They say scammers never do well, but apparently they’ve never played Card Shark, a surprisingly tense, wacky little game that’s all about keeping your cool under enormous pressure when you’re actually robbing people blind. The process of pulling off a scam is astoundingly simple, but maintaining the composure to make sure everything goes according to plan is astounding. No simply. Published by Devolver Digital, this game will stay with you long after the credits roll, and if you’re even a little bit interested, we highly recommend you give it a try.
Card Shark takes place in 18th century France and puts you in the role of a mute servant boy. While waiting for a noisy nobleman calling himself the Comte Saint-Germain (who really existed) at the behest of your patron, you are forced to help the rascal cheat in a card game in exchange for a share of the winnings. Unfortunately, your opponent eventually finds out what you’re up to, and your patron is mortally wounded in the ensuing fight. Impressed by your fraudulent abilities and profiting from your newfound homelessness, the Count takes you under his wing and the two of you go on an adventure to rip off all sorts of high society nobles across France. Meanwhile, you gradually begin to realize that the Count is entangled in a larger conspiracy involving the French royal family.
It’s delightful storytelling all the way through, backed up by the light-hearted, razor-sharp wit that pervades the letter. The evil count says more than enough for the two of you, and there’s a certain wacky charm to the way the two of you manage to solve all your problems by using your powers to fool people. For example, if your character dies at some point, you can trick Lady Death – a skeleton with a luxurious mane – in a card game to force her to give you back your life. Or, in another example, you manage to get out of a hostage situation by delaying your captors long enough with a game. We found ourselves looking forward to what each new level brings, if only to see what kind of trouble this devious duo gets into (and out of) next time.
Gameplay in Card Shark can most accurately be described as WarioWare mini-game frenzy. Each level requires you to perform relatively simple tricks such as shuffling the deck, tossing a coin, or pouring wine, and these are done through prompts similar to the Quick Time Event. What makes it so exciting is the fact that you are constantly under pressure to do it, often because you have to memorize a large amount of information in a very short period of time.
For example, when you pour wine for someone, the screen is usually split in two to also show you the cards in your hand. You have about three seconds to pour the wine – too much or too little will attract attention – but you also have to remember things like the number of cards of a particular suit or what their highest card was. It’s surprisingly difficult to divide your attention between cards and the amount of wine in a glass, and we often wondered if we were actually seeing what we thought we were seeing in an opponent’s hand.
As the game continues, the mini-games become more complex, requiring more steps and more specific information to remember. This adds a nice difficulty curve to the experience; once you feel like you’ve mastered the last trick, it’s thrown out and you need to learn a new one. This pace also keeps the game feeling fresh over time, as you rarely play more than 10 or 15 minutes before everything switches to a new mini-game that makes different demands and reinvents things.
Each level ultimately boils down to you playing multiple rounds until your opponent either busts or fails to meet the minimum bet. For fun, there’s an awareness bar at the bottom of the screen showing your opponent’s suspicions that you’re colluding with a friend at the table, and if it fills up completely, you’ll either be kicked out or killed. The constant movement of this meter as you frantically try to stack your deck properly or signal a particular card correctly to your friend adds a lot of tension, which can sometimes lead to careless mistakes resulting in losing a round or warning your opponent. . Sometimes it can feel like the player is being asked to track a bit too much many, but we have not encountered any of the scenarios that could not be overcome with the right practice.
Card Shark isn’t a particularly difficult game where you jump right into what you’re actually doing moment to moment, but there’s a huge amount of stress involved with how much you rush through each minigame. and it is this stress that makes him so attractive. Even though each level takes about 10 minutes to complete, feels much longer as you nervously look at the suspicion counter and try to remember if it was the ace of hearts or the ace of diamonds in your opponent’s hand.
We also appreciated how developer Nerial focused on this tension without adding unnecessary mechanics or fillers to mitigate it. There’s no leveling up or buying items to help slow down time or give you another chance if you forget what’s in your opponent’s hand, in this game you’ll either seize the opportunity or suffer a bitter defeat. It’s also not particularly skill dependent, making it very accessible to players of all skill levels.
The painterly art style of Nikolai Troshinsky really helps convey the overall aesthetic, presenting you with many richly detailed paintings that do a lot to add to the immersion on every level. Individual visible brush strokes help add appeal to background visuals, while characters move and animate in a simple, almost frame-by-frame style. Every castle or bar you find yourself in is a lot more colorful than the actual versions probably looked, giving things a low-key but fantastic feel. Also, things like your mute character’s exaggerated “sketchy” expression when looking at another player’s cards ensures that a lot of the humor in the letter is reflected in the visuals.
As for the soundtrack, the music mostly sticks to classic renaissance melodies, with weird shacks or ballads thrown in to mix it up. The music fits like a glove to the overall tone that Card Shark aims for, and while it’s not particularly memorablemany of the tracks don’t sound too far from what we would expect to be played in a bar at the time.
Card Shark is the kind of game that at first glance looks like it just won’t work. Lots of dialogue punctuated by short, simplistic mini-game sequences seem to make for an experience that quickly loses its luster, but we couldn’t put it down. Witty writing, high-stakes gameplay, and great art style all combine to make the game well-crafted and unique in its appeal. If you want to try something awesome that goes against most current gaming trends in particular, Card Shark is what we recommend and it’s worth your time and money.