‘Card Shark’ review: cheat the rich in a unique indie with plenty of aces up its sleeve

The art of the deal

In card game Card Shark, the movement of a hand is everything. Your aim is to win at cards, but it’s not deciding what to play next that matters, it’s the tricks you employ between rounds to stack the odds in your favour. So often that comes down to little feats of manual dexterity – the extension of an index finger, the tilt of a wine bottle, the way you lay a card on the table or couch it in your palm. Card Shark zooms in on your devious digits, pulling you right into the thrill of the con.

The unwitting victims of your schemes are 18th-century French nobility. You play a young silent protagonist – literally mute – who’s taken under the wing of the Comte de Saint Germain, a mysterious aristocrat, adventurer and cheat. As his assistant and trainee, he’ll teach you a wealth of ploys and sleights of hand to help fleece the poshos. You practice his latest scam on the carriage ride to each target, then pull it off for real, surrounded by heaving chandeliers, chirpy violins, and ladies with gowns so billowing they could conceal a roulette wheel, never mind a pack of cards.

To begin with, you don’t get a seat at the table, but act as a servant pouring wine for the patrons – a perfect opportunity to peer over their shoulders, then signal to the Comte what you’ve seen. Soon, though, you’ll learn many underhand ways to shuffle, cut or deal a deck, mark cards, or even introduce a carefully arranged substitute pack to proceedings. As your reputation grows, the Comte’s plans become more elaborate, until you’re turning up to a game in drag, using the mirror in your compact for nefarious ends. Whatever the ruse, as long as you play your role correctly, the Comte will win the hand.

Card Shark. Credit: Neriel.
Card Shark. Credit: Neriel.

The impressive variety of schemes in Card Shark is complemented by a control system that neatly adapts to their demands. You might need to memorise sequences of inputs for shuffling, or signals such as holding up a number of fingers, while other schemes might require some logical thinking to make sure high cards land in the right hands, or a little skill and rhythm action timing so you don’t fumble your cues. Even something as simple as pouring wine involves finessing the analogue stick to keep the bottle steady, giving you time to note your victim’s strongest suit before the glass overflows.

Also, what often feels straightforward in the safe space of the carriage becomes a different prospect when you have to execute it swiftly under the glare of a sceptical general. In live play, whenever you attempt anything surreptitious, a suspicion bar at the bottom of the screen starts to fill, and if you want to get away clean (and unlock new stages) you need to win three times before it’s complete. That doesn’t leave much margin for clumsiness, and sometimes it’s prudent to bail before the final game and return another time.

This injection of pressure is essential, however, to evoke a sense of daring, as if you’re plucking the purse from someone’s pocket while they’re staring you in the face. Under the Comte’s tutelage, you really feel like you’re the apprentice of a master of deceit. Practice does make perfect, and once you start connecting the beats of a routine, then mixing elements of old tricks into new strategies, it’s like you’ve been granted a secret superpower.

Card Shark. Credit: Neriel.
Card Shark. Credit: Neriel.

At the same time, the coins in your hand feel precious, as you lay them on the line, knowing the result rests not on luck, but on the sharpness of your hands, eyes and mind. Lose and you’re booted back to the world map, perhaps needing to scrape together new funds in street games before trying again. Similarly tense are occasions when a plot twist throws a spanner in the works (some targets aren’t as gullible as they seem), and you have a brief window to slip a spare deck in a rival’s pocket or toss an ace onto their chair to reroute suspicion. You might even end up forced into a fencing duel. Card Shark keeps you on your toes as well as on the edge of your seat.

More than that, though, this is one of those preciously rare games where your actions as a player mesh beautifully with the experience of your character and the timbre of the story. And events off the table are often as absorbing as those on it, thanks to a delightfully satirical depiction of French high society, brought to life in colourfully cartoonish rococo landscapes.

The Comte, you see, isn’t merely on a get rich quick scheme; he’s chasing some potentially ruinous gossip concerning the palace. In pursuit of the truth, your journey takes you to ever grander halls, and as the stakes get bigger, so do the wigs. Sitting with elites around a card table is the prime opportunity to pump them for information, as long as you can stay in the game long enough to prise out the juicy morsels.

Card Shark. Credit: Neriel.
Card Shark. Credit: Neriel.

The intrigue is made all the spicier thanks to the insertion of real historical figures into Card Shark’s tangled web, such as Voltaire, John Law, and Casanova. There are no pretensions to accuracy here, however; instead the script has fun sending up the pomposity or fecklessness of such gentilshommes, each representing another facet of a decadent caste stumbling towards revolution. Nothing illustrates their plight as much as the card games themselves, as they gamble almost out of boredom, unable to grasp that they might do something productive with their cash. (Nor should it take a learned scholar to find parallels with the present.)

Meanwhile, the Comte – himself based on a real-life philosopher and alchemist – is the ideal guide to this decline. He’s evasive and notoriously unreliable, yet may still have a noble cause at heart. Certainly he’s a liberated soul who takes pleasure in relieving the preening peacocks of their unearned fortunes, and uses his airs and graces to thinly disguise his amused contempt. “Dramatic and incontinent to the end,” he remarks after one aging opponent decides to take his own life.

Equally important is the view of the pauper protagonist – eventually christened ‘Eugene’ by the Comte – which registers the absurdity of the upper echelons. When one opponent applauds you for cheating him, as if you’d demonstrated a magic trick, Eugene later notes in his diary, “You must have to be very clever to enjoy being made to feel stupid.” And clear throughout is that the Comte’s mission to transform Eugene into a gentleman as well as a cheat go hand in hand – only a scoundrel could survive in such ‘honourable’ company.

The card table, then, is an extension of this reality, as Card Shark pulls its script, aesthetic and controls together in harmony. The only sore thumb sticking out from the concoction is that when you do make a mistake, there’s no quick restart, and it can take too long to reattempt a botched match. But that’s far from a deal-breaker in such a highly accomplished and original game. Everything else, like the deck in your palm, has been expertly stacked to ensure a winning hand.

Card Shark launches on Nintendo Switch and PC on June 2. This reviewed was played on Nintendo Switch.

The Verdict

Card Shark blends its ingredients together with a  confidence that befits the Comte de Saint Germain himself. Its story has satirical bite, while its colours exude artistry and gross flamboyance. The card games, meanwhile, are exciting, humorous and highly varied, with a level of pressure that ensures you can’t drop your focus. A full house.

Pros

  • Fantastic cast of characters and a witty script
  • A surprisingly large and varied array of techniques to master
  • Precise controls that complement the action
  • A painterly visual style and music that evokes 18th century France

Cons

  • Retrying a stage after a mistake can take too long
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