I have to admit that I was at least a little impressed with myself near the end of my time with Card Shark. Over the course of mere hours, I’d somehow gone from a hapless server to France’s premier gentlemen thief and gambler. Arsene Lupin himself would have had a hard time getting one over on me, and as much as I’m a straight-shooter in real life, I grew enchanted with hustling my way through the frivolous French nobility on my way to the top. However, I wished that I cared more about who I was hustling, who I aligned myself with, and the why of it all over the course of my adventures in Card Shark. More importantly, as satisfying as my hustling game had become, executing on it began to border on tedium. The more I worked my way up the food chain, the more I wished I was back at my humble but satisfying roots. Despite this nagging feeling that the good ol’ days were behind me, though, every time Card Shark’s split-second gambles paid off, I couldn’t help being reeled back in.
Card Shark, the latest take on card games from Nerial (who gave us the excellent Reigns), almost immediately establishes itself as a different kind of game entirely. Ultimately it both is and isn’t. On one hand, your character and his patron, Comte de Saint Germain, do engage many a noble in what appears to be an innocent card game. Almost everything you do in Card Shark revolves around basic playing cards. On the other hand, you do everything but play conventional card games and in the process unfurl a whole other exciting way to ponder simple playing cards.
Instead of playing by the rules, I spent the entirety of Card Shark seemingly creating my own. In reality, Card Shark is less a card game and more a game about cheating at cards. The first tricks I learned outlined the necessity of a rhythm, since trickery takes confidence, not luck. Once I began nailing the pedestrian magic tricks, though, the world of Card Shark’s tricks exploded. I never knew parlor tricks could be so complicated, but Card Shark boasts a whopping 28 of them, and they build atop one another once you start reaching the double digits. To add to the tension, you’re always under the watchful eye of your opponents, who will eventually see enough to call your bluffs, incarcerate you, or even have you killed, which is its own whimsical in-game delight.
This all means that Card Shark’s gameplay has to be tight and snappy, which it typically is. Tricks in Card Shark mostly boil down to a series of quick-time events and inputs on the analog stick that can make any number of things happen. You can thumb through a deck searching for aces or “injog” a card as a marker where you’ve tampered with the deck, for example. Some of these, like injogging cards in between shuffles, began feeling like second nature and rolled right off my back in a breezy, satisfying way as I picked up on the aforementioned rhythm of parlor tricks. Others, however, felt clumsy, which made for a reliable source of tension in late-game bouts, but sometimes just unnecessarily drained my time. To complicate things just a bit more, Card Shark has a strange tutorialization problem.
The game literally never stops bombarding you with jargon and increasingly complicated string of mechanics that form the late-game techniques, meaning there’s very little breathing room to figure any of it out on your own. The game’s structure literally sees your patron teach you a technique just before arriving at the place where you will use it, and while you can practice the one move in this brief window, the game offered scarce other places to apply techniques or invest in mastery. Some offhand repeatable missions let me mix things up more, but even the moves they let me pull off there were randomly selected. Since you literally learn moves up until the very end of the game, this led to an overreliance on reading the UI or tooltips, which flattened the satisfying feeling of hustling into something more mechanical as time went on. Eventually, my parlor tricks lost their magic. By the time Card Shark did start letting me feel things out for myself, I was in the last handful of missions, which felt too little too late.
Even if the game grew a little too complicated to be invested in, the first and most lasting impression Card Shark made was in its art. Card Shark absolutely dazzles with its color palette, animation, and framing. Countless games have committed to the watercolor aesthetic to magnificent results in recent years, and Card Shark ranks right up there among the best of them. Every scene of the game feels stolen out of the European wing of an art museum, which in turn makes every event feel like it’s rooted in actual history and places, even if the narrative’s exaggerations make it clear that isn’t the case. The characters, who look like classic caricatures, breathe life into these frames, either with wonderfully vibrant animations or lively banter, and it is a testament to Nicolai Troshinsky’s eye that the game’s art, down to the character portraits, sells you on Versailles’ decadence as much as it does Corsica’s relative serenity.
It’s a shame then that the life Card Shark’s art bestows the game can’t help the story as it limps along. The Comte de Saint Germain plucks you out of a seemingly random tavern and invites you into his band of thieves, who eventually task you with helping uncover a conspiracy hilariously known as “The Twelve Bottles of Milk.” The conspiracy goes all the way to the crown, and you and the Comte grow close as he ushers you to gambling den after den as his “son,” secretly showing you the ways of the hustle while exposing you to every possible figure in French history and all their frivolous behavior on the way there. You meet everyone from philosophers to horndogs who love to get whipped, and it’s unfortunate the game doesn’t focus on these characters and mocking their excesses more. The game’s occasionally sharp, even if the script mostly coasts to its conclusion, but a focus on a mystery that ultimately delivers on very little narrows the game’s vision. The time spent with some of these characters begins to feel like a waste by the time the central mystery and cast really take hold of the plot, and while I’m not a person who cares much for plot twists, Card Shark feels like a game that needed much punchier ones than it has. While the story’s not the ultimate draw of a game like this, it’s a bit of a letdown that it left me feeling so unsatisfied, especially when I loved such tinier moments that dot its run.
Card Shark impresses even if it doesn’t stack the best hand against players. Grifting the French nobility is a remarkably fun pastime, but the tutorialization hampers what enjoyment I could get out of the late game. A lack of a compelling story hurt the time I spent with the game’s cast, even though I adore the game’s art and how much every scene leaves me wanting more. More time with the mechanics and a greater emphasis on the place and people of 1700s France could’ve helped Card Shark a great deal in my eyes, but I still admire it for what it is. I just think that much like the game’s countless tricks, the best possible execution of its ideas needed a bit more confidence.
Card Shark was developed by Nerial and published by Devolver Digital. Our review is based on the Switch version. It is also available for PC and Mac.
Moises Taveras is a former intern for Paste Magazine. He was that one kid who was really excited about Google+ and is still sad about how that turned out.