Card Shark

More info »

Card Shark review
Jordan Helsley


A classical story with deceptively deep mini-games

Risking it all

Eighteenth-century France was not known as a period of prosperity for its lower class. Less so for those who are, let’s say, humble, timid, and mute. It may have been the Age of Enlightenment, but the class system was very much intact. As an unnamed servant/son with this oddly-specific affliction, you’re given a unique opportunity to climb out of the cellar when your mistress dies unexpectedly and the mysterious Comte de Saint-Germaine seizes the opportunity to take you under his wing. The catch? No success comes without risk. The cost of failure is imprisonment or death. But success, you will learn, could change France, if not the entire world.

The Comte (the count, for you English speakers) deals, as the entirety of Card Shark does, in deception. Tricks and magic are the tools he and his cohorts use to gain information, power, and fortune. He plans to use you, in a variety of ways, at and around card tables to gain an advantage over his opponents, many of whom are unsuspecting, several of whom know the Comte as a liar and a cheat. It is his reputation that makes a few of the several-dozen tricks you’ll come to learn as baffling as the actual game at hand. Luckily, Card Shark is not an actual card game, because the rules of the game(s) at the tables seem to fluctuate based on which trick you’re attempting to pull off. This only becomes a concern when, towards the end of the game, the gameplay and the story start to severely separate. Until then, you’re a pawn in this high-society game, to the point where your main character might as well be the Comte himself.

Starting out

When you set out on your journey, you know little more than "spy on the other players' cards when you pour their wine." This initial mechanic employs timing and multitasking in a way that I felt was quite clever from the outset. Things then escalate steadily after completing each three-round card game as the Comte teaches you new skills. In the carriage on the road to your next destination the two of you will sit down and your tutorial will commence. On the side, there is a decently interesting story about the player character learning to write in a journal. Reading his thoughts verbatim, since he does not speak, is a nice touch as you follow the story.

The mainline ramp of your skills is satisfying enough to keep the difficulty at bay for the most part. You begin to graduate from spying to more appropriate sleight-of-hand tricks and beyond, all represented in-game as mostly mini-game interactions, and a few QTEs. The more difficult the deception, the more difficult the series of inputs and memory tests you'll need to overcome. There's an element of virtual plate spinning that is very rewarding when each aspect clicks into place to ensure your victory at the table. Performing these actions poorly causes a suspicion meter to rise, as your opponents are often seasoned players who don’t appreciate being cheated out of their coins. The suspension of disbelief starts to break down when you're told to revert to more juvenile tricks, against more suspicious players, such as peeking at a card's reflection as you deal. It's more disappointing considering many of the actual tricks are real-world accurate. Tricks such as bottom dealing and false shuffles make an appearance and should delight rookie card magicians while possibly creating new ones. There is a relatively high level of variety within the mechanics though, and you'll definitely find your expectations subverted a time or two. Even simple side games, that appear as simple achievement hooks/breaks in the mental gymnastics come into play in larger ways. These moments stand to prove that there are more than a few ways to win this game. Make no mistake, your skills will grow, so maybe the levity of the simple stuff is a necessary break. But like real card magic, the game excels when skill is employed, not the cheap gimmicks.

A story of intrigue and deception

It may be coincidental, but when I started to feel the tricks were becoming a bit too repetitive, the story became more interesting. What starts out appearing like a money-making operation run by a trickster transforms into questions about the monarchy as the greater plan comes into focus. Side conversations about the class system, politics, religion, grief, and relationships serve to layer the narrative further. Along the way, you’ll meet a cast of characters that become memorable in a short time and who are, to different degrees, integral to the plot. But deception is the theme here, and as such the true motives and even identities of several characters trickle out as you play. The drip-feed was satisfying enough to sustain the lulls in gameplay and eventually overtook it when the difficulty really spiked towards the end. It was a combination of the game's required tasks and my lack of a mathematical brain that lead me to lower the difficulty in-game. This allows the player, after engaging with surprisingly cool death and failure mechanics, to skip failed tricks to advance the story. This was integral to bypassing some concepts I simply could not grasp, up to the end of the game, at which point the story comes together in a satisfying way. It certainly won't be remembered as a revelation, but it allowed me the opportunity to make the time I spent with the game even more worth it.

All of this is wrapped in a presentation that feels just about perfect. The visuals pull off a style that looks ripped straight out of French paintings of the era. Backgrounds and settings are complex enough to draw your eye but don’t overshadow the 2D, puppet-like characters and animations. At the zoomed-out level, because the game lacks voice acting, the puppetry on display effectively conveys emotion, action, and even a few visual gags. The character portraits are likewise well crafted to show emotion that would normally be present in voice acting, which the game lacks entirely. These elements remain in the foreground of classical music that adequately matches the tone of the different card houses, which are as varied as they are fun to discover. At the table level, hand-drawn hands and cards are simple but effective. Animations combine with subtle but satisfying foley, such as the clinking of coins and shuffling of cards. The art here feels harmonious, not only with its other elements but also with the gameplay.

Plenty of tricks up its sleeve

Card Shark is not going to change the video game landscape, but it has enough tricks up its sleeve to compete in the indie space. The whole package feels fully realized, even if it doesn’t hit on every one of its mechanical gambles. Most importantly for a game centred around mini-games, though, it doesn't overstay its welcome. Enough time is spent on individual tricks, with optional extra time if you need it, and the game as a whole seems to wrap up just in time. Some of the later tricks end up being a bit derivative of earlier examples, but most have enough wrinkles to keep them fresh. And just after you run into one of the worst tricks in the game, they hit you with the absolute best. It has the ups and downs of a real, on-the-level card game. Developer Nerial have done their best to stack the deck for an ace and came away with a jack or a queen.

As always, follow us on Instagram for news updates, reviews, competitions and more.


fun score


Unique gameplay, satisfying length


Some mechanics too derivative, back-half gameplay becomes repetitive