They say cheaters never prosper, but clearly they’ve never played Card Shark, a wonderfully tense, goofy little game that’s all about keeping your cool under tremendous pressure as you basically rob people blind. The act of pulling off the con is shockingly simple, but maintaining one’s composure to ensure that everything goes according to plan is shockingly not simple. Published by Devolver Digital, it’s the kind of game that’ll stick with you long after the credits have rolled, and if you’re even remotely interested, we’d very much encourage you to give it a go.
Card Shark takes place in 18th century France and places you in the role of a mute servant boy. While waiting on a boisterous noble calling himself the Comte de Saint-Germain (who actually existed) at the behest of your patron, you get roped into helping the rascal cheat in a game of cards in exchange for some of the winnings. Unfortunately, your opponent eventually gets wise to what you’re up to and your patron gets fatally shot in the ensuing struggle. Impressed by your con-artist skills and preying upon your newfound homelessness, the Comte thus takes you under his wing and the two of you set out on an adventure to fleece all manner of high society nobles across France. All the while, you slowly begin to realize that the Comte is tangled up in a bigger conspiracy concerning the French royalty.
It’s a delightful narrative all the way through, bolstered by the lighthearted, razor-sharp wit that permeates the writing. The silver-tongued Comte says more than enough for the two of you, and there’s a certain kind of goofy charm in how the pair of you manage to solve all your problems by leveraging your abilities to fool people. For example, if your character happens to die at any point, you can con Lady Death—a skeleton with a luxurious mane—in a card game to force her to give you your life back. Or in another example, you manage to get out of a hostage situation by delaying your captors for long enough with a game. We found ourselves looking forward to what each new level would bring, if only to see what kind of trouble this conniving duo would get themselves into (and out of) next.
Gameplay in Card Shark could be most closely described as a take on the minigame frenzy of a WarioWare entry. Each level tasks you with completing relatively simple tricks like shuffling a deck, flipping a coin, or pouring wine, and these are accomplished with Quick Time Event-like prompts. What makes this so thrilling is the fact that you’re constantly under pressure as you’re doing so, often because you have to commit lots of information to memory in a very short period of time.
For example, when you’re pouring wine for someone, the screen usually splits in two to also show you the cards in their hand. You have about three seconds to pour the wine—too much or too little will draw attention—but you also need to remember things like how many cards they had in a particular suit or what their highest card was. Splitting your attention between the cards and the amount of wine in the glass is surprisingly difficult, and we often found ourselves second-guessing whether we actually saw what we thought we did in the opponent’s hand.
As the game continues, there are increasingly more difficult minigames to complete, requiring more steps and more specific information to keep in your memory. This adds a nice difficulty curve to the experience; just when you feel like you’ve mastered the latest trick, it gets tossed and you have to learn a new one. This pace also keeps the game feeling fresh over time, as you’re rarely going longer than 10 or 15 minutes before things shift to a new minigame that has different demands and reinvents things all over again.
Each level ultimately comes down to you playing several rounds until your opponent is either broke or can’t meet the minimum bet. To keep things interesting, there’s an awareness gauge at the bottom of the screen representing your opponent’s suspicion that you’re colluding with your friend at the table, and if it fills up all the way, you’ll be either tossed out or killed. Having that meter constantly moving as you’re desperately trying to properly stack a deck or correctly signal a specific card to your friend adds a lot of tension, which can sometimes lead you to make sloppy mistakes resulting in a lost round or tipping off your opponent. On occasion, it can feel like the player is being asked to keep track of a bit too much, but we ran into no scenarios that couldn’t be overcome with the right practice.
Card Shark isn’t a particularly hard game, then, when you get right down to what you’re actually doing moment-to-moment, but there’s a tremendous amount of stress that comes with how much you’re being rushed in each minigame and this stress is what makes it so engaging. Even though each level only takes around 10 minutes to complete, it feels a lot longer as you’re nervously eyeing the suspicion meter and trying to remember if it was an ace of hearts or an ace of diamonds in the opponent’s hand.
We also rather appreciated how developer Nerial focuses intently on this tension without adding any unnecessary mechanics or filler to water it down. There’s no leveling up or buying items to help slow down time or give you another chance if you forgot what’s in your opponent’s hand, this is a game where you either rise to the occasion or suffer bitter defeat. It’s not particularly skill-dependent either, making it very approachable to players of all skill levels.
Nicolai Troshinksy’s painterly art style really helps to sell the overall aesthetic, presenting you with many richly detailed paintings that do a lot to add to the immersion for each level. Individually visible brush strokes help to give the background visuals appeal, while the characters move and animate in a simple, almost stop-motion style. Each chateau or bar you find yourself in is far more colorful than the real-world versions probably looked, giving things an understated yet fantastic flair. Plus, things like your mute character’s exaggerated ‘sketchy’ expression as he’s looking at another player’s cards ensures that plenty of the humor in the writing is reflected in the visuals.
As for the soundtrack, the music mostly sticks to renaissance-style classical tunes, with the odd shanty or ballad tossed in to mix it up. The music fits like a glove for the overall tone that Card Shark is going for, and though it isn’t particularly catchy, many tracks don’t sound too far off from what we expect may have been played in a bar at the time.
Card Shark is the kind of game that at first blush seems like it just won’t work. Lots of dialogue bookended by brief, simplistic minigame sequences seems like it would make for an experience that would lose its luster quickly, yet we couldn’t put it down. Witty writing, high-stakes gameplay, and a gorgeous art style all come together here to make for a game that’s well-executed and unique in its appeal. If you’re looking to try something awesome that notably bucks most modern gaming trends, Card Shark is absolutely something we’d recommend, well worth your time and money.