PC, Nintendo Switch
June 3, 2022
Card Shark is an intriguing little narrative set in 18th Century France that stands out right away as something different. In this rags-to-riches tale, you play an unnamed and mute tavern worker who gets taken under the wing of the mysterious ‘Comté de Saint-Germain’, a master cheat at cards. Together, you travel the taverns and playhouses of France, ripping off every poor sucker to lay eyes on you. The journey leads up the aristocratic ladder until you even get the chance to play against King Louis XV himself in order to find the truth behind a scandal that once rocked the French court. In short, its a game about becoming the best card shark in all of France.
Both the gorgeous 2D art style and the soundtrack set the scene immediately. It’s a very nice change indeed from the ultra-realistic look that we commonly see in historical games like Assassins Creed. That doesn’t mean it isn’t detailed; there are an astounding amount of backdrops and close-up scenes from all different kinds of angles, and each drawing is detailed down to each finger. The animated drawings are inspired by medieval drawings and tapestries, right down to the slightly awkward angle of everyone’s limbs. Far from a flaw, this actually adds a lot to the look and feel. It’s bright and colourful, which certainly suits the ridiculous outfits and decor of the French aristocracy, while still feeling rustic and old-fashioned. It’s phenomenal, and it’s paired with a beautiful orchestral soundtrack full of woodwind instruments to suit the unfolding mystery.
With each new leg of your journey across France, The curious Comté teaches you a new trick that you’ll be using against your unsuspecting opponents. They start off easy and simple to understand but quickly get more complex as the tricks begin to have multiple, more complicated steps. The tutorial in each trick is usually concise and effective, so you can normally follow along well enough, and you can practice the trick for as long as you like before starting the level.
The card tricks you learn throughout the game are real tricks of card manipulation that can be performed in real life, although these days they are the tool of stage magicians rather than actual cheats. It really gives you an appreciation for just how much dexterity would be required to perform the tricks at a real table without giving your game away.
Each trick is controlled using simple button presses and joystick movement, though you can also use mouse controls. The difficulty comes from trying to work quickly to steal aces, identify high-value cards, and keep track of cards in the deck while avoiding suspicion from your opponent. Take too long, and they’ll call you out. Make a wrong move, and you’ll lose the round.
“Both the gorgeous 2D art style and the soundtrack set the scene immediately.”
The actions themselves are always simple, but they can sometimes be a little too abstract as a result. When all you’re doing is twiddling the joystick or clicking the mouse in various sequences, it can be difficult to follow along with exactly how the deck is being manipulated. The complexity of some of the harder tricks can be especially confusing, and you can end up following the directions blindly like you’re playing a game of Simon Says without actually understanding what you’re doing. The motion detection in just one or two of the tricks seems off too, like when a side-to-side motion registers as a clockwise circle a few too many times to be a one-off glitch.
The simplicity of these controls also means that once you’ve learned so many of the game’s tricks, actions start to repeat themselves and it all begins to blur together. There is no other gameplay beyond these tricks: you can re-visit some areas to earn more money, but there’s little incentive to do so. Card Shark could have used something else to keep one revisiting taverns and really raking up the dough. The only thing you can do with your hard ‘earned’ cash other than spend it on more gambling, and that to basically donate it to charity, for which you don’t get anything tangible as a reward. It seems like a missed opportunity to deck the protagonist out in fancy clothes or to upgrade the carriage you use to travel from one location to another.
A Royal Mystery
As much as the card trick gameplay is unique, Card Shark’s main staying power for me was the story. The Comté de Saint-Germain quickly proves to be more than just a travelling charlatan, quickly leading the protagonist into a world of deadly run-ins with bandits and even deadlier court intrigue. I quickly fell in love with the nameless main character, who flaunted a distinct personality despite his lack of dialogue. In fact, the feature makes him more interesting, especially when his inability to talk becomes actually plot-relevant.
“Once you’ve learned so many of the game’s tricks, actions start to repeat themselves and it all begins to blur together.”
My feelings on the Comté frequently changed, as he was at first revealed to be a cheat, then a sort of Robin Hood, then a father figure to the protagonist, then something else that I won’t spoil for you. My interest in the story certainly outlasted my interest in the gameplay, which had about halfway through begun to feel a little one-note. There are some brilliant moments of subversion where you use your newfound sleight-of-hand skills to make it seem like someone else at the table is the cheat, but these are few and far between. By and large, each scene plays out in a similar manner.
Starting from about halfway through, I made use of the handy difficulty feature that offered to skip the gameplay after failing at the round at least once. Losing even one round at the higher-stakes games can mean losing all of your gold in one go, and revisiting the earlier levels are just not engaging enough to bother with. It was the story that kept me playing until the end, because I just had to see if the voiceless protagonist’s budding life of deceit would end up paying out. It gets quite melodramatic by the end (in the best way possible), through it climaxes with more of a fizzle than a bang.
- A unique, fresh gameplay idea
- Intriguing story full of secrets and betrayal
- Medieval-inspired art style is beautiful
- Difficulty options mean you can skip ahead if you get stuck
- Gameplay can feel one-note after a few hours
- Controls feel imperfect in a few of the tricks
Card Shark’s story, art design, and soundtrack alone make the game a worthwhile experience. What begins as a classic rags-to-riches story quickly evolves into something far more interesting, full of intrigue and betrayal. Progressing the story by cheating the pants off a bunch of pre-revolutionary French dandies in cards is a truly unique and satisfying premise, and it’s largely pulled off well apart from a few imprecise controls. Otherwise, the gameplay might be a little too one-note to hold your engagement for the entire runtime of the game.