Review: Card Shark
I’ve never been what one would call an avid card game player. Sure, I know which hands beat what in poker, I can count for blackjack, and I’ve bluffed my way through a game of sheepshead or two. But I have no idea if holding out for a flush is wise and I’ve never known when to fold ‘em.
With this kind of history, you’d think I wouldn’t be into something like Card Shark. However, this is a game all about misdirection, and the first trick it plays is making you think it’s about playing cards, when it’s actually about everything but.
Developed by Nerial and published by Devolver Digital, Card Shark released on PC and Switch on June 2nd, 2022.
A Hidden Ace
Card Shark follows Eugene, a mute servant at a forgotten French tavern, after a chance encounter with the Comte de Saint-Germaine shows him the joy of tricking unwitting gamblers out of their winnings. All too soon things take a turn for the worse, and he finds himself framed for murder, on the run, and embroiled in the seedy underbelly of French aristocracy at the turn of the 18th century. As you and the Comte pass yourself off as erudite and skilled gamblers, climbing the social ladder, it becomes clear cheating at cards is just a means to an end, a part of a far greater scam.
One thing that stuck out to me was the sheer quality of the writing. I was expecting the usual serviceable game dialogue; something that does its job to move the plot along and not much else. Instead what I got was a genuinely funny cast of scoundrels, some rather tense life or death gambles, and a mystery that kept me hooked until the end. Even your mute protagonist manages to have a good deal of character through the emotions he portrays and the journal entries he makes each day.
Part of what made the story so compelling is the way it’s told and who’s telling it. There’s a lot of time unspoken for as they travel from city to city, and this allows each scenario to be its own thing. Even though I’d just narrowly managed to avoid getting my head shot off minutes ago, it doesn’t feel jarring that we’re now having a farcical encounter with a fellow cheat; that was days ago for them, and the dialogue helps convey that today is another different day.
Likewise most of the people you spend a considerable amount of time talking to are either fellow cheats or people with something to hide. While the narrative does come to a definitive conclusion by the end, along the way you can take everything with a grain of salt, and every clue you gain is merely a possibility for what may be going on.
Nothing Up My Sleeve
As I said earlier, Card Shark is about everything BUT being good at cards. After all, if you were, there’d be no reason to cheat now would there? Outside of being played with a traditional 52-card deck, using common standards for how valuable cards are and suits occasionally mattering, it’s not even made clear what game you’re playing or if it’s the same game at each venue. Strictly speaking, you’re not even playing to win; you’re there as an accomplice to help the Comte win.
What you’re doing from game to game varies greatly. As an example, the first trick you learn is easy enough: pour wine for someone and peek at their cards, before wiping the table in a certain way to signal which suit they have the most of. Even this early you have multiple things to keep track of, quickly counting up the number of cards while also keeping an eye on how full the glass is getting so you don’t spill and tip them off before remembering which specific signal was for which suit.
Things only escalate from there, and you’ll often be tasked with performing several tricks at once, often in rather dastardly combinations, such as needing to perform that suit counting trick mentioned earlier while also needing to remember which cards you removed from the deck so you can put those same ones back in later.
Just about every trick is some combination of timing and/or memorization, but there’s enough variety that each trick feels unique (Well, save for the ones that are elaborations on existing techniques). Each trick is also based on real techniques that can be used to cheat at cards, and where possible the controls enforce understanding how the trick works.
The various shuffling tricks are a prime example of this. They all use the same five moves, that being dropping a decent clump of cards like an honest shuffle, dropping one card, dropping one from both the top and bottom, doing an “injog”, or doing an “outjog”, but these five moves have many different applications depending on what cards you have information on and where you’re having them go.
The one problem I had is that while the game recommends using a gamepad to play, it can be rather finicky with analog inputs. All too frequently I found it automatically doing an action because my stick was slightly off-center, and one minigame in particular often got confused over whether I was doing a diagonal or not.
Style and Panache
It should not be understated how much the unique art style and music help sell the experience. Each scene is made to look hand painted with elements like brush strokes visible, while an orchestral soundtrack plays in the background.
It adds a veneer of class that suits the narrative and the enlightenment era setting well. It’s not without its flaws – something about everyone’s hands is a bit off-putting to me – but it is certainly unique. In a world absolutely brimming with games that have realistic or similarly cartoony aesthetics, I applaud any game taking the time to not only step out and be different, but in a way that further enhances the style and fantasy they’re conveying.
A Royal Flush
More than anything, Card Shark is an experience. It’s not an exceptionally long game, coming in at eight hours, but it very much suits its length. I wasn’t left unsatisfied, nor did it feel padded. The emphasis on the tricks themselves was oddly compelling as well. By the end of the game I had learned the theory behind a good number of techniques, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t tempted to practice some of these for real.
I understand it won’t be for everyone, as at the end of the day it’s a series of minigames heavily testing your perception and memory, but the game is cheap and short enough that if any of this sounds interesting you owe it to yourself to pick this up.
Review copy provided by Devolver Digital for PC. Screenshots taken by reviewer.