than I’d readily admit, and I’ve been playing Team Fortress 2 for quite some time as well. The only franchise present here that I don’t have extensive experience with is Sam & Max. As a fan, I can say that I’m astounded at how well the writing turned out.
I admit that I had my doubts that anyone could write convincing dialogue between characters as different as Tycho and Strong Bad, but somehow it all worked out. Of course, with any game that relies heavily on its writing, it definitely runs the risk of turning stale. In my experience, after about 400 hands of poker, the dialog definitely started to repeat itself, but I kept hearing at least a few fresh conversations in every game. The staleness factor is ameliorated somewhat by the having four different settings for the chattiness of the competitors, so if you decide that the banter is getting in the way, you can crank that all the way down. Oh, and if you were worried that Tycho’s dialog would pull its punches and avoid being as vulgar as he is in the comics, don’t be. He has quite a mouth on him, and if you’re not worried about your mom walking in, you can even turn off the bleeps and hear every gruesome syllable.
Everything about Poker Night exudes love for these characters. Not only are the characters’ voices, personalities, and respective graphical styles all perfectly maintained, but the club itself, The Inventory, contains many subtle references to the characters. Max’s partner, Sam, can be seen wandering the club from time to time, and Pom-Pom makes a brief cameo in the intro sequence. Even the music, which consists of very setting-appropriate music, heavy with standup bass and blues guitar, shows love by including rearrangements of the Team Fortress 2 and Dangeresque themes. This is all before we even get into the unlockable poker tables and decks, which are awarded incrementally as you win games. Each one is themed after some aspect of the source material, and particularly in the case of the decks, they’re pretty convincing and can make you wish they were real things you could own. They get pretty obscure, too. I was particularly impressed with Penny Arcade’s Automata table, which actually turns the whole game black and white.
As far as gameplay is concerned, Poker Night at the Inventory is really just No Limit Texas Hold ’em. That’s it. It’s strictly single player, and there are no other poker variants, and no bizarre gameplay mechanics like character-specific super moves or crazy junk like that. That said, as poker sims go, this one is pretty good. It has two difficulty settings, and the AI of the other players is decent, if somewhat predictable. I’m admittedly not the most experienced poker player, but I did find the gameplay generally challenging and enjoyable. If you’re a total poker newbie, don’t worry too much: Poker Night includes a brief Texas Hold ’em tutorial to teach you the basics of how to play. It’s not a whole lot, but it’s plenty to get you started, and definitely a welcome inclusion.
Of course, I’d be remiss to not mention the unlockable Team Fortress 2 items available in this game. Once in a while (in my experience, it was every two or three games) one of the characters will confess to being short of the $10,000 buy in, and submit collateral instead. So naturally, when you knock that player out, you get the item. If you bought the game on Steam, the item will automatically jump to your backpack in Team Fortress 2. Otherwise, TellTale has a system set up on their website to get the items transferred to your Steam account. The items do provide an interesting gameplay dynamic, as your desire to single out that player, play hands you otherwise wouldn’t in a bid to be the player the knocks them out, can really change the way you play, and provide the whole experience with a little extra dramatic tension.
Poker Night is a good game. It is just what it sets out to be: a great way to spend an evening playing cards with some characters who are legitimately fun to just hang out with. However, the writing doesn’t last forever, and the gameplay never really changes, so it’s unlikely you’ll be able to wring 20 hours out of the thing. But for just $4.99, that’s not really a realistic expectation. If you’re a fan of any of these characters, you’ll have a lot of fun with Poker Night. If you’re not, you’ll be spending five bucks on a passable poker sim. Either way, it comes highly recommended.
- Title: Poker Night at the Inventory
- Platform Reviewed: Mac
- Developer: Telltale Games
- Publisher: Telltale Games
- Release Date: November 22, 2010
- MSRP: $4.99
- Review Copy Info: A download code for this title was provided to DualShockers Inc. by the publisher for the purpose of this review.