The novel concepts are worth their weight in gold, and the card shark comes out swinging with an idea you’re unlikely to encounter before. Set in 18th century France, players take on the role of a destitute and silent beverage server who is raised into high society by a bloated card cheat. Along the path to wealth, a deep conspiracy is uncovered, which touches the lives of everyone in upper-class society, and plays out in backroom parlors, Corsican pirate dens, and royal palaces. It’s a clever and attractive setup, but it can only take the game so far. With gameplay that feels like a chore from start to finish, I was eager for this card game to reach its final rounds.
While early glimpses may suggest that this is a game about playing poker or some other familiar game, playing cards is only background in itself. Instead, Card Shark is about jumping from one hand move or trick to the other, knocking wealthy opponents out of their money, and slipping away before the wise can. You are not actually playing a hand and want to cheat or not; It’s all about removing the trickery, or failing and getting caught.
You slowly learn new tricks and strategies from your mentor, based on the real-life whimsical Comte de Saint-Germain. More than two dozen of these tricks pop up in your repertoire throughout the game, each introduced in minutes before you’ll need to deploy moves to deceive your opponents. Unfortunately, almost without exception, I found the various tricks frustrating, tedious, and sometimes difficult to understand. These gameplay sequences usually equate to some variation of old-school quick-time events. You controller must memorize a series of inputs when your button is pressed, and react quickly to onscreen prompts to fool your hapless fellow players.
This means that almost the entire game is a tutorial, often teaching specific instructions that you can forget within minutes. The tutorials themselves can be overly infuriating, as specific strategies are often poorly explained, and you must repeat the exact input without a mistake before the story progresses.
You may have a trick where you need to mark the cards with makeup. Another demands that you shuffle the higher cards in the deck in a specific order. A third may need to take a look at the opponent’s card suit when pouring wine. I could feel the gleeful fantasy of deceit and high-stakes encounters during fleeting moments. But rapid button presses and the need to pay attention to timing did what QTEs have always done (and possibly why they’ve gone out of style): take me out of the experience.
The card shark layers in another element that undoubtedly invokes excitement in the player, but for me, it’s simply a result of stress and a lack of willingness to invest in the experience. Save game states are automatically applied at every stage of an encounter, from gain or loss to death to your monetary fortune. Upon dying, you can “cheat” death or choose to give up your soul and wipe out your save game. But none of it ever really matters. A personified “death” always sends you back, finally tired of your arrival and giving you another shot at life because they get tired of seeing you. It appears that accumulated luck (or not) has little or no effect on the story. To explain a famous show, everything is made up, and the points don’t matter.
Upon repeated failures of the story-requiring card game cheating sequence, the game eventually asks if you want to abandon the strategy and play the story. Making a choice became a welcome relief, especially in the later multi-stage cases, so I’m glad the option exists. But it’s problematic that the gameplay is frustrating enough to satisfy such a need in the first place.
Card Shark has an engaging art style, subtle writing, and a promising premise. But I couldn’t overcome my dislike for the core gameplay encounters and endless learning sections. I appreciate the effort to put together a unique concept, but the accompanying frustration means I have to discourage sitting at this particular table.