Review – Card Shark
Devolver Digital releases plenty of bizarrely interesting games each year, many of which have been some of our stand out favorites. Last year, they released Inscryption, a roguelike deckbuilding game that took everyone by surprise. Now just a few months later, they’re back with another card-based game, Card Shark, courtesy of Nerial, one of their development studios. While Card Shark and Inscryption are both card-based games with an unusual take on the genre, that’s where their similarities end. Sure, Inscryption might have been able to surprise us, but how will the new kid in town, Card Shark, stack up? Let’s shuffle up and deal, and see where the cards lie.
I’ll be honest and say that I wasn’t really expecting much of a story in Card Shark. How wrong I was! Set in France during the 18th century, you play as mute young gentleman trying to scrape by as a servant in a local parlour. After a particularly eventful evening, a professional con artist decides to take you under his wing and teach you the tricks of the trade. With his help, you’ll cheat your way from lowly inns all the way to the King’s table. A true Cinderella story.
For most games, this would be enough of a setup to warrant a reason for the protagonist to constantly engage in gambling. However, Card Shark is not most games. Beneath the guise of cheating numerous aristocrats lies a surprisingly intriguing story. Each time you best an important player, your partner in crime, Comte de Saint-Germain, is able to extract a bit of information from them. Early on the tidbits don’t seem to mean much, but things start to become clear the further you progress. Eventually, you’ll uncover devious conspiracies going all the way to the top. There are quite a few twists and turns along the way that actually took me by surprise.
In addition to underestimating the level of depth that the story would have, I also completely misjudged what kind of a game it was. I had thought that Card Shark would be about playing poker and learning new ways to out bluff your opponent or learning their tells. As it turns out, that’s not the case at all. Card Shark is game that teaches you how to cheat.
That’s the entire focus of the gameplay: conning other players. You won’t actually play rounds of poker at a table. Instead, you’ll learn many different ways to deceive your marks. For example, at one point Comte de Saint-Germain will teach you the Pincer Shuffle, where you deal a card from the top of the deck and the bottom at the same time. Doing this will hide the fact that you’re dealing your partner good cards that you’re holding on the bottom of the deck. This is just one of several strategic ways to shuffle your stacked deck to ensure victory.
Each trick is performed by following button prompts. These involve different patterns, precise timing, and various sequences. There’s quite a bit of variety to the tricks as well. You’ll learn shuffling techniques, how to stack a deck in your favor, how to mark cards so you can cut to them by feel, dealing methods, etc. Everything you’ll learn in Card Shark are real card tricks and manipulation tactics as well. It’s truly incredible to see how some of these scams are pulled off.
It doesn’t stop at card tricks either. Card Shark teaches numerous ways to fleece your targets. Along the way you’ll pick up other skills such as coin flipping, signalling techniques, tossing cards into a hat, and even dueling. I was delighted to discover that Card Shark had so many other skills to teach other than those found at a table. This kept the gameplay feeling fresh, and these abilities were often used in unexpectedly satisfying ways.
Yet another delightful departure from the norm is Card Shark‘s art design, courtesy of Nicholai Troshinsky. Each character looks hand-drawn and slightly cartoonish, which is by no means an insult. In a game without spoken dialogue, the clean lines and exaggerated movements of the animations made the characters easier to understand. They also stand out against the backgrounds, which have a painted aesthetic. The characters and the settings are equally striking, complimenting each other with their distinct looks and vibrant color palettes.
The sound design is not quite as flashy as the art design, but it’s excellent in its own right. Card Shark features and original score from Andrea Boccadoro, comprised of all orchestral melodies. Each destination has its own tune, ranging from upper class minuets to lively sea shanties. The songs also help set the tone for major incidents throughout the game, which further set the stage for the events as they unfold.
Playing Card Shark feels like peeking behind the curtain of a magic show. The gameplay might involve following button prompts, but the lessons are genuine. After playing it I feel like I could use some of the skills I learned on my friends the next time we have a poker night. Uh… not that I would, of course! I have to commend Nerial for coming up with such a unique idea for a game. The concept of playing cards through the lens of a con artist is original and enticing. Card Shark is a game that’s full of surprises, from its gameplay to its story woven with political intrigue and unforeseen twists. The cards are on the table, Card Shark is a game you simply can’t pass up.
A striking, albeit somewhat cartoonish art style, with hand-drawn characters amidst backdrops that look like paintings.
Each trick involves different patterns, timing, and sequences in order to perform them. The gameplay is surprisingly varied with a steady ramp up in difficulty.
The soundtrack is comprised of orchestral music ranging from upper class violin minuets to parlour piano tunes, depending on where you are. The sound shuffling of cards is a staple of the game.
Fun Factor: 8.5
The concept of playing cards through the lens of a cheater is original and enticing. The intriguing story threaded together from job to job was just the icing on the cake.
Final Verdict: 8.5
Card Shark is available now on PC and Nintendo Switch.
Reviewed on Nintendo Switch.
A copy of Card Shark was provided by the publisher.