REVIEW: Sunshine Shuffle contains multitudes - crime, cute animals, and heartbreaking writing
Picture the following scene: a group of ex-cons meet at a table to play a game of poker. Barbs are passed between them, secrets about their past are shared, and they're all being interrogated by a mob investigator who holds their lives in his hand.
Where's it happening? Some dimly lit room at the back of a dark alleyway where the thumping of electronic music from the club next door bleeds into this hive of scum and villainy? Who's at the table? A hodgepodge of scary-looking criminals who'd fit in just fine in a Scorsese cast?
Well, Xalavier Nelson Jr. and Strange Scaffold say screw that noise with their latest, Strange Scaffold, a narrative poker game that recontextualizes what crime, poker, and danger can look like.
Just the Facts
Developer: Strange Scaffold
Publisher: Strange Scaffold
Platform(s): PC*, Nintendo Switch *denotes platform reviewed on
Release Date: May 24, 2023
Review key provided by publisher.
The flop - The family that crimes together, pokers together
Strange Scaffold has gotten their roses here at VGG for their inventive ideas and surprisingly addictive gameplay loops. The team assembled by studio head Xalavier Nelson Jr. continues to develop the types of games that sound like they're born out of one-liners uttered at 2 a.m. after hours of brainstorming with pals. Sunshine Shuffle's pitch probably sounds something like: "Poker Night at the Inventory meets Animal Crossing... but emotionally devastating." A narrative poker game with a bright and sunny aesthetic and a bangin' ska soundtrack from rock star musicians Jeremy "Skatune Network" Hunter and RJ Lake.
Would you believe me if I said Sunshine Shuffle might be the most "normal" Strange Scaffold game yet? (This is a compliment, both ways.) Sunshine Shuffle lets players take on the role of an investigator for the Fishie Mob, a gang of aquatic creatures that hold a lot of sway over the lives of creatures across all continents in this seemingly post-post-apocalyptic setting, where adorable animals have inherited this capitalist hellscape.
You get a brief introduction to Fidelius — the eyepatch-wearing captain of the boat where you'll be playing Texas Hold 'em, who you eventually learn to be the leader of the gang you're meeting that day. Then, you're tossed into the belly of the boat and into the game. Pretty quickly, you'll find out what you're doing there and why this particular game of poker is so high stakes. After meeting Andie, Peter, Jordan, and Billy (an otter, cockatiel, capybara, and cat respectively) and being dealt your hand, the game is afoot.
The creatures around the table were once a part of the "Morning Shift," a working-class crime syndicate that spent their time doing all they could to target one particular organization and hurt their bottom line. The Fishie Mob. It all culminated in one BIG heist that changed everything for all parties involved. And since you represent the mob, it's up to you to decide if Anchovy Jr. gets the row of bodies he's looking for or if these folks deserve mercy. For all the bright, sunny, and trumpet-y dressing, Sunshine Shuffle is a paradigm-shiftingly grounded and dark experience.
Strange Scaffold has crafted a powerful character study about a group of individuals who were broken by the systems controlling their lives and found family and comfort in crime. They steadily reveal the details of their lives before and after the bank heist and what they lost along the way.
The amount of dialogue lines that I was compelled to screenshot for their authentic and relatable message... the number of times I winced or even teared up at certain "too-real" concepts being broached by criminal otters and capybaras... the giggles I giggled at a few choice lines about things like dino nuggies and colonoscopies. There's an incredible amount of truth and heart packed aboard the S.S. Sunshine.
The turn - Oops, I spilled my CUTE in your CRIME
Strange Scaffold works hard to seed a genuine connection between this group of friends simultaneously fighting for their lives and their poker hands, and it all flows so beautifully. Conversation slides easily between the game on the table and the elephant in the room (given the cast I feel it requires clarifying — no, not an actual elephant) but the driving force is certainly the crime drama of it all. By making the characters in the scene these adorable animals, by making the backing track of it all a fluffy bit of "sunshine ska," it makes gut-wrenching lines of dialogue hit that much harder. It changes your perception of what a crime drama can look and feel like.
Across every game Strange Scaffold has released, the true strength of their writing is in building a strange reality and firmly weaving humanity into the core of it. In a way, Sunshine Shuffle feels like the strongest example of that. As these creatures speak plainly about the hands they've been dealt (😏), it's weirdly easy to see how someone could go from hacking the Bureau of Creature Investigations to getting one over on the Fishie Mob.
Beyond the chatter, Sunshine Shuffle asks little of its players. The poker is presented as straightforward as possible — Texas Hold' em is all about building the best poker hand possible out of your two cards and the pool of cards in the center — and it leaves you able to focus entirely on the unfolding conversation instead. I appreciate Strange Scaffold's genuinely approachable and understandable description of how Texas Hold 'em works, so newbies don't feel put off, but in keeping it so simple it does hurt the experience in a few ways.
