Novel concepts are worth their weight in gold, and Card Shark comes out swinging with an idea you’re unlikely to have encountered before. Set in 18th century France, players take on the role of a destitute and mute drink server who is lifted into high society by a puffed-up card cheat. Along the path to riches, a deep conspiracy is uncovered, touching the lives of everyone in upper-class society, and playing out in backroom parlors, Corsican pirate dens, and royal palaces. It’s a clever and appealing setup, but it can only carry the game so far. With gameplay that feels like a chore from beginning to end, I was eager for this card game to reach its final round.
While early glimpses might suggest this is a game about playing poker or some other familiar game, the card-playing itself is only background. Instead, Card Shark is about jumping from one sleight-of-hand trick or con to the next, fleecing wealthy opponents out of their money, and slipping away before they get wise. You’re not actually playing out the hands and choosing to cheat or not; it’s all about pulling off the ruse, or failing and getting caught.
You gradually learn new tricks and strategies from your mentor, a figure based on the real-life eccentric named Comte de St. Germain. More than two dozen of these tricks come into your repertoire throughout the game, each introduced in the minutes before you’ll need to deploy the trick to cheat your opponents. Unfortunately, almost without exception, I found the various ploys frustrating, tedious, and sometimes difficult to comprehend. These gameplay sequences usually amount to some variation of old-school quick-time events. You must remember a series of controller inputs, time your button presses, and quickly react to onscreen prompts to fool your hapless fellow players.
That means that nearly the entire game is a tutorial, often teaching specific instructions that you’re likely to forget within minutes. The tutorials themselves can be exceedingly infuriating in their own right, as specific strategies are often poorly explained, and you must repeat exacting inputs without mistake before the story progresses.
You might have a trick where you need to mark the cards with a splotch of make-up. Another demands you shuffle high cards into a specific order in the deck. A third might require a glance at an opponent’s card suits while pouring their wine. I could sense the gleeful fantasy of deceit and high-stakes encounters during fleeting moments. But the need for rapid button presses and attention to timing did what QTEs have always done (and likely why they’ve gone out of style): take me out of the experience.
Card Shark layers in another element that undoubtedly aims to invoke excitement in the player, but for me, it only resulted in tension and a lack of desire to invest in the experience. Save game states are applied automatically at every step of an encounter, from gains or losses in your monetary fortunes to death itself. Upon dying, you can “cheat” death or choose to give up your soul and have your save game erased. But none of it ever really matters. A personified “Death” always eventually sends you back, finally tiring of your arrivals and granting another shot at life because they’re weary of seeing you. Fortunes amassed (or not) seem to have little to no impact on the story itself. To paraphrase a well-known show, everything is made up, and the points don’t matter.
Upon repeated failures of a story-essential card game cheating sequence, the game eventually asks if you’d like to skip the strategy and see the story play out. Especially in later multi-step affairs, it became a welcome relief to have the choice, so I’m glad that option exists. But it’s problematic that the gameplay is frustrating enough to warrant such a need in the first place.
Card Shark features an attractive art style, subtle writing, and a promising premise. But I couldn’t get past my dislike of the core gameplay encounters and the endless teaching segments. I applaud the effort to pull together a unique concept, but the accompanying frustrations mean I have to discourage a sit-down at this particular table.
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