Card Shark – that’s a suspiciously good hand (pic: Devolver Digital)
A card game simulator set in 18th century France is not a common premise for a video game, but it does prove a surprisingly successful one.
Sometimes it feels like indie developers purposefully pick the least promising concept possible to base their games on, but if that’s what it takes to make something new and interesting then so be it. On the face of it, Card Shark has a perfectly mundane premise, that of a card game simulator. That’s not the sort of thing we’d normally cover for review, but these are card games that take place in 18th century France, where you play a stinking cheat trying to con their way into the upper echelons of French society.
That sounds like a perfectly reasonable concept for a movie but in terms of video games… well, it’s not as if it has to worry about anything else having the same premise. Gambling is a big part of the game, but you never actually play a normal game of cards yourself and rather than being a literal card game simulator the whole thrust of the gameplay and narrative is about cheating.
You start out as a mute servant boy, who finds his way into the service of the Comte de Saint-Germain, a real-life historical figure who helps improve your prospects and sets your ambitions to one day playing at the king’s table.
Rather than assuring you that you don’t have to know anything about cards to enjoy the game it’s probably more pertinent to say that if you do know anything about them that isn’t going to help. And not just because, at this point, Texas hold ‘em was still a couple of centuries away from existing.
Rather than the rules of contemporary card games, the skills you have to perfect are those of the professional conman. The game has over 20 different tricks for you to get the hang of, many of which have complicated timings and controls that must be pulled off correctly, like a cross between a QTE and a WairoWare microgame. Some are for your personal benefit, as you scam fellow players, and others are to aid the Comte and ensure he wins.
In some cases, it’s obvious which tricks have to be used, such as when you’re trying to pull off a con clearly outlined by the narrative, but other times you’re left to make your own choices on how best to pull the wool over other people’s eyes.
Although the game is narrative based, with lots of whimsically animated cut scenes, the gameplay is not a triviality, despite its mechanical simplicity. When we say you have to learn the tricks, we mean it. The game treats them almost like fighting game moves, with lots of opportunities to practice at your leisure, which you are strongly advised to take.
Since there are so many, the sheer number of different controls and button presses can be daunting, and it’s surprising how little guidance the game is willing to give you at times. That feels necessarily though, given how the satisfaction comes from successfully pulling off a con without anyone realising. Something which is carefully tracked by a meter that indicates how suspicious everyone is getting.
Although it does come up, having an ace up your sleeve is the least of you tricks, which involve various sleights of hand and distractions like pouring drinks at just the right moment. Often you have to do this while remembering what cards another player has, which given the tricks have to be pulled off within a small window of time really piles on the pressure.
Card Shark – misdirection is your greatest tool (pic: Devolver Digital)
Exactly why you’re playing a game can vary greatly, from simply trying to earn enough money for a bigger game elsewhere, to showing off your skills to some toffs or cheesing your way out of a hostage situation by delaying your captors with a quick game of chance.
The storytelling doesn’t spend too long away from the card table but there’s more than enough plot and characterisation to keep you invested in what’s going on, even if you’ve no knowledge of the time period. The script is well written and sharply funny, and enchanced by the clever presentation that makes good use of its obviously low budget, with neat visual tricks like a split screen display during certain tricks.
However, the most successful element of the game is the tension. Some will consider the wide range of different tricks confusing but they’re necessary to create that tension, as you worry whether you can remember how a trick works and try to determine when the best moment is to pull it off.
More: Games news
It’s a narrow tightrope but the game rarely loses its balance. It is frustrating when you lose merely because you’ve forgotten what button presses to use, or because you missed a visual clue that was only on screen for a second, but the game still isn’t particularly difficult, it’s just testing a relatively unusual collection of skills.
The concept may be peculiar but that’s all part of the charm in a game that achieves almost everything it sets out to do. It’s clever, witty, and well presented despite the low-tech graphics. 18th century conman simulators are unlikely to become a new sub-genre, but that novelty is half the point and proves that any subject matter can be transformed into an enjoyable video game if you have a developer with enough talent and vision to pull it off.
Card Shark review summary
In Short: A wonderfully unique historical adventure whose seemingly simple gameplay is made wonderfully tense by artful presentation and a sharp script.
Pros: A clever idea well presented, with a surprisingly successful sense of time and place, and gameplay that turns normal card game sims on their head. Great visuals and writing.
Cons: Some of the tricks are hard to remember and there’s not always enough clues to know when to make your move.
Formats: Nintendo Switch (reviewed) and PC
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Release Date: 2nd June 2022
Age Rating: 12
For more stories like this, check our Gaming page.