A turbulent tale of poverty and strife told through the medium of an 18th Century French card game, Card Shark perfectly blends together tradition, humor, and good ol’ fashioned swindling to create a weird and wonderful adventure quite unlike any other.
Set amid the grimy streets of a pre-Revolution France, Card Shark immediately piqued my interest. In a game that champions cheating, players are thrust into a world that’s both somewhat familiar yet entirely foreign, characterized by its historical art style and laugh-out-loud humor.
Your character is a mute who is rendered unemployed as a result of a card dispute gone wrong. Thrust even further into poverty, he throws in his lot with a group of travelers who make their living swindling the aristocracy for all they’re worth.
Told through the guise of a 2D adventure whose animation style looks like it has been torn from one of history’s finest texts, Nerial has created something truly special with Card Shark that makes you want to dive back in over and over again – just make sure you don’t lose your head.
Card Shark: Key details
- Price: £16.79 / $16.99
- Developer: Nerial
- Release Date: June 2, 2022
- Platforms: Switch / PC
Card Shark: Trailer
Storytelling at its finest
When you load up Card Shark for the first time, you’re greeted with an ominous message advising you “my dear player, it is with the utmost diligence that I must warn you against the hazards of this game. It will teach you secrets that will turn you as easily into a beggar as into a king.”
From the very onset you’re hooked; after all, who doesn’t love the thrill of doing something you’re being told not to do, right? Card Shark leads you into its woeful world with a carrot on a stick, perfectly balancing drama with gameplay intervals to create tension.
This is made even more authentic by the game’s art style. Designed to look like period sketches on once fine paper that has yellowed with age, you feel like you’re playing a piece of living history – or that you’ve stolen a priceless art piece.
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As each card game progresses you feel yourself transforming into a master criminal, stealing away riches in a manner reminiscent of Robin Hood and lining your own pockets. You walk away feeling like you’ve won the lottery, grinning from ear to ear just as your character does in-game.
Card Shark uses the allure of risk and the thrill of potentially getting caught out to reel you back in even if things start to go sour. It’s storytelling at its finest, breathing new life into a genre that often feels completely one-dimensional.
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Cheaters never prosper (kind of)
Despite its simplistic (but absolutely gorgeous) hand-drawn 2D animations, Card Shark is not an easy game to master. Straight off the bat you’re hit with swathes of memory puzzles, card tricks, and cheating techniques that will blow your mind (and probably ruin any magic shows you go to in the future).
When you first cross paths with the mysterious Comte de Saint-Germain (a real-life figure who earned the title of ‘The Wonderman’ courtesy of French philosopher, Voltaire) you’re given a list of instructions to help him win his game. You have to scrub the table in the correct sequence to tell him what cards his victim holds so that he can empty their pockets. Remembering each motion isn’t as easy as you’d think, and you’ll probably end up making a few mistakes – especially if your memory is as bad as mine.
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From here you progress to the Romani camp, where you’ll start to add even more scams to your arsenal to take out into the world and use to cause chaos. The games are fun, and test your knowledge and ability to listen without ever feeling too punishing. You’ll lose money, yes, but there are hints in the text to help you climb back up the ladder. Additionally, when you learn a trick, you can keep practicing it to your heart’s content, allowing you to perfect and hone your deception techniques.
Sure, you’re cheating people out of their cash. Sure, it’s a morally grey area, but given they’ll lose their heads to the guillotine in a few years’ time, is it really all that bad?
Card Shark est vraiment magnifique, transforming the regimented style of the digital card games into something truly magical. Quirky, daring, and beautifully crafted, Nerial has created a one-of-a-kind masterpiece that would draw the ire of the Mona Lisa herself.
While we likely won’t see it in The Louvre anytime soon, this game is an absolute steal and is perfect for whiling away the hours in true period drama style – just don’t get too cocky, after all — history taught us how that’ll end.
Reviewed on Nintendo Switch