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Pocket Card Jockey (3DS) artwork

Pocket Card Jockey (3DS) review

"Creativity, Superfluity, and Everything in Between"

Solitaire is frequently thought of as a game to play when one wants to pass time in a calm, peaceful manner, and nothing says "Time Killer" quite like casually lining up cards in numerical order with very little in the way of penalties. I like Solitaire, but I often pondered what it would be like if a bunch of new rules and mechanics were successfully thrown into the fray. Apparently Game Freak, best known for Mendal Palace, also thought of this, and created Pocket Card Jockey, a Nintendo 3DS release about... horse racing. Because Japan. To emphasize: because Japan LOVES horse racing.

As someone who never touched a horse racing title prior due to extreme disinterest, I downloaded PCJ with curious anticipation. Two hours flew by. Then, six hours of playtime was accumulated within the first day. Before I knew it, my two off days were over, and I was surprised to see over ten hours logged onto my 3DS.

The addiction was sudden and unforgiving as I fought to clear anywhere from three to five sets of Solitaire per race; lining cards up in numerical order, either backwards or forward, in a bid to gain as many points as possible, and having to achieve this with decks that can only be used once, no rotations. And of course, there's a time limit to put me on edge. During the "interval" between sets, I moved my horse carefully on an overhead map, using the points gained, to a different spot on the track. I say carefully, because once I made my decision, other horses on the track shuffled all around; just had to hope I wouldn't get shoved or bounced out of my planned route, losing more hearts in the process from my constantly-draining stamina meter.

That's just the basics, too. You can have some simple fun playing with only that much knowledge, but if you actually want to succeed and make advancements, you really need a more strategic plan. Game Freak turned the relaxing concept of Solitaire into such a series of high-stakes calculations, that a small blunder can have a profound effect on the race. For example, you can easily obtain a huge point sum during the simple set at the start of each race, but you can just as easily get no points if you linger and let the super brief timer be your undoing. Also, having too many cards left over when you fail to clear a set can influence your horse's behavior, which can cause the timer to pass quicker or lose more stamina; in the worst case scenario, you can be robbed control of your horse's actions.

Additionally, ignoring the telltale signs on the overhead map can have severe consequences during the final sprint towards the finish line. Essentially, you'll need as many points for an enthused horse and a bunch of hearts for brief boost powers for the climactic segment. One such fumble can be made if you stay on the outside of the track during a turn, as your horse loses hearts at a faster pace. It's easier said than done, since you need points to move your horse away. Plus, upgrade cards that help improve your horse's stats and gain special powers, such as receiving a bigger deck or collecting more points by positioning behind other horses, could be up there. It's these specific moments, these conflicts, where the devs test your guts and your ability to assess the situation, to see if you're willing to take a hit. Sometimes it works out in the end, and sometimes you crash and burn.

However, out of all the overhead map aspects, the biggest driving factor is trying to stay in the three fluctuating comfort zones that give you free points when you're inside them. The most valuable comfort zone, the third, is also the thinnest, not to mention it cranks up the difficulty for the following set, forcing you to clear more cards with a one-rotation deck. This can possibly lead to a failure, but again, the devs tempt you over to the dangerous side, offering something special for clearing all the cards: the perfect score reward. With this, you have no stamina loss for the next overhead segment and most of the upgrade cards gravitate toward you without much hassle.

Suffice it to say, PCJ is a mighty balancing act.

Speaking of the three comfort zone levels, I think they can adequately be used to convey how I felt about the game during different phases of my experience. Level one: when I first started, nothing felt overbearing and I was enjoying the game to my heart's content. Level two: I invested more time and decided to take the game and its challenges more seriously as the hours piled on. Level three? Well, keeping in tone with the in-game rendition: I was tiptoeing between loving and hating this download release. Game Freak succeeded in creating an energetic, frantic system around Solitaire's core, but at the same time, they also went out of their way to sabotage the entertainment value of said system for the sake of extending replay value in an already lengthy game.

The ultimate goal in PCJ is to win all the races and fill up your trophy rack, and understandably, this is hard to do at first with so much inexperience. Fast forward a few hours, win some of the easier races, eventually accumulate the necessary knowledge and skill to win the tougher races, and then... you're somehow stuck in a rut. It doesn't matter that you did all the right things in a race, such as having a good start, collecting an amazing number of points, constantly getting perfect scores, or having high enthusiasm and stamina, because the game just won't let you win. Rival horses in the tougher races have double and sometimes triple the stats of your horse, even after you nab a bunch of upgrade cards.

At this point, the game wants you to breed, using horses you retired to the farm, to spring forth a stronger horse. This is where the length problem rears its ugly head. In order to even retire a horse to the farm, you have to race that horse until it becomes four years old, and that process takes approximately an hour and a half or two hours of real time. You need both a male and a female, mind you. So, you have to go through at least four hours losing half or most of your races. Then you get your offspring, and while an improvement, at best it wins one new race... so you have to repeat the four hour procedure. I don't mind the breeding aspect, but being forced into a four hour grind fest feels insanely trivial.

It also would hurt less if it wasn't for the fact the game is obviously trying to subvert your efforts at winning. I can not even begin to tell you how many times I nearly cleared a set, with one card remaining and at least 15 cards in the deck, and still failed because there wasn't a single card to save my life. It happens at least more than once in all my races. It's like I'm being punished for engaging this title to its full potential, which is why the latter hours of the game felt aggravating. Game Freak has a potential new franchise on their hands that can easily be used for various themes, but I'm not sure I would want any more if the devs are gonna stifle genuine progress and skill.

If you want a casual Time Killer with a unique twist, Pocket Card Jockey delivers that, but prepare to be frustrated and fatigued when you try giving the game some respect, because it won't give you the same courtesy in return.


pickhut's avatar
Featured community review by pickhut (June 14, 2016)

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