By Joel DeWitte
Card shark grabbed my eyes the moment trailers started popping up. The concept of grifting the well-to-do by pulling off sleight of hand tricks in a game of cards is so novel (or at least, I haven’t seen it). It’s the most visually arresting game I’ve played all year. Each layer of the spaces and settings look as if it was painted on, brush stroke textures included. There’s a warmth throughout that breathes life into the locales and marionette characters. The classical music pieces are string instrument heavy and tonally appropriate with the story beats they accompany.
You play a mute bar waiter suddenly thrust into unemployment when a foul card game ends in gunfire. Comte de Saint-Germain, a disgraced duke who has turned to card trickery takes you under his wing, educating you in the art of writing and a crooked deck cut . You’re whisked away to an encampment ran by Magician, leader who is there to teach a few tricks and ask for your philanthropy. What starts as a modest story of going town-to-town stealing coins from aristrocrats escalates into a curious adventure with twists and surprises that are better experienced yourself.
At its core, Card Shark’s gameplay is one of memorization, strategy, and knowing when to quit. Level select menu is a map of Western Europe with pin markers denoting separate levels. For nearly each level, Comte de Saint-Germain teaches you a grift to employ against your next unsuspecting victims during a carriage ride, with dialogue that’s cleverly humorous. Once you successfully complete the sequences that make up the trick, you’ll be granted a trick card of which there’s twenty-eight in total. Each trick does a great job of teaching you the fundamentals, and when it’s a variation on a trick you know, the logic is applied in a way that’s challenging but not insurmountable. When you arrive at the location, more often than not there’ll be a brief introduction of new characters and occasional subtext of your duo’s intentions – you’re seeking to extract information as much as coin.
Each game of cards includes a risk indicator – your primary opponent’s level of suspicion they’re being cheated. There is a gradual increase of danger as each hand is played that can see a sharp spike if making a mistake on the trick, or decreases if you lose that hand. With every wager, the amount that’s bet can also raise suspicion. Each level is a balancing act of how much money can be squeezed from the situation without being caught. If caught in the act, the most likely outcome is being tossed in prison, which can result in losing all your cash on-hand or if you’re lucky, an ally that helps plot your escape.
There is this fantastic tension and tug of war pacing of each level. Keeping the steps straight to cheat opponents starts simple and can become like a reflex at the start. Gradually the different actions become multi-stepped and more complex to where there’s all the more chances to botch a level. You might find yourself betting low and purposefully losing a hand here or there to drop suspicion, much less costly than the prison bail. In some losses, you’re killed and sent to death, who offers to give another chance if you beat him in a game of cards, pay all your money, or let him take a piece of your soul. You can even elect to give up, sending direct into a game over. If choosing to return to life, you end up back in the carriage on the way to the level as if waking up from a dream. It’s a neat way to elicit a consequential life system that suits Card Shark well.
In between story beats, you can revisit the encampment or do side hustles. At the encampment, the Magician acts as a Robin Hood of sorts, asking for a cut of the earnings to help operate and give to charitable causes. The request is always preempted by being told how much Comte de Saint-Germain intents on donating to the cause, which makes this funny wrinkle of feelings hurt if you donate too little or too much, accompanied with either of you having a grimace on the screen. The Magician is willing to offer some money to get you back up off your feet if a bad run or two leaves you penniless. Alternatively, there’s a recurring level you can play which lets you fleece a trio of dunces for a quick buck.
Card Shark features a delightful gameplay mixture of strategy, memorization, and risk taking that gives you a sense of control, no matter how limited. The tonal consistency of the 18th century music and backdrops created a great table setting to the game, and the world is beautifully painted and animated. The clever writing and character development will keep you invested in the story in spite of it being told through very small snippets of dialogue. If the trailers or demo of Card Shark caught your eyes, then take the next step and grab that deck of cards.