Review: Card Shark

Horror films can learn a thing or two from Card Shark. You might think that’s a bit of an odd juxtapose for a game about cards. Specifically, a game that requires you to learn how to cheat one’s way to success — in all the many ways one can manipulate something as feeble and basic as a playing deck. But as touched upon when first trying out the game, there very quickly begins to stir this feeling inside (conjured out of deep-seated paranoia or not) that the game’s developer, Nerial, are playing you. This helpful insight Card Shark is providing, both in a way educational but interestingly mechanical in how it unravels more so, is but a front for an altogether more elaborate reveal or deception you’re unaware of. One the game is in fact orchestrating not for you, but against you. I’m willing to admit that this could very well be my own perceptions clouding things here, but it’s only because Card Shark‘s world of sleight of hand and distraction is so effective in its delivery, where this air of mistrust begins to manifest.

So it continues and that initial suspicion of the game working against you, behind your back even, slowly dissipates. There’s no jump-scare of sorts, no sudden moment you’re confidently (to the point of feeling smug) aware is going to show up. No grotesque imagery or cheap burst of sound either. Everything seems briskly normal. You progress through the story, mosey on through another series of eye-catching environments and win more and more bets that inevitably tempt you to raise the stakes. And still the game seemingly refuses to budge. Maybe it was in my head all along; Card Shark’s only real hidden agenda, if you can even call it such, is in wowing you with how elements like screen space and even quick-time events can play well in the context of keeping things under wraps. How the strain of keeping tabs on numerous aspects across a single screen, prove a fitting challenge for such high risk- Then it happens…a mere stand-alone moment or opportunity you took unaware of the ramifications and your reaction, as I unashamedly found myself doing, was throwing one’s hands up in disbelief, crying aloud: “WHAT?!”

You got me, oh boy did you pull that off Card Shark. Just as I had dropped my guard, well played. These very examples are where I could dedicate an entire article as to why Card Shark just may be one of the smartest things experienced this side of the half-way point in 2022. But again, to spoil the specifics would be to ruin one of but many fantastic moments of disbelief and initially uncertain bewilderment in how wildly one’s fortune has swung. In a game chock full of moments — whose own individual but equally-effective traits — are all fighting for dominance. A game that’s visually, mechanically, audibly and conceptually novel in its approach, it’s should be regarded as sizable praise on its own Nerial have mastered the art of the con with Card Shark. But in crafting a game that is as much about the interaction as it is simply marveling at the sight presented, should tell you this is more than some educational dive into the sly underbelly of card games. Moreover, that its frequent excursions into side-on 2D visuals with minimal gameplay involvement, relegates this to some dismissive feeling of style over substance. If one thing is true of Card Shark above all else, it’s that Nerial’s latest is very much dedicated to its source material. Tempting us to delve into that very substance hidden beneath the vibrant but fittingly-attractive facade of its aesthetic.

Card Shark Review Screenshot

Add a touch of a plot whose curious descent into conspiratorial mystery keeps the journey entertaining on top and it’s hard to argue Nerial are in some way, banking on the luster of their visual design or presentation alike, to somehow excuse them from falling short in other areas. Not that such a dedication is unwarranted as Card Shark is the type of game whose construction, so far as its scenery goes, is one you can’t help but take a closer look at. To deconstruct and admire the many layers and techniques being utilized to give this fictionalized era in France one of eloquence, but not of some artificial or sterile sort. How certain “layers” of an interior or outdoor garden look hand-painted/doodled. How some look like they encompass old print-making techniques. Even just the color palettes employed and the contrast between such hues. There’s a clear romanticism portrayed in the world of Card Shark. Comical and a tad verbose it might seem at points, it’s that use of color and this collage-esque architecture of the game’s setting, that provides Card Shark this fitting contrast. A contrast against what is predominantly a stern and steely-eyed mentality imposed through its gameplay. How most of a player’s time — or at least the most notable moments spent — are that of the numerous playing tables. How throughout the game, players are required to employ a growing mental library of techniques and tactics, in order to win.

On sheer scope alone, it’s an impressive array of techniques. Simple on execution these strategies may be on the surface. Press a button at the right time, aim in precisely the right direction, memorize when to perform certain actions so that a desired card or even secret message, is passed along without anybody noticing. In terms of basic interaction, Card Shark doesn’t demand much, least not in the early rounds. It’s what the game does around this though, where the intrigue and the lasting appeal stems from. Essentially, throughout any one attempt at conning your opponent out of a bet, said character’s suspicion is illustrated by a meter that slowly fills up the longer you take to pull off the required move. That may sound like a seemingly easy hurdle to avoid, but what makes the scenario a little more problematic is in getting each and every step of the sequence correct. In some cases, pulling off three to four separate techniques, whereby if any one part isn’t properly followed, the whole deception falls apart. You can of course take things slowly; make notes along the way, writing down in some cases, the right order of suits/cards, to then pass along at a later step.

