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Poker Night at the Inventory review: A bad beat

Brad Nicholson

Telltale Games has a difficult tightrope to walk, balancing as it does between narrative and gameplay. The studio counts on you being immersed in the universes it creates, but also has to keep all that character from getting in the way of the game it has crafted.

Poker Night at the Inventory seems to be drenched in the studio's typical humor and likable characters. But it quickly becomes clear that the repetitive dialog is muddying a poker game that was already weak to begin with. In short: Telltale has fallen off the rope entirely.

At least in Sam & Max there's always the chance of redemption in the next narrative-led mission. In Poker Night ... well, there's just the next oddly timed "sandvich" joke.

Gallery: Poker Night at the Inventory | 9 Photos

You'll play as the fifth wheel in a one-game, $10,000 Texas Hold 'Em poker tournament against video game superstars The Heavy, Max, Tycho, and Strong Bad. No other modes or styles of play are included, so it's just you and these four guys in tournament after tournament with no carry-overs from the previous meetings.

The presentation and atmosphere have been pretty clearly emphasized over the poker. Characters chatter to each other and groan, mumble and riff on previous exploits in their respective franchises at an incessant rate, with the poker timed to accommodate the chit-chat. In theory, playing cards with some talkative favorite characters is great, and it is ... for about the first 30 minutes.

Familiarity, however, soon becomes its downfall. As you play, you'll start to hear dialog repeated, which immediately drains the charm. And even if what you hear is new, little of it is great. Telltale does its best to be funny and breathe life into these characters, but hardly anything that spills out of the their mouths is humorous or entertaining, Strong Bad in particular. (I'm not sure if it's my age or not, but he comes off as an overgrown and spectacularly dull child.)

Poker, which at its best is an intelligent game that combines luck, skill and savvy, could have been the lifesaver here. But as a direct result of the overabundance of presentation, the poker gets too bogged down to enjoy. You'll play 20-40 hands an hour between cut-scenes and bursts of uninteresting narrative, a meager amount if you're used to Internet poker which moves at light speed comparatively. And if you're a smart player, you'll only participate in half of these hands, meaning you'll be sitting out a lot. Honestly, I think I've stared longer at Strong Bad's haunting green eyes and Max's ears than I have my cards after hours of play.

Playing cards with some talkative favorite characters is great ... for about the first 30 minutes.

Sure, you can skip cut-scenes with a right-click or skip the current hand once you've folded, which certainly speeds it up. But it's not enough. And when you've already disconnected to the point where you're attempting to click through the game ... well, something's wrong.

When poker hits you, it hits hard. Your heart races, you sweat, and your brain feels like it's melting as you consider all the possible outcomes between each bet and call. But sluggishness ensures you'll never reach that emotional zenith. Pacing problems aside, the stakes just aren't there, as a series of isolated games never makes you feel as though you're losing anything of value.

And lose you will. On the "Normal" difficulty setting, the characters play like lunatics who call and raise chaotically. "Hard" provides a better, more authentic experience, with players calling and folding call almost like we would. But, you can't help but to feel as if the AI knows all. I've been burned too many times on stupid raises from the AI that turn out to be fantastic calls when the river rolls around.

I really wanted to dig Poker Night, which is an inarguably great concept. But none of the atmosphere and presentation come together to form the immersive experience Telltale seems to be shooting for. At a meager $4.99 on Steam, you could do worse than Poker Night for a themed version of a lean-back poker game, it's just a shame Telltale couldn't turn it into something more.

This review is based on the Steam version of Poker Night at the Inventory for Mac provided by Valve.

Brad Nicholson has been writing about games for years for a variety of online publications. He has a BS in History, a spider tattoo and can bench 250 pounds.

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