A group of players at a table stepping away while one draws a gun.

Preview

Card Shark Tests Your Nerves

May 10, 2022

By: Tyler Chancey

 
 

Cheating at cards is one of the quickest ways to identify a scoundrel and a conman. It is used as visual shorthand in every single creative medium. The people doing it range from the charismatic to the revolting. There are many names for these kinds of quick-handed people, but the most well known is card shark. It is also the name of the latest project by transmedia developer Nicolai Troshinsky and Nerial Limited. But while Card Shark doesn't exactly reinvent the wheel with its individual game mechanics, they combine to create a suspenseful experience of subterfuge.

Card Shark takes place in 18th Century Europe. You play as a mute assistant to the Comte de Saint Germain, here reimagined as a master of deception. During one fateful night where you help him win a game of cards, you end up traveling with him, learning his various card tricks in order to swindle the rich aristocracy for all they have.

 

Simply describing what I did during my three hours of Card Shark might not do it justice. Stripped down to the basic commands the game demanded, it can sound less like a game of psychology and overlapping tricks, but of basic memory and reflex. For example, the game's very first trick is you spying on someone's hand while pouring them a glass of wine, then wiping the counter in a certain pattern to let your partner know what the opponent has. What that amounts to is some fine movement control – pouring the wine uses the left analog stick – memorizing the face and suit of the card in question, then reciting it with a basic signal. Push a stick, then push a stick again.

A traveling magician teaching a man a card trick
Well, the good news is I can recognize these things at a table now.

This simplicity continued as the tricks became more elaborate. A simple parlor trick with cards boils down to a quick-time event sequence. In jogging a deck of cards to ensure a favorable hand is just a simple flick of the left thumbstick. These simple actions, when completely divorced from the core experience, can seem disingenuous.

 
 

But much like an actual parlor trick, Card Shark's secret is in what you can't see. While the first few marks are straightforward tests, things got increasingly dire.  First, certain tricks got more elaborate with multiple steps. It wasn't good enough to just discreetly palm a hand of cards and then shuffle them to the top of the deck, additional steps were needed. In fact, the tricks started to veer away from simple quick-time event sequences and into more delicate use of the analog sticks combined with increasingly elaborate memorization. There was a stretch of time where I needed to control my pouring of wine to my contact for him to slip me a duplicate deck of cards, spy on the opponent's hand, duck away into the bathroom, quickly fish out a fixed hand for the table and memorize it, hand off the deck while getting the replacement, remove all the duplicates, then shuffle the deck so the fixed hand is dealt.

On top of all of that, there is a ticking clock. Your potential marks have a growing suspicion gauge if you take too long or are too obvious with some of your tricks. If the gauge completely fills, you are caught. So there is an ongoing feeling of pressure and anxiety as the stakes continue to rise. Do you risk a mistake and lose precious coins that you need to stay at the table to take the heat off of you, or do you take extra time making sure you got everything right and risk getting thrown out?

 
 
The philosopher Voltaire at a booth talking about cheating
Eh, six of one, half a dozen of another.

This mixture of high-stakes awareness, deception, and pressure culminated in the preview's boss battle. It started as a simple game of cards at another rich aristocrat's estate, but it quickly turned violent as the party was crashed by a gang of outlaws with guns drawn. The Comte convinced them to sit down for a few hands while promising them some imaginary prize. Their suspicions were high right out of the gate, and a simple slip up meant death. Worse still, it seemed that these scoundrels knew a thing or two about hiding their cards. Even when I did everything right, we lost a few rounds, as if they had tricks of their own. It was a great escalation of stakes that was soured by how I ultimately won. While Card Shark does a great job of teaching you the tools and tricks of a conman, this setpiece was closer to an adventure game puzzle with clunky exposition and an obvious solution.

Yet, despite that one hiccup, Card Shark does a great job framing these rudimentary mechanics with some stellar presentation. Every single table and scene is presented in an art style somewhere between an oil painting and a pulp comic book. The musical score is packed with regal strings with some playful and impish themes. There's even an ongoing narrative with recurring characters like philosopher Voltaire and an overarching goal you are helping the Comte achieve.

Overall, Card Shark is shaping up to be a promising foray into the world of swindling and deception. What started as something simple was merely a peek into how complicated things were going to get, in more ways than one. As for any other twists and turns, it will present, only time will tell.


TechRaptor previewed Card Shark on PC with a copy provided by the Publisher. The game will release some time in 2022 and also be available on Nintendo Switch.

 
 
a candid selfie of the staff writer, husky build, blond hair, caucasian.
Staff Writer

Born in 1990, Tyler Chancey's earliest memories were of an NES controller in his hands, and with it a passion that continued into his adulthood. He's written for multiple sites, has podcasted, and has continued to shape and encourage new talent to greater heights.