REVIEW: Shuffle the deck against your foes in the witty and wily Card Shark
Card tricks have always amazed me. It's kind of magical that someone can walk up to you with a simple deck of cards and wow you with just the slightest movement of their hands, especially if they really know what they're doing.
Card Shark takes that magic and somehow makes it even more awe-inspiring, showing exactly how these tricks are done, asking you to use them to scam unexpecting suckers, and proving that even the most abstract concepts can translate well into video game form.
Just the Facts
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Platform(s): PC*, Switch, Mac *platform reviewed on
Release Date: June 2, 2022
Review code provided by Tinsley PR.
Nerial has earned its keep as a development team that's capable of turning simple mechanics into incredibly deep experiences. From the Tinder-inspired royalty simulation series Reigns to the seemingly impossible-to-adapt-into-a video-game Animal Farm, Nerial has built some of the most unique experiences in gaming in just a handful of years.
With their latest, an 18th-century card cheat simulator, that trend has certainly continued.
Card Shark pulls you in almost instantly with its visuals. With card art-inspired character designs and a monoprint-focused art style, Art Director Nicolai Troshinsky has created a dense and fantastically textured, but not at all distracting, visual masterpiece.
Everything works so well together and the art feels just as simultaneously grandiose and grimy as the game's setting and concept. Stepping into a parlor to scam some lords and ladies through a humble game of cards feels like stepping into a majestic Enlightenment-era painting, but when you get into the cards and focus on the game and players, the grit reveals itself.
Card Shark is an aesthetic triumph, right down to its stunning orchestrated soundtrack from Andrea Boccadoro, which sells the experience of encountering a full orchestra waiting in the wings of each venue — even the barns, because that's just how it was in 18th-century France, right?
Once you've picked your jaw up off the ground and wiped the era-appropriate makeup off your face, though, it's time for the hustle. And Card Shark provides a fascinating puzzle game that sells a truly cunning scam experience.
Card Shark is all about duping fools out of their money through sleight of hand, by implementing a handful of techniques that your character learns from Comte de Saint Germain — one of a few real-life mythical figures you interact with across the game's 7-9 hour story — and a band of Romani nomads who use these tricks to distribute wealth to the less fortunate across Europe.
You'll meet and deceive the likes of Voltaire, Casanova, Anton Wilhelm Amo, and more iconic historical figures along this grifting road trip through Europe.
Your character is a nonspeaking tavern worker, an orphan who has never felt satisfied in life, finding himself thrust into a world of misdirection and riches. Not too far into your journey, you discover that Comte de Saint Germain's intentions in scamming the bourgeoisie are in service of a bigger mystery: one of royal secrets and long-hidden skeletons.
Without saying much more, it turns into something incredibly compelling. The narrative stakes only raise what is an already high-stress experience, and I found myself desperate to see what would happen in the end. A slightly abrupt ending aside, Card Shark's narrative — while far from the focal point — is a worthwhile ride.
"Several times before a deal, a shuffle, or a play, I had to take a deep breath and clear my mind to focus on the grift. Each step of the play, I could feel the pressure mounting, particularly as our victim slowly grew more suspicious. Knowing that death could be around the corner, knowing what secrets we might uncover if we won, I found myself whispering the next steps to myself in anticipation."
Let's get into the real meat. Card Shark's ace up the sleeve.
Card Shark's gameplay is a lot more educational than you might imagine. Comte de Saint Germain and his band of clever buddies teach a batch of fascinating strategies to pull off your scams, from card marking to false shuffles. In practice, each technique is essentially a set of minigames, with a particular order of operations needed to successfully dupe your victims, orchestrating your partner's sure win at the table through whatever unsavory means necessary.
For example, start a session by pushing your analog stick to the side, pouring a drink, and peeking over your victim's shoulder to see their hand. Once you've identified their best cards, use the analog stick to produce a particular pattern (up and down, clockwise circles, counterclockwise, etc.), using a towel to signal to your partner which suit is their best. Get back to the table and nail a timing minigame to steal a card from the top of the deck that'll help your partner win the hand.
There are 28 different card tricks you'll pull off across your career as a cheat, and while each individual step may be easy to pull off, it's a much more unforgiving experience than you might imagine.
Most of these situations are in your control. In other words, you have all the cards in your deck (and up your sleeves) to pull everything off. But there are more than a handful of things working against you as you go.
For one, while your victims are unsuspecting, they aren't complete fools. Take too long during a trick, fumble a step, or otherwise make your actions a bit too obvious, and their suspicion will grow. If the suspicion meter on the bottom of the screen fills up, you'll face the scorn of a man cheated, which usually ends in your death. (A perma-death mode is available from the start and seems impossible in retrospect. We, of course, stuck to the easier path.) In the case of your demise, you'll wake in the underworld, sitting at a table with death personified. Pay a toll or attempt to cheat death in a special one-on-one card game and you'll be placed back in the living world.
The stress and stakes of the swindle are no joke. It's so hard to remember everything the game throws at you. There are tiny hints and visual cues that remind you what each technique needs from you, but the game purposefully obscures these things, forcing you to memorize each maneuver as best you can. You must practice again and again, just as you would in real life, to nail these concepts.
It can be a lot to handle as the game asks you to recall and work within 28 different card tricks, each of which steals pieces of mechanics from the others — making it a constant shuffle in your brain to recall what style of play you're doing at any given time. Card Shark doesn't hold your hand. You are genuinely taught a skill and are meant to keep the knowledge locked in your brain as you progress through a gauntlet of trials testing your abilities as a cheat and a liar. I'm no expert, and so, to make it through, I had to write out the specifics of each technique's quirks on a literal "cheat sheet" to prop up in front of me as I went into each encounter.
Personally, I find this to be both a positive and a negative for the game. I don't love that I need a literal reference guide to make it through, but I always respect a game that has you breaking out physical notes to succeed.
Thanks to Nerial's incredible ability to build tension all throughout, I found myself desperate to win, fully immersed from beginning to end and willing to do whatever was needed to take the money out of these poor saps.
Card Shark is, at times, genuinely nerve-wracking. Several times before a deal, a shuffle, or a play, I had to take a deep breath and clear my mind to focus on the grift. Each step of the play, I could feel the pressure mounting, particularly as our victim slowly grew more suspicious. Knowing that death could be around the corner, knowing what secrets we might uncover if we won, I found myself whispering the next steps to myself in anticipation.
Through a simple game of cards, I was more engaged, more worried about what could happen next and if I would succeed than I ever was when, say, walking into a dungeon in Elden Ring. Outside of everything, my only major gripe comes in how everything is delivered. There's not a ton of ability to experiment with the systems and techniques introduced. Instead, each "grift" plays out like a specific puzzle to uncover. Nerial clearly had a specific idea in mind when making Card Shark, but it also would have been super interesting to be able to have more control in how you pull things off — even if it wouldn't have made a ton of narrative sense, as you are simply meant to follow your mentor's lead and force success in his hands.
The moments where the game does leave you the opportunity to make your own decisions were some of the most thrilling, and I would have loved more of that throughout.
Card Shark is a one-of-a-kind experience, one that has the potential to completely immerse you in the life of a card cheat in ways you'd never expect. Nerial has gaming's equivalent of a pair of aces in Card Shark, and I wouldn't even mind if they'd cheated to get this winning hand.
I mean, as they say, cheaters always prosper.
video games are good and Card Shark is . . . GREAT. (9/10)
+ truly teaches you how to be a cheat, a genuinely nerve-wracking experience with an inspired card art-themed visual style
- punishing difficulty with lots to remember, half the game is spent teaching rather than allowing experimentation
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