What is it? A card-based game about gambling and sleight-of-hand set in 17th century France.
Release date: June 2
Expect to pay: $20/£17
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Reviewed on: Ryzen 5 3600X, 32GB RAM, RTX 2070
Link: Official site
There are plenty of card games around at the moment. From Hearthstone to Inscryption, Slay the Spire to Monster Train, deck-building to set up lethal combinations is everywhere. But Card Shark is different. Card Shark is about cheating your opponents and being damn good at it.
It's set in the early 17th century, while Louis XV is on the throne, and you play a young mute boy on a whirlwind adventure, avoiding prison, cheating death (literally), and emptying the pockets of French nobles. After your soon-to-be teacher Comte de Saint-Germain enters the inn you're working in, your life changes forever. Suddenly you're on the run as the King's lackeys want your partner, and by extension you, dead. The Comte happens to be a very talented trickster and your job as his apprentice is to assist him in cheating, and learn some tactics of your own to survive.
Every new encounter requires a new card technique. These start out easy but become increasingly difficult to pull off and remember. You learn shuffling techniques, sleight of hand movements, and even some fencing tactics. Though you don't have too much influence over the plot, your brow is so deeply furrowed trying to remember how to single card shuffle then injog (when you put a card out of line to mark where it is in a pack) that the story beats come as breaths of fresh air between your studying.
Card Shark is the closest I've seen a game get to mimicking character actions with a gamepad. It's best played with a controller—in fact, it would be much harder with a keyboard. It's amazing on a controller because each trick you learn corresponds with your actions. Searching a card deck requires you flicking your thumb slowly to find the Aces you need. Tossing cards requires just the right amount of force and holding the thumbstick in exactly the right place. And getting these tricks right relies on your correct movements in a precise order in a small amount of time. As you practise you get better and more fluid, just as you would if you were practising these sleight-of-hand movements with a real deck of cards. It's an ingenious system and every trick is different.
A small downside is that Card Shark isn't a game you can spend a significant amount of time away from before coming back. Recalling exactly how to do a trick under relentless time pressure is difficult. There isn't much room for practice outside of the first time you learn each trick either. There are areas to earn a little cash in-between the main story, which allow you to try out tactics you've already learned, but the game limits your options to just three techniques each time. When there are 28 tricks to learn, you have to shuffle your own mind in an effort to get things right. Play it all as soon as you can, and your experience will be much better for it.
When playing, my desk became littered with notes and I'd suggest you keep a pen and paper handy unless you're used to storing lots of small fragments of information. The first trick you learn, The Bottle of Cahors, is simple enough. Look over a player's shoulder while pouring wine and count the most numerous card suit in their hand. Then clean the table in a pattern that signals to your partner that same suit. Easy, right? But by the time you're at The Indiscreet Thief, trick five of 28, you're stacking two decks together to favour your partner, having to make a note of which cards have been duplicated so you can extract them a few moments later. All while aware that raising suspicions by taking too much time might get you killed. It's nerve-racking in all the best ways.
You may also revisit tricks with improvements. The Bottle of Cahors becomes The Bottle of Bordeaux, where not only do you signal a suit to your partner but you signal the exact number of cards their opponent has. And then The Bottle of Bordeaux becomes The Bottle of Burgundy when you learn to lift a glass to signal if the card in a player's hand is a King, Queen, Jack, or Ace. Your knowledge expands at a staggering rate and you must keep up lest the gallows await.
Each trick has its own mechanics to master. Holding fingers up, injoging, raising and lowering, dog-earring or picking up cards from the left or from the right. Wiping tables, picking up wine glasses, or pouring the wine itself. There's a depth to every trick that requires genuine thought and a calm temperament, just like pulling off magic in reality. Even on the intended difficulty it's hard to get things right the first time in Card Shark. When The Comte offers you an opportunity to retry a demo you happily take it. Now that doesn't happen often in a game, does it?
Mechanically, Card Shark is glorious. Its visuals are charming and expressive, and its music is delightful. Though the story is about the struggling success of a young boy in an unforgiving world, the characters made me laugh and even surprised me. When using all your techniques to leverage information out of the rich you feel powerful, yet there are times where it doesn't feel right even if it's necessary. Card Shark is a delight. It's a card game like no other and as someone who never could do any magic tricks, now I feel enlightened as to how trickery could be afoot with just the smallest flex of a finger.