Card Shark Review
Devolver Digital’s bread and butter really involves titles that take a tried and tested premise and then subvert it to create a unique experience. We could see that in fantastic titles that hit the mark like Death’s Door and Trek to Yomi, but at times it doesn’t really land like with Weird West and Serious Sam 4.
Nonetheless, you know you’ll get something different every time, and Card Shark is definitely something else.
In Card Shark, you take the role of an astute mute server who, in a chance encounter with the Comte, finds himself joining a band of rogues who travel across France and swindle aristocrats in card games. The Comte schools you into a convincing grift and then when it’s game time, you attempt to take as much as you can from aristocrats provided they don’t get too suspicious and run you out of town or worse, shoot you where you sit.
With an intriguing premise, does the con last long enough to engage you or does it fall flat after a few rounds? Read on for more!
The Art of The Grift
After a lengthy but intriguing prologue, Card Shark has a simple game loop. You start off with a tutorial on how a particular grift would work, such as learning how to signal an opponent’s high cards or intentionally rigging the deck to turn the cards into your favor. Learning about the grift is definitely a lengthy but also an enjoyable part of the experience.
While there are 28 new tricks to learn throughout the course of your Card Shark journey, there are some variations of the same tricks to fool your opponents, and the learning curve can be quite steep. The margin of error when pulling off these cons is quite tight because of the elaborate tricks you learn on the fly as well as the punishing suspicion meter by your opponents.
In Card Shark, the basic tricks are quite easy to learn, but the moment they start combining cons, it can take a few practice rounds and some restarts to get them correct. You are taught the trick in its entirety, which makes practice rounds difficult.
However, as the game progresses, there’s no option to review the tricks you learned (besides the menu telling you what the trick is but not how to pull it off) and the game assumes you’ve already mastered them. This makes the first 4 hours of the game rather frustrating and repetitive as there are no options to practice in between your journey.
You have a base camp where you can donate money to the cause, but there’s no option in this location to review some of your tricks, which is a bizarre design choice as it is a safe space for the characters.
As you go through your con games, what you have going against you is the opponent’s suspicion meter, which rises and falls depending on convincingly you can pull the act. While losing rounds can be part of your strategy, making a glaring mistake will alert the opponent, which results in them becoming instantly accusatory. They can also call the authorities or take justice into their own hands, so you’ll always have to be wary.
Needs a manual save
Card Shark could really use a manual save option to save us some grief. Its autosave feature makes for a more exciting adventure, but also tightens the margin of error, making for quite a stressful session. As a single-player narrative adventure, there’s really no reason to make the game too difficult.
I’ve commented before that there are no options to review your tricks in the middle of your journey. This makes Card Shark even more frustrating when you enter events that you’re not ready for, requiring you to know all your past tricks and see the event to its completion.
From a user standpoint, it gets really tough to stay motivated to play Card Shark because of these arbitrary mechanics. Taking breaks in-between help, but also requires that you instantly pick up where you left off, knowing everything by heart. This gates progress as it leaves me to keep restarting until I can relearn the trick and get it correct.
Quit while you’re ahead
Otherwise, Card Shark is an aesthetically pleasing game that takes the design of classic playing cards and implements it into a fully functional narrative adventure. The dialogue is witty and there are some historical figures that make an appearance such as Voltaire.
I feel that Card Shark could’ve used some voice acting to elevate the experience as there is quite a bit of reading involved, and the performances could’ve pushed the entertainment factor a bit forward.
Otherwise, the narrative is decent, though it takes a back seat because of the learning process. With little practice and a lot of arbitrary busywork and restarting, you’ll eventually complete the 8-hour experience at the cost of it killing the momentum and enjoyment for the rest of the journey.
What We Liked:
- Unique visual style that takes inspiration from the art on face cards of a standard deck.
- Enjoyable atmosphere and plot as the characters cheat their way throughout 18th century France.
- Suspicion meter adds more challenge to the game.
What We Didn’t Like:
- A manual save would’ve been a helpful feature as so much of the game has no option of leaving a round you’re not prepared for.
- Lack of practice rounds requires you to memorize tricks on the fly and restart rounds a few times before you get it right.
- Tricks are only taught once and aren’t reviewed until you learn a variation, which can make starting the game difficult.
Verdict: Wait For It.
Card Shark is a rather unique game with an interesting premise, but I strongly suggest you try out the demo before committing. The aesthetic and narrative are entertaining enough, but require you to learn a rather tedious mini-game system whose costs outweigh the rewards.
There are a few strange design decisions that prevent the enjoyment of Card Shark, as a simple manual save could save us a lot of grief going through the journey. The tutorials are quite obtuse, but the early quests keep it easy that when it starts to combine variations of techniques, there’s no way to review old tricks to keep the momentum going.
This makes Card Shark a frustrating experience and something I would not recommend without trying it out to see if it gels with the player. This is a shame because its presentation and overall premise make for quite an interesting prospect.
*Card Shark was reviewed on a Nintendo Switch with a code provided by the publisher.