‘Card Shark’ Review: A Miraculous Sleight of Hand
Card Shark is here to tell us that helping someone cheat can be more fun than playing cards.
Set in 18th century France, the newest creation from Reigns and Pikuniku developer Nerial, alongside multifaceted artist Nicolai Troshinsky, asks players to forget about rules and cheat their way through an increasingly difficult set of unique, narrative-heavy situations. And the coolest thing about it is that it’s not designed for expert card players. As long as you have the nerve and patience, feel free to grab a seat and swindle some dunces.
Contrary to what you might expect going in, Card Shark doesn’t put its mechanics and systems front and center. Instead, it starts to bake a well-crafted, slow-paced story which takes a mute young man raised in a tavern to the upper echelons of French society. Of course, no proper “call to adventure” would be complete without a master of sorts, and that’s where veteran con artist Comte de Saint-Germain comes in. Without spoiling anything about the plot’s key developments, I can assure you: Card Shark has plenty of aces up its sleeve and some great payoffs.
As stated above, Card Shark requires a certain level of patience and finesse, but it’s also a game that’s willing to spend as much time as needed with you, the player, to get all the details of every swindle and sleight of hand right. It’s not long before the stakes of each “game” become quite high, and failure is paid dearly, but there are several ways to avoid palpable disaster (and even your ultimate demise) as well. Unsurprisingly, even the stuff that happens outside the games of cards is tied to your cheating abilities, so Card Shark sticks to its strengths for the 8-10 hours that a normal playthrough should take.
While the game does get difficult sooner rather than later, and much of the learning is achieved through failure (in spite of testing your skills before a major challenge), it’s really easy to get used to the controls, which can be either mouse/touchscreen-based or classic (gamepad), and the overall flow of each mini-game. Card Shark is no joke and has plenty to offer and say, but you’re progressing through a list of elaborate, narrative-driven mini-games at the end of the day. This could be a recipe for boredom, but the writing is consistently sharp, and each trick is based on a real-world manoeuvre, so you’re actually learning while playing the game.
A key element in these tricks is signaling or (sometimes) even rigging the card decks, so many actions, such as swapping out cards, take place outside the table where the game is being played. On top of that, the actual “event games” that open up new story paths are only the culmination of a learning process that starts with a plan, a rundown of who the unsuspecting chumps are, and an in-depth tutorial (and practice) for each new ploy. I particularly liked how many of these tricks aren’t gone for good after you get through certain events, and can even return with a twist — Card Shark normally keeps you on your toes and will surely put some pressure on your memory and pattern recognition skills.
Both the controls and the user interface work as intended, never feeling overwhelming. However, I found that mouse/touchscreen controls were maybe more intuitive and precise; gamepad-based gameplay soon became a hindrance to optimizing my performance and getting some tricks right on time — the folks you’re trying to take money from get progressively suspicious depending on your expertise and how long each bit of your act takes. Moreover, this “suspicion bar” can be diminished by letting the fools win some key rounds, so some impromptu strategy is often required to get to the finish line without losing your freedom… or even your life.
The only negative to the overall structure and flow of Card Shark might be how often you’re forced to read through the same dialogues again, accept or reject refreshers, and go through the motions that led to your failure during a certain section. I get why the game wants you to feel prepared before each major game of cards, but repeating the same steps should be an option instead of the norm. I like the fact there are permanent consequences (mainly economic), but getting another shot at tough acts shouldn’t be as tedious. This problem isn’t too big early on, but it quickly becomes tiresome as you try to perfect more complex ruses.
Nicolai Troshinsky added a special flavor to the game’s art style and spirit, which feel like the cherry on top of one of 2022’s most unique indie titles so far. Furthermore, Andrea Boccadoro’s original soundtrack is simply delightful and does a lot heavy lifting to transport players to the game’s French setting and specific era. Even when I was stuck shuffling through cards in the right way, I didn’t mind listening to the same accompanying tune over and over again.
Card Shark is an easy recommend for almost anyone, provided they feel attracted by its very basic (but unusual) premise. It packs way more than I was expecting, and it repeatedly feels more thrilling than many action-oriented video games. Devolver Digital also proves once more that it’s one of the best publishers in the business, constantly picking up promising eccentric projects with tons of talent behind them.
Card Shark is now available on Nintendo Switch and PC (Steam, GOG, and Epic). Xbox and PlayStation versions haven’t been announced, but we wouldn’t be surprised if they arrived at some point in the near future.
Thanks to Tinsley PR and Devolver Digital for the Nintendo Switch review code.
Francisco J. Ruiz is that guy who has watched Jurassic Park a thousand times and loves Star Wars. His hunger for movies is only matched by his love for video games. He graduated in English Studies from the University of Malaga, in Spain. As he keeps writing about what he enjoys (and doesn’t) for websites all over, he’s continuing his studies.