Card Shark is such an intriguing concept. While we’re all familiar with video game representations of popular card games like Poker, Solitaire and Blackjack, none have ever really revolved around the idea of cheating at them. Card Shark then, is a game where winning is not about the hand you’re dealt nor your ability to read someone’s Poker face but rather how you can deceive and trick your way to victory.
Set in 18th century France, you play as a mute character working a less than desirable job at a tavern run by his nasty guardian. Fortunately, one particular visitor going by the name Comte de Saint-Germain requests your help in conning his opponents in an upcoming game of cards. At the chance of winning some extra coin, you take him up on this offer only for things to quickly escalate leaving a dead body at your feet, you a murder suspect and on the run with your new mentor (my, how quickly your fortune can go from bad to worse in just a game of cards). Travelling alongside a Romani caravan, the pair of you will go location to location fleecing the rich of their money by cheating in various ways in games of cards the story only escalating in stakes the further you progress on your journeys.
Surprisingly in Card Shark, you can get by with little to no knowledge on how to actually play the card games you’re participating in, the emphasis on the actual tricks themselves. Each trick will essentially require the player to memorise, multi-task, follow prompts or a combination of many. The initial hoax you’ll learn for example called ‘The Bottle of Cahors’ is a two-part scheme the first step seeing the player pour a bottle of wine – without spilling – whilst taking a peek at the hand of the opponent and its highest suit. Next, you’ll need to communicate this information to Comte de Saint-Germain via wiping the table down in a certain manner – clockwise circular to signal hearts and so on. Do both these correct and you’ll win the hand.
With nearly 30 tricks total to learn, you’ll perform a whole array of sneaky manoeuvres increasing in complexity as too do the stakes. Everything from marking the deck and switching in cards to card palming and even making use of reflections. Of course, while you’re performing these sly tricks, your opponents will grow increasingly suspicious of your activity. This is measured with a suspicion bar that slowly fills the longer you take setting up your con and when maxed out will result in the pair of you getting kicked out of the venue or worse. This adds another layer of anxiety and tension to the mix, the rising bar a constant concern as you try to balance being precise with your actions and being prompt. If you’ve ever tried to cheat in a card or board game then you’ll recognise that thrill of potentially getting caught and Card Shark does a grand job in replicating that in video game form.
Each game you sit in will see you often learning a new trick, putting it to use and trying to bankrupt your opponents (usually winning three hands should do it). Successfully do so and it’s onto the next unsuspecting wealthy elite. The game does a great job walking you through its growing arsenal of card tricks, its tutorials clear and offering plenty of chance to practice. Of course, the real test comes with the added pressures and threat of being discovered in the real deal. Should you find yourself getting caught and killed, the game does have a clever way of bringing you back into the action involving conning Lady Death that I won’t spoil too much in this review. Suffice to say, it’s a neat and weirdly wonderful way of handling failure that doesn’t simply revolve around a quick restart prompt.
The game isn’t without its faults though. For one, even the slightest error can result in losing a hand, not so much an issue in the early goings, but something that can become slightly more irksome as the tricks grow in complexity and length. Fail in the initial stage and you’re forced to continue the hand even though you know you’re destined to lose the pot. Fail at the final step and the result can be a little deflating knowing how close you’ve come only to stumble at the very end. This isn’t helped also by the fact you will have to sit through scenes and dialogue again on repeated attempts. While hearing the witty banter and discussion the first time around is an absorbing and entertaining time, going through again is anything but.
Through Nicolai Troshinsky’s stunning visuals, Card Shark feels like a painting come to life, its striking brush stroke approach marrying nicely with the game’s setting. Moments between card games offer ample chance to soak in the beautiful surroundings while visits to bars and taverns shine a light on the amusing characters and their animations. Even the handling of the cards themselves has a real beauty to it.
No tricks, no cons, Card Shark is a real ace. A truly unique and satisfying concept, accompanied by a story that’s intriguing and witty all wrapped in a strikingly beautiful presentation results in one of the year’s best surprises and an experience not soon forgotten.
Version Tested: Nintendo Switch
Review copy provided by Devolver Digital