When I think of cards in video games, I immediately imagine two distinct types of games. There’s the collectible competitive games like Legends of Runeterra, Magic the Gathering: Arena, and Hearthstone, then there’s the indie deckbuilder roguelikes ala Slay the Spire, Griftlands, or Fights in Tight Spaces. Nerial’s Card Shark is neither of those; it’s a game that is about playing cards, cheating death, and infiltrating 17th century French aristocracy to solve a mystery and support the revolution.
Card Shark TL:DR Review
Card Shark is an intelligent adventure taking you through 17th century France, ripping off the aristocracy and solving a mystery. Occasionally frustrating, always charming, it’s definitely a unique game worth checking out.
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Release: Out Now
Platforms: PC, Switch
As someone who barely knows how to play Blackjack, I was relieved to learn that you don’t need to know how to play cards in Card Shark. You play the role of a mute French peasant who meets the wily Comte de Saint Germain, a renowned cheater of cards who uses his wit and charm to gain a seat at the table of even the most revered folks of French society. He sees something in you, and decides to take you on as his protégé of chicanery.
What does that entail exactly? A masterclass of deceptively named methods of cheating during carriage rides to various destinations across all of France, all given to you by Comte de Saint Germain himself. Each of these methods will teach you a new way to interact with the deck of cards, or the surrounding environments that you will find yourself in, all with the aim of giving Germain the highest value cards, and spilling knowledge of their opponents hand.
There’s the “Bottle of Bordeaux” method, that will have you pouring a bottle of wine for your opponents, while peeking over their shoulder at their cards, then signaling to Germain through various hand gestures what they’ll be facing off against. Or there’s the Disheveled Gatherer, which has you scooping up cards from the table in a specific order, to stack the deck and ensure victory. Each one of these sneaky methods plays out like a complicated WarioWare mini-game, with timed button prompts and motions to mimic. The best thing about them all is that it actually feels like you are manipulating the deck of cards, not an easy feat at all.
And while you feel immensely smart after your constant flow of skullduggeries, heart racing with pride as you see the money pile in, these mini-games are not easy to master, and there’s a lot of them to boot. Twenty-eight tricks to memorize and perfect, and as I found out, that’s quite a big ask if you have to put the game down to deal with life or play something else with friends for a while.
Just after two days away I came back to sit down in the third act of the game, only to discover I barely remembered any of the mechanics. How do I pinch shuffle? After I bend the card I do what now? What is this ambiguously named method comprise of again? Card Shark does include a menu that gives you an overview of the strategies, but personally I did not find them robust enough to easily remember them before sitting down at the table. It was frustrating to see all of my coin go, right to the point where I literally hit 0 in my stash, and I had to play cards at a standard location that didn’t progress the story to build my bank back up, which wasn’t much fun at all.
But the story is why I pushed through that frustration. If Wes Anderson was to make a game, I feel like Card Shark would be it. The impressively rendered 2D illustration come to life looks simultaneously like a stage play and a story book come to life. It’s the cast of characters that express nuanced emotions through animation that really drew me, as we slowly untangled the rumors and deceptions surrounding King Lous XV, and the controversies of his extramarital affairs. I want to gush about the moments in this game, but with a brief 6-8 hours runtime I don’t want to spoil any of the ones that make this three act adventure worth your while. Suffice to say that you do get to meet some amazing characters – some real, some made up – across the cities and countryside of France, and a few trips outside of the borders.
The game unfolds via a map that features various locations you may visit to face off against opponents. Once you select a location, Comte de Saint Germain will fill you in on who the mark is, why you need to swindle them, and then will teach you the chosen method for the upcoming deceit. During these moments you’ll occasionally get some extra story filled in, but for the most part it’s a “learn this technique” and get ready for the game ahead.
Each location is introduced with a gorgeous splash page, showing the surrounding areas and the people you may find there. Then it’s time to sit down and start betting. Card Shark runs on the rule of 3’s: beat your opponent 3 times and you’ll walk away the victor, and in this case, much richer.
The downside to Comte de Saint Germain’s illustrious reputation is that many know he is a master cheat, so they are expecting some tomfoolery. At the bottom of the screen there is a suspicion meter that is rising every second that you are performing your deceptive actions. It adds a sense of tension to proceedings, but when learning a new trick or having to adapt to something on the fly, it is not always welcome. If it completely fills, it’s the end of your night.
That’s not the only way you can fail. If you run out of money, it’s over. If you mess up just one step of the multi-step methods, more often than not it’s game over. There is very little wiggle room at all, which created brief moments where I absolutely did not want to continue. The issue here is putting the game down only exacerbates the chances that I’d forget the methods!
Failure in Card Shark often results in death, where you are sent to play a final game of cards with death herself. Being able to cheat death is just such a great thematic choice for this game, but I believe it’s truly just there for theming purposes, because I did find it actually impossible to hit a true failure state.
Despite my frustrations with the complexity of the methods and the failure states, Card Shark is a striking game that has a memorable cast of characters that is filled with whimsy and charm. Taking down the fat cats of French society while unraveling a mystery was thrilling, but those moments when the mechanics felt more like a hindrance to progression made for some frustrating moments along the way. Regardless, I recommend that if you enjoy Wes Anderson, or even just a good story, this is one worth shuffling some cards and laying down a small bet.