For one, the flow of poker presentation isn't perfect. Sometimes cards will be drawn to the collection with little fanfare, only realized when someone makes mention of it a bit later. I learned to keep an eye on the game's overlaid card HUD elements instead of the actual cards on the table, but I can see that being a bit jarring for someone hopping in brand-new to poker.
Secondly, with the conversation clearly meant to be the focus, when people are interrupted by the poker — with the end of a hand or a big moment like someone going all in with their chips — they'll drop a classic "wait, where was I?" and repeat their last line. Once or twice it fazed me when someone was in the middle of some deeply powerful story, but it's honestly the best they could do and it did end up helping me keep up with some stories when the cards were flying.
The river - A few hurdles in the final round of betting
My only real disappointment in the poker was that it never quite accomplished pure synergy with the narrative. No moments where the games at the table directly affected the tone of the conversation at the table. No promises of a story being told if you beat them in the next hand or eliminate them from the table. These are little things I would have loved to see to create just that little bit of extra intrigue in the poker, which serves mainly as a backdrop as you learn these characters' stories.
It obviously helped stoke a constant tension, though, as waiting for each new reveal in the story felt like the equivalent of waiting for a card on the flop or the river.
Texas Hold 'em is fun: the satisfaction of getting that five you were waiting for to complete a straight is just as satisfying as ever, and the writing is good enough to push you through each hand. If Space Warlord taught you to love the grime and if Witch Strandings taught you to never forget the power of love, Sunshine Shuffle teaches you to appreciate gambling. Which is... good? I think.
Outside of poker, your only real input as a player is in which questions your investigator decides to ask, which avenues you choose to go down as you try to get at the heart of why and how Fidelius's crew did what they did.
As far as I can tell, these choices do little more than give you slightly different stories told at the table, rather than drastically changing the arc of the overall story. You're here to casually play cards and learn about these folks. And since the story being told here is so good, and since it unfolds as nicely as it does — characters take nice pauses to play a few hands between dumping parts of their stories, and I liked that they even realistically take a moment when contemplating their hands — any minor disappointments fade away.
The one thing I couldn't totally let fade are glitches, including a skipped bit of dialogue and a bugged choice in one of the final story beats. Because of a hand ending alongside a decision my character had to make, I ended up in a situation where suddenly the conversation around the table just completely dried up. And only after restarting that tournament did I find my way to the next story bit... which just so happened to be the ending.
With the potential for an issue like this, I recommend you pause poker play almost entirely when storytelling scenes are playing out, so as to guarantee no issues. Making games is hard and I totally get it; however, I was bummed to have the final pieces of the story jumbled up the way they were.
All-in - Sunshine Shuffle's seafaring vibes run the world
From the bright and colorful summer color palette to the Animal Crossing-like patter of each character, and finally the pitch-perfect ska soundtrack from Skatune Network and RJ Lake, Sunshine Shuffle may very well be the game of the summer.
I don't know what it means for your brain chemistry to enjoy the feeling of bopping to a thumping offbeat while watching a cute bird with yellow cheeks describe the darkest pits of his depression... but that's where we find ourselves.
Add in the ability to customize your space with "Star Coins" that you accumulate by playing hand after hand of poker and I'm sold. Being able to transform the interior of the boat to my comfort — complete with recliners for each player, a few pride flags, and a plastic skeleton by the door as our de facto bouncer — was more enjoyable than expected. And yes, longtime Strange Scaffold fans, Chad Shakespeare is waiting for you somewhere in this game. But I didn't find the anatomically correct human heart, so clearly something's wrong.
Strange Scaffold remains one of the most interesting teams in gaming today. Sunshine Shuffle's anything but light and breezy, despite its appearances, and its narrative poker experience is just another in a long list of games from their studio that tells powerful stories in the most interesting formats possible. By keeping the gameplay barriers as light as possible this time while still managing to do something that no one else is doing, the team lets what might be its best batch of writing yet soar here. And that's worth all the applause.
Minor quibbles aside, Sunshine Shuffle accomplishes all it sets out to do and does so with a ska-driven flair that can't be denied.
Video Games Are Good and Sunshine Shuffle is . . . GREAT. (8.5/10)
+ bright and summer-y vibes for a dark and gut-punching story of crime and found family, Texas Hold 'em remains fun and is more approachable here than most places, and ska is bumpin'
- a few glitches may hurt your experience, poker flow can be iffy at times, not as much direct control on the narrative as you might think
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