Card Shark Review Screenshot 2

The game at one point, even advises you to refer to said notes if the process feels a little too overbearing to rely on mere memory alone. But what of that meter beneath? A meter that, later down the line, is very quick to near its end point, should you play things a little too slowly. Should the meter fill, your opponent’s suspicions breaks out into full accusation, by which your player-character is arrested, subsequently charged and requires a small bail-out to return and try again. Admittedly any risk of running out of money is something that very quickly subsides, yet it’s that aspect of Card Shark the game doesn’t quite nail on the basis of luring its players into a potentially costly scenario of high risk plays. If one were being especially critical to this minor component on its own, you could say the game doesn’t quite provide any sort of enticement or encouragement to bet big on a single hand. Not least when you consider that any stake higher than 10 or 20 most of the time, increases your opponent’s suspicion from the very start. And given how precious time is in Card Shark, there’s generally little incentive to make things more challenging than they already are.

Not to say the satisfaction of getting through said challenge is undermined in any way, for Card Shark‘s multitude of small objectives and routes to success are what keep proceedings from feeling in any way dull. Far from, if there’s one thing Card Shark isn’t, it’s dull and it’s because the game utilizes screen-space and positioning of key objects to great effect, that gives these individual rounds, that added tension and above all else, that added encroaching of possible failure. How reliance on a very specific object on a table, in one scenario, is your key to success. Only for the game to, shall we say, “influence” said object at specific points, so as to throw a curve-ball at you. Even just the manner with which a card has to be dealt to a specific character seated in a particular spot, yet said spot is always randomized meaning one has to properly learn a technique’s in’s and out’s, as opposed to relying on dumb luck to get through. How you go about actually providing or simply performing the correct action isn’t always the most fluid procedure. Not least when, for example, you have to frantically scour an entire deck (all while that figurative ticking clock is nagging at you) and a desired tap for one card, the game instead registers as skimming multiple cards at one time.

Card Shark Review Screenshot 3

The game is generally charitable when it comes to locking in most of the desired prompts or signals, but it’s not an entirely flawless execution either, with some maneuvers or command inputs not quite translating to what occurs on-screen. That said, the control configurations work far more times than they don’t and if nothing else, the sheer variety of inputs Card Shark provides, is commendable on its own. It’s only because the game takes its time in teaching you these individual techniques throughout, where a lot of those mild frustrations on input are quickly alleviated.  Confusing it may sound to praise a game for letting you repeat a tutorial until you’re confident in proceeding, perhaps it’s credit to the way Card Shark is written and how it lays out these processes via the scenes unfolding, that stops the experience from feeling like a frustrating if required, padding of time.

But the fact that you have to really dig to find much at fault here, shows just how brilliantly-executed Card Shark turns out to be. The less-forgiving folk — those looking for something a little, or even a lot, less tasking on one’s mental dexterity — may consider the heavy focus on memorizing patterns, not least in the game’s latter half, to be too high a buy-in for so little a return at any one time. And while those concerns are not entirely unwarranted for a game billed as anything but a traditional puzzle game per se, it’s the way the game paces these segments, in line with its charming scene-setting and artistic style alike, that so quickly wins over. Aided on top by a general feeling the game is all too aware of its sheer breadth of insight it’s filling your head in; providing a welcome amount of levity and breathing room for players to properly master and get to grips with the task at hand.

Card Shark Review Screenshot 4

Closing Comments:

In fact it’s that humble acknowledging of what it’s demanding of the player — let alone all the fine details to keep track of — that Card Shark successfully side-steps as a result. Avoiding any such risk that its delivery is in anyway pretentious or otherwise insurmountable. It’s one thing to craft a game of such high stakes, but credit should be given to Nerial themselves for ensuring you seldom feel overwhelmed by what’s being explained, even at the game’s most perilous or complex of spots. So to follow this up by pulling off those aforementioned surprises and unforeseen curve-ball’s. In a game as much about quick reflexes and quicker deduction to begin with — to reveal another side of itself you hadn’t even considered, let alone predicted was there to begin with. It’s hard not to lean in on the card-based puns and idioms at a time like this, but it’s the ways Card Shark keeps its own cards extremely close to its chest and how one left-field turn can dramatically reconfigure some dire strait into a blessing in disguise. Indeed, how the game so confidently pulls an Ace from out its sleeve, is why this game is as special as it is. Pulling off one perfectly-timed surprise and accompanying cry of delight after another, it’ll be incredibly hard for any other game this year to deliver on the same caliber of lovable trickery you feel compelled to learn more of. And delivered through the aid of some delightful visual backdrops on top. One of the year’s best orchestrations of gameplay and presentation in unison, Card Shark is a smart, but above all, brilliantly-crafted journey of cunning and deception.

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