Card Shark has all of the elements for a delightful quasi-historical romp through eighteenth-century France. Going from table to table, fleecing the aristocracy with sly tricks and aces up the sleeve does contain a certain roguish appeal. But much like an actual card trick, when one element falls out of place, the illusion irreversibly breaks. While this game mostly pulls off such tricks, where it messes up can sour the whole experience.
Suspect the Quiet Ones
You play as Eugene, a mute errand boy in a local tavern. As luck would have it, you assist a mysterious individual, the Comte de Saint Germain, by spying on his opponent's hand in a game of cards. This kicks off a series of events where you join the Comte as he travels throughout the country. With him, you'll swindle the wealthy elite at card tables, narrowly avoid the authorities, get into sword duels, as well as slowly unravel a conspiracy theory involving the bloodline of King Louis XV and the stirring of revolution.
If the last part of that synopsis sounds more interesting than the card tables, you might be disappointed by how Card Shark presents it. While the story does a good job threading this narrative between hands, it is used more as elaborate set dressing. It is threaded well enough throughout the game's run time thanks to some solid pacing and some humorous – if a bit trite – comedy at the expense of you playing a literal mute nobody.
Thankfully, the presentation around Card Shark is great. Establishing shots of card parlors and key landmarks are presented as gorgeous moving oil paintings. The animations of the various players at the table have an almost Terry Gilliam-esque quality to their movements. And the musical score is just the right mix of stuffy strings and piano with some impish layers sprinkled throughout.
Remember, Swap, Mark, Palm
As for the core gameplay of Card Shark, the opening holds a lot of promise. Every time you travel to a new table, you learn some new card tricks to help you win. These tricks become more elaborate as the game progresses with you layering on more steps to avoid being caught. As mentioned before in my preview, even if you have no idea how to actually play cards, these tricks boil down to quick-time event sequences, various inputs with the left control stick, and a bit of memorization. There is also an optional hint system that will help walk you through each step of your card trick.
Card Shark is at its best when you are learning new card tricks and putting them into practice. Not only does the game give you plenty of practice and tutorials, but you can also return to prior tables to build up your coffers. It's a great mix of tangential learning – I seriously didn't know the term “injogging” was a thing until I started playing this – as well as solid design in its own right. Furthermore, the variety on display is impressive. The tricks can be as simple as palming an ace to as elaborate as using reflective surfaces to figure out how strong of a hand your opponent has.
This training even spills over into how Card Shark handles death. If a game goes horribly wrong and you are killed, you end up playing a game of cards with Death herself. If you want to retry the last table, you have to literally and metaphorically cheat death itself. It's a great mixture of thematic cohesion with game mechanics.
Messing Up The Trick
Unfortunately, the further I got into Card Shark, problems began to arise. While the game does a great job tutorializing over two dozen card tricks with intuitive controls, it never fully teaches you to use these tricks on your own terms. Every single level in the game is just “call and response.” You learn a new trick; you do a new trick. If you don't do the new trick exactly as the game dictates, you automatically fail, even if it makes absolutely no sense.
The best example of this I can give comes from a level near the end of the game. I'm playing at the table alongside my partner in crime and the opponent I'm trying to swindle. Throughout multiple hands, I've been able to mark certain high and low cards while slowly chipping away at my target's coin purse. Now, it was just a matter of dealing myself the high cards while dealing him low cards, securing victory. I lost the final hand each and every single time until I was completely broke. Apparently, I was supposed to deal the high cards to my partner, not myself.
What is even more frustrating than this obtuse railroading are the rare occasions where Card Shark takes these rails off. At its best, these lead to some great secret moral choices - I got a different ending because I decided not to cheat during a certain level for example. But the worst offenders are sections where the characters flip from teaching you every step to forcing you to learn through trial and error.
The illusion of choice is a powerful tool when it comes to game design and interactive narrative, but when done badly make all of that effort go to waste. While Nerial's past work: the moral dilemma card game Reigns, used this to great effect, Card Shark swings wildly between using it cleverly and fumbling so bad I wanted to chuck my gamepad at the screen.
Thankfully, Card Shark's various difficulty levels do help mitigate this. The hardest difficulty is essentially an Iron Man mode: If you get caught once, you have to restart from the beginning. As for the easiest difficulty, you can just skip certain levels and sections after you've failed them once. It's an extreme correction, but it is there to help people get over certain speed bumps.
Card Shark Review | Final Thoughts
If you want to live the fantasy of cheating aristocrats out of their wealth with guile and wit, then Card Shark does offer some thrills. The gameplay is fundamentally simple but approachable. The presentation is solid. The main story has enough intrigue and charm to last the nine hours I spent with it. But if you are turned off by awkward narrative railroading and clunky gameplay contrivances, you might want to look elsewhere.
TechRaptor reviewed Card Shark on PC with a copy provided by the publisher. The game is also available on Nintendo Switch.
- Engaging Card Trick Gameplay
- Unique Oil Painting Art Design
- Well-Researched Historical Backdrop
- Inconsistent Railroading