Card games as a genre of video game are one thing, there have been countless additional ways to play Poker, Solitaire, Uno, YuGiOh, and Magic: The Gathering. While these might be a popular genre of game, especially given the recent prevalence of games like Hearthstone and Legends of Runeterra, there is rarely any deviation from the formula of playing by the rules. Card Shark is the exception, and by quite a long shot. With the main goal of the game to trick French aristocracy into emptying their purses through various card game tricks, there is much less “playing”, but still a lot of thought in the gameplay loop.
The first observation anyone can make about Card Shark is the very distinct art style that the game is based in. Environments look beautifully painted and styled in a way similar to paintings of the 18th century, but with a playful uptick in saturation that never fails to entertain the eye. This distinguishing factor makes every environment and character incredibly interesting to look at, and each area feels distinct and very new compared to the last. Whether it be a carriage in the middle of nowhere or the ritzy nightlife scene the upper class is used to, there is an incredible amount of detail put into every area. The animations are incredibly fitting for this type of stylization as well. The puppet-esque way each character moves makes Card Shark feel like an interactive storybook with incredible artistic cohesion, and this allows the player to more easily get lost in both the story and the characters. While the style might not appeal to some fans of more hyper-realistic games, the execution of the style alone is enough for Card Shark to be lauded. This is all even before talking about the gameplay, which itself is an incredibly interesting execution of luck, player choice, and card games.
Interestingly, the main gameplay loop and story of Card Shark revolve around cheating at the card games. Whether it be small time cheating like palming a card or something more intricate like swapping out decks, the goal of the game is to win money from aristocrats who can’t identify cheating even if it was happening in front of them. Beginning the game as a servant, the protagonist is completely mute and at the whim of his caretaker, who is shown to be both physically and verbally abusive. Enter Comte de Saint Germain (Saint Germain), looking to play a game of cards for some coin in the caretaker’s establishment. As the game begins, Saint Germain enlists the protagonist’s help with some minor cheating, signaling what cards are in the opponent’s hand. This is only one of many escapades and tricks Saint Germain teaches you through the course of the game, and the tricks only get more complex. As the game progresses, Saint Germain takes a liking to the protagonist and serves as a mentor for both cheating and literacy, as the protagonist is also illiterate as the game begins. What’s incredibly unique about Card Shark is the requirement to actually memorize the cheating methods before going into a game, lest you be found out and captured. Each game of cards focuses on one or two tricks, especially at the beginning to keep things simple. Once memorized, you can choose how much money to bet, and begin the game. There is a suspicion meter at the bottom of the screen that increases with every mistake or overly confident action the player takes, including placing a large bet. If the meter fills up to the maximum, the police are called and it’s game over. The main things that tick away at this meter are messing up integral parts of the cheat, like over or under pouring wine while decks are swapped in your pocket, or failing to remove duplicate cards after a deck swap. The way the suspicion meter constantly ticks up as the player needs to speed scan a deck for cards of certain suits as well as make sure they’re placed in order is not only an incredible way of creating tension, but keeps the stakes high even in the earlier games. The way Card Shark creates tension by using a combination of complicated tricks and the suspicion meter is genius, even on simpler difficulties.
As a complete departure from what is expected of card games, Card Shark creates a beautiful and story rich world with compelling gameplay features that would have even those with good memory stumped at times. The systems present in the game feel unique to the point where learning new tricks constantly feels like a breath of fresh air, and at times might have the player contemplating pulling similar tricks off in real life. The main issue that can be stated is how niche of a game it is and how the accessibility drops after putting it down for an extended period of time, but with the practice opportunities the game offers before each match this is remedied considerably. Card Shark is an incredibly fun departure from what is expected from normal games, and I hope developers look to toy more with what can be intertwined as both gameplay mechanics and central story points.
Score: 9 out of 10
Reviewed on Nintendo Switch