I’ve been around card tables, lost and won my fair share of bets, and been enamored with movies like Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and Rounders for a long time. When I saw Nerial was preparing a video game about the very subject of card cheats, my interest was piqued. Card Shark is barely about playing cards (knowing how to do that is pretty important, but it will teach you enough to get by). It’s about the art of the cheat, the mastery of sleight of hand, and, perhaps most importantly, it’s about the political tensions that led to the French Revolution. And while keeping track of the tricks might get dizzying at times, the tutoring of proper cheating and the political narrative that goes with it make for quite the interesting adventure.
Gambling houses in the French countryside
Card Shark takes us to the humble setting of a rundown inn in late 18th century France where a young mute (our protagonist) spends his days tending to patrons under a somewhat brusque matron. When a dapper fellow named Comte de Saint-Germain convinces the mute to aid him in a swindle during a card game, a horrible accident leaves the poor innkeeper dead and Comte taking flight with our hero, lest the latter be framed for murder. Taking the mute under his wing, Comte and the player go on a journey across France during a time of political turmoil, hoping to gain knowledge of a secret that could put them at the card table of the very King of France himself.
Card Shark’s story and presentation are absolutely some of the most charming things about it. The art style is beautifully painted with a mix of seemingly papercraft characters acting out the various goings on of card games and political intrigue. The music is classical throughout with a steady flow of string sections that bring gentle and relaxing moods, mysterious tension, and riveting and adventurous tones as necessary. All throughout, there is a rather delightful display of animation showing off the game’s various sleight of hand trickery in between. Simply put, this game looks and sounds wonderful from beginning to the game's various ends.
The narrative also incorporates a who’s-who of real-life philosophers, scholars, politicians, military men, and rogues who actually lived adjacent to the French Revolution. Among names I recognized were German physician Franz Mesmer, Italian occultist (and some would argue swindler) Alessandro di Cagliostro, and French philosopher Voltaire, but there were so many more I would go on to look up and find that they were fun depictions of their real-life counterparts. Throughout the game, you’re cheating these fellows, outfoxing them, or finding yourself at the end of their guns or swords. Ultimately, Card Shark is an extremely interesting narrative travel through a colorful depiction of 18th century French, German, English, and Italian aristocracy and high society.
Blink and you’ll miss the trick
Of course, Card Shark is about far more than just aristocracy. It’s about taking money and secrets from that aristocracy through clever card tricks and cheats. Much of Card Shark’s actual gameplay is a series of memory, rhythm, and logic minigames cleverly based on real card cheating tricks and sleight of hand. From the very basic Three Card Monte up to far more complex moves such as bottom-dealing and deck-stacking, players will learn all about the craft of the con.
Throughout the game, you move to increasingly elaborate gambling houses and backroom games where the stakes are ever more raised and the secrets ever more deadly. Each begins with Comte de Saint-Germaine teaching the player a con that will inevitably be used in the upcoming game (as Comte playfully puts it, playing fair is preposterous). In each of these minigames, players are tasked with memorizing various signals, movements, and inputs on the controls that will allow them to successfully rig the game in their favor. On a gamepad, sometimes it's moving the stick back and forth to swish a rag and signal an opponent’s highest suited card to Comte. Sometimes it's pressing a button at the right time to carefully conceal an ace in your hand as you throw your cards away. And still other times, it’s a complex trick requiring a series of memorized inputs and moves.
Here's where Card Shark can get brain-frying. Some of these cons are downright complicated and remembering the full sequence of how they work is tough. There is a pretty accessible hint system to keep you in the know on what tricks you should be pulling, but it only goes so far. You still have to lock down the rhythms and memorization on your own, paying close attention to various details and acting decisively when it comes time to make your deceitful play. And later scenarios mix certain scams with the ones you’ve already learned, sometimes even introducing sudden mechanics on the fly which is stressful and sometimes ill-explained. As one character in the game rightly puts it, there’s nothing more embarrassing than messing up a magic trick. And as the stakes get higher, the consequences of messing up a trick can get deadly.
Indeed, you keep a cash sum as you move between various scenarios swindling opponents. Part of saving this cash is simply for bigger buy-ins and bets at later scenarios, but you and the Comte also donate your ill-gotten gains to a camp of Romani that act as your base (doing so affects the ending). If you run out of cash, you can always pull off a cheap swindle. However, if you fail in particularly dire circumstances or build their suspicions to a boiling point by fumbling a cheat, some opponents will outright kill you. This ends up in a situation where you have to play a game against death itself. Lose this game and it’s a proper gameover (unless you have the money to buy your life back), win and you reset the scenario and your money to the moment before you would have died. I think this is a really interesting way of going about a near gameover experience. Even so, the previously mentioned sudden mechanics at certain points had me feeling like I ran into some very cheap near-deaths.
Ace up the sleeve, and secrets behind every encounter
Some dizzying tricks and cheap, sudden encounters aside, Card Shark feels like a genuine and charming mystery interwoven into a very interesting series of mechanics mimicking the fascinating sleight of hand behind card tricks. Don’t get me wrong, the concepts won’t exactly give you the dexterity you need to do these tricks yourselves, but the proper utilization of them throughout the game was a fun aside to a story that’s really about digging into the backroom secrets of 18th century aristocracy. With fun animation, narrative, and music to sell that venture, Card Shark comes out with a purse that’s far more full than it is light.
This review is based on an early digital PC copy supplied by the publisher. Card Shark comes out on Nintendo Switch and PC on June 2, 2022.
- Card tricks based on actual and intriguing sleight of hand
- A wide variety of rhythm and memory mechanics
- Fun and charming art and animation
- A varied and delightful classical soundtrack
- Narrative and mystery are top notch
- Multiple endings
- Card tricks & mechanics get brain-numbingly complicated
- Some sudden gameplay elements feel cheap and unfair
TJ Denzer posted a new article, Card Shark review: Cheeky aces