If Devolver Digital published the best card game last year with Daniel Mullins’ Inscryption, they are currently on track to publish the best game about cards with Card Shark. It might be all about the theatricality and trickery used by scammers and tricksters, but the game has never let you actively play cards, nor does it make clear what game is being played. It instead spotlights both the art of etching and the satirical tale of a dumb bar-back who gets swept up in a black comic web of royal intrigue during the Age of Enlightenment in 18th-century France.
As an adventure game, Uncharted constantly rewrote history with a fantastic retelling of events. Although it’s not Sir Francis Drake on this occasion, King Henry VIII is embroiled in controversy during Card Shark’s absurd dramatization. The story of Card Shark unravels like a mystery from time to time, with lies and secrets unveiled by the various acts. The twists and turns are satisfying, and the game has a very bad sense of humor. I think the story it tells and its ideas could easily be translated to other time periods and environments, such as the seedy underbelly of Las Vegas, an idea that emerged during pre-production.
The whole of Card Shark is inspired by the manipulation and obfuscation associated with card magic tricks. Under the watchful eye of Comte de Saint-Germain, another of history’s slightly crooked miscreants, you’ll inherit a war chest full of tricks to blast your way into both money and untold secrets. Whether taking an over-the-shoulder look at the cards from the Comte’s mark and wiping the table counterclockwise, or playing the dealer role in Card Shark’s hodgepodge unobtrusive deck just to stacking with some shady shuffles, all the trickery you’re taught is based on real-world techniques.
The developers have done a great job of not only turning these tricks into fun, exciting mini-games that will test your memory and reflexes, but they’ve also made them more and more complex to really give the player a sense of progression and expertise. † It also helps to play a part in some incredibly tense scenes where Comte’s mark becomes more and more suspicious as you “swap wine bottles” in the dry store. The speed at which your target engages in your antics will depend on the difficulty you play at, but the game beautifully balances the pulsating tension of executing these lies under your mark’s nose, as the Count mutters red herrings and other fanciful deceptions .
I ran into a few occasions where the game would softly lock in the middle of a cutscene, process the exchange of coins as if the hand was over, but then leave everyone at the table forever. One instance was groundbreaking and forced a full reboot, and while they patched this for the PC version, I don’t believe there’s a fix for the Switch version yet.
In addition to these mini-games dressed up as rogue trades, Card Shark plays almost like a classic point-and-click adventure. With its lavish clothes, powder wigs and sense of humor, it’s hard not even to make comparisons to the Monkey Island games, though Card Shark’s oil-painted aesthetic is clearly a far cry from the pixel art look of yesteryear. Like a lick of vibrant color across the screen, Card Shark’s roaming group of crooks and the France they call home are all beautifully realized. It’s like someone has framed a play, thanks to the theatrical setting in which Card Shark’s set pieces, acts and plot unfold.
Like the rest of the game’s tone, Card Shark’s orchestral score is a jovial journey back in time that, more often than not, truly captures the doom and quirkiness of the hero’s journey. While no voice is played, which is a shame given the great writing style of the game, I think Andrea Boccadoro’s arrangement more than fills the space between the hands.
There is so much to love about Card Shark. The setting and heat of the moment tend to challenge the player more than the mechanics themselves, and the delightfully warped view of French society and its willingness to succumb to the seemingly supernatural performing art of card tricks serves as a memorable launch pad. for what will be one of the indie darlings of the year.
Card Shark is out tomorrow on Nintendo Switch and PC.
Card Shark manages to make wild bets within his wonderfully strange take on 18th-century France. It serves up a memorable cast, a story that fantastically rewrites history, while arming the player with tricks of the trade that would make Penn and Teller blush. For a game that’s more about playing your opponent than your cards, Card Shark is an unforgettable adventure.
A twisted look at 18th-century France
Extremely enjoyable arsenal of tricks
Beautiful oil painting aesthetics
Soft-locking dramas on Switch
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