Before Telltale hit the jackpot with The Walking Dead, it had Poker Night At The Inventory. Ostensibly a game of poker, it was instead more of a stage for the performances of various crossover characters; seeing Heavy from TF2 fend off Max from Sam & Max, Strong Bad and Tycho from the webcomic Penny Arcade was awesome. I’ve always been surprised that aside from a single sequel a few years later, Poker Night At The Inventory didn’t cast a bigger shadow.
Enter Sunshine Shuffle, a game that takes the same basic concept as Poker Night – creating characters using poker – and instead uses it to tell a darker, more complex story. While it faces exactly the same pitfalls as Poker Night, it’s an evolution of the concept I’ve been waiting over a decade to see.
Sunshine Shuffle puts you in the shoes of a detective who is brought aboard a sun-soaked ship to play poker with a gang of ex-criminals who also happen to be cute animals. During a series of casual poker tournaments, it’s your job to listen to the story of their criminal days and decide their fate – whether they can go free or you must hand them over to the Fishie Mob.
At first glance, it would be easy to write this off as yet another “wholesome” or “comfortable” game that lacks any substance and instead delves into cute visuals. Instead, this sickly sweet veneer is used to contrast the game’s darker themes, and each character has more dimensions. You see them struggle with their inner demons as their story unfolds—such as Peter, a meek and timid flirt with anger issues, or Jordan, a capybara whose mischievous personality makes up for a history of trauma and neglect.
It creates the feel of a casual chat with friends over a game of poker, along with lighter, more comedic moments that use a well-timed pun or non-sequitur to steer the ship back from a rough edge. Unfortunately, these conversational ebbs and flows hamper the pacing as the topics get more difficult. The cast may settle down and retreat into a repetitive loop of poker-themed bubbles instead of the juicy crime story that unfolded just a few minutes ago. I don’t need to hear about how Peter rarely raises a dozen times.
For all of Sunshine Shuffle’s interesting tone and likable characters, it feels like it loses interest in its own story, quickly wrapping it up with a less-than-satisfying twist and rejecting the one choice it’s been preparing you for all game. to do. He then makes the hilarious suggestion that you continue playing poker after the credits roll; the characters go from well-written and multi-faceted to simply serving as gargoyles that you play fake poker with forever, with no hope of further development or new dialogue.
It stumbles here in the same way as Poker Night At The Inventory: poker against the AI is boring. You lose that social element of reading your opponents and trying to bluff your way to victory, and it starts to feel old after a few games. Poker should be a pretext for something more, not the main attraction. Both games live and die on their characters, and when they stop delivering the goods, you’re left with a generic poker game that no longer welcomes you.
The Sunshine Shuffle feels thin yet over the top. If he doubled down on his biggest asset – his characters – it could be something great. As it is, the story ends far too soon, and all that’s left is a mediocre card game that could be played with less fanfare almost anywhere else. It’s great to see Poker Night At The Inventory live, but Sunshine Shuffle forgot that poker was always the least important part of it.
For the purposes of this review, the publisher provided the code.
NEXT: Red Dead Redemption 2: Every place to play blackjack and poker, ranked