Sometimes mash-up concepts can bring us delightful gaming experiences, and occasionally they simply leave us scratching our heads in confusion. Pocket Card Jockey does both, and is in turns fun, irritating, exciting and unfair. Some may have a love-hate relationship with it as hours slip by and, when all is said and done, little in the way of actual progress has been made.
The first thing anyone should do is to play the demo, not just because it's free but because it's lengthy and shows much of the game's scope and approach; in addition you can transfer progress, giving an early head start on the basic horse management loop at play. After a brief tutorial run through the game's cycle you're essentially a jockey for hire, racing for multiple racehorse owners as and when you see fit.
You begin in Growth Mode with a 2 year old horse - quirky and humorous horse owners pop up at different stages to pitch their own steeds, though ultimately you're left with a choice of four or five each time out. Factors in the decision include gender (which we'll come to later), in addition to speed, stamina and preferred racing style (such as leading from the front, positioning in mid-field and so on). You can either follow the hints from prospective owners to choose their favourite or, alternatively, go your own way and choose another.
After this you begin the important task of maturing and improving your horse. You'll take part in plenty of races scheduled out over a year, with your trainer entering you into events depending on your performance levels. In this Growth Mode the focus is on combining race wins with levelling up your horse, which can be a tricky balancing act.
The gameplay mashes up a form of Solitaire within phased races, with an emphasis on speed and accuracy while clearing cards. A typical race starts with a quickfire round of Solitaire for the initial burst, before you complete a number of standard rounds based on the length of the race. You attempt to clear cards, and after each round you're shifted to an alternative task - positioning your horse in the field. Using accumulated energy points you can draw a line to move your horse a small distance, with the smart choice being to target its 'comfort zone'. You convert any remaining energy / unity points, the sequence plays out as you watch your horses' movements, and it's back to solitaire. Then, on the final straight, energy points are converted into 'enthusiasm', and you try to move your horse into a clear path and propel it to victory using (or not, if you prefer) stamina and boost cards for a charge.
It's more logical in practice than it sounds, perhaps, with the crux being that you play cards as quickly and error-free as possible, before strategically focusing on horse positioning and tactics. For example in addition to worrying about the comfort zone you have a glimpse ahead to see special experience and skill cards that are going to come along, and collecting these is a priority. In the Growth Mode (2 and 3 year old horses) you aim to level up your steed as much as possible. Cards collected in races (and unused stamina) are vital to this, so they can't be ignored.
Races have a frenetic feel, and for the most part reward strong play - occasionally the game is extremely harsh, however, seeing your horse dumped backwards in transition phases despite sound judgement on your part, or simply getting boxed in. On other occasions, too, your horse simply cannot compete with faster rivals, and balancing is a tricky issue that we'll be revisiting further on in this review.
After a number of races the horse will reach four years old, and it's here you switch to Mature Mode. At this stage your horse no longer levels up and improves, but is technically at its peak. You're just trying to win races and collect trophies here, though if the Growth Mode went poorly the chances of success could be slim. You can retire a horse whenever you want when it's old enough, and the game will force you to do so when you've lost a few races - it's a tough business.
The final area (aside from a Training mode for practising your card skills) is the Farm, where retired horses are sent to stand around. The gender of your horses come into play here, though, as you can pair up male and female horses in order to develop your own future racers. If you have had a couple of successful careers a pairing is a good idea, as the offspring can be a little ahead of their fellow two year olds.
The final aspect after all of this is between races, in Growth or Mature mode. Wins earn you money, unsurprisingly, and before races you can buy assist items of various kinds - some make you very lucky, boost the horses' stamina, guide you with move recommendations and so on. The game rapidly escalates pricing to ludicrous levels, however, and also tempts the gambler in you to spend hefty chunks on puzzle pieces which deliver 'something good' with a completed picture. They're very expensive and then you can also get duplicate pieces, replicating the same annoyance of the puzzle pieces in Nintendo's own 3DS StreetPass games.
The oddest thing about Pocket Card Jockey, in fact, is how cruel it is. On the one hand it's addictive, to an impressive degree - but it feels like a compulsive gambler's addiction. We've ended lengthy play sessions feeling slightly disgusted with the game, and ourselves to a degree, as it's led us along and then grabbed wins away just when we thought we had it down. It's like the game was designed to extract hundreds of dollars out of 'whales' on smart devices (it's on iOS in Japan) with unfairness allied to microtransaction buffs, but there are no such microtransactions available on 3DS. So you struggle and you battle, perhaps scraping an extra cup for your collection after a few hours of graft.
Rather like the Windows Solitaire of old that sucked productivity out of millions of office workers, Pocket Card Jockey wants to devour your time. It has bright visuals (though no 3D effect) and downright funky music to ensure it's a pleasing pill to swallow. But it's also addictive and manipulative, and unlike other challenging puzzle / action classics that draw you back with the promise that skill and perseverance will be rewarded, this just kicks you in the pants and tells you to like it. It flirts with the line where difficulty is replaced by mean-spirited design.
And so its balancing issues mean it falls short of being an outright classic, as it doesn't always reward those that master the required crafts. Yet if you want an addictive and charming puzzle / card game it's impossible to ignore.
Pocket Card Jockey is a relatively impressive effort from Game Freak, with terrific presentation, an abundance of charm and hugely addictive gameplay. For some players that's enough to make it a must-have, but there is a caveat - it's also poorly balanced, delivering a video game representation of the futility of compulsive betting. You can be the best player in the world and still lose, or have a mediocre round and win a minor race anyway. It inflates prices, sets ridiculous odds and makes you sweat for every reward, with your fates often in the hands of the pocket Gods. Yet it's addictive and fun, so you might not mind - for this writer, though, it left a tinge of regret at time wasted, where effort didn't seem to be rewarded.
Pocket Card Jockey is absolutely worth consideration and will hook many gamers with its irreverent and addictive gameplay, but beneath its charming veneer is a cruel world of lost bets and unfair odds.