If Devolver Digital published the single-best card game last year with Daniel Mullins’ Inscryption, they’re currently on track to publish the single-best game about cards with Card Shark. It might be entirely about the theatricality and deception leveraged by con-men and tricksters, but the game never once has you actively play cards, nor does it clarify what game is being played. It instead places a spotlight on both the art of grifting while telling a satirical tale of a mute bar-back who gets swept up in a black comedic web of royal intrigue during the Age of Enlightenment in 18th century France.
As an adventure game, Uncharted constantly overwrote history with a fantastical retelling of the events. While it isn’t Sir Francis Drake on this occasion, King Henry VIII finds himself embroiled in controversy throughout Card Shark’s absurd dramatisation. Card Shark’s story unravels like a period mystery, with lies and secrets unspooling throughout its several acts. The twists and turns are satisfying, and the game does have a very wicked sense of humour. I think the story it tells and its ideas would easily translate to other periods and settings, such as Las Vegas’ seedy underbelly which was an idea kicked about during pre-production.
The whole of Card Shark is inspired by the manipulation and obfuscation that comes with sleight of hand card trickery. Under the watchful eye of Comte de Saint-Germain, another of history’s slightly-skewed miscreants, you’ll inherit a war chest of tricks to cheat your way to both money and untold secrets. Whether it’s copping an over-the-shoulder glance of the Comte’s mark’s cards and wiping the table down in a counter-clockwise fashion, or playing the role of dealer in Card Shark’s mishmash nondescript card game only to stack the deck with a number of shady shuffles, all of the deceptions taught to you are based on real-world techniques.
The developers have done a wonderful job of not only transforming these tricks into fun, tense mini-games that’ll test your memory and reflexes, but they’ve also made them progressively complex to really give a sense of progression and expertise to the player. It also helps establish stakes in some incredibly tense scenes where Comte’s mark grows increasingly suspicious as you “exchange wine bottles” in the dry store. The speed at which your target cottons on to your antics will depend on the difficulty you’re playing on, but the game balances beautifully the pulsating tension of performing these feats of falsity beneath your mark’s nose while the Comte mutters red herrings and other fanciful misdirections.
I did run into a few occasions where the game would soft-lock in the middle of a cut-scene, process the exchange of coins as though the hand was over but then keep everyone sat at the table in perpetuity. One instance was game-breaking and forced a complete restart, and although they’ve patched this for the PC version, I don’t believe a fix has arrived for the Switch version yet.
Beyond these mini-games dressed up as deceitful dealings, Card Shark almost plays like a classic point-and-click adventure. In fact, with the lavish garments, powder wigs and sense of humour, it’s hard not to draw comparisons to the Monkey Island games, although Card Shark’s oil-painted aesthetic is clearly a far cry from the pixel-art look of yore. Like a slick of vibrant colour across the screen, Card Shark’s roaming band of con-artists and the France they call home are all realised gorgeously. It’s like someone framed a stage play, courtesy of the theatrical way that Card Shark’s set pieces, acts, and plot play out.
Like the remainder of the game’s tone, Card Shark’s orchestral score is a jovial trip back in time that, more often than not, really captures the mischief and whimsy of the hero’s journey. Although there’s no voice performance, which is a shame given the game’s tremendous writing, I think the arrangement from Andrea Boccadoro more than fills the spaces between hands.
There’s so much to adore about Card Shark. The setting and heat of the moment tends to challenge the player more than the mechanics themselves do, and the delightfully twisted take on French society and its willingness to succumb to the seemingly supernatural performance art of card trickery serves as a memorable launching pad for what will be one of the indie darlings of the year.
Card Shark is out on Nintendo Switch and PC tomorrow.
Card Shark succeeds at establishing wild stakes within its wonderfully weird take on 18th century France. It serves up a memorable cast, a story that rewrites history in a fantastical way, all the while arming the player with tricks of the trade that’d make Penn and Teller blush. For a game that’s more about playing your opponent than your cards, Card Shark is a memorable adventure.