Card Shark Review - Close to the Chest

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The main Card Shark character pours a glass of wine for the Comte.

I've never cheated at cards. Not because I'm far too good a person or that I just despise the idea of defrauding others. On the contrary. If some friends start playing a bit of poker, I'll be playing absolutely ridiculously. Whether I'm going all-in without looking at my cards or blathering away about my hand, I absolutely adore ruining things for others when a fiver's on the line.

Properly cheating, though? It just looks too hard. I have the world's goofiest hands and a complete lack of basic coordination, let alone sleight, at my fingertips.

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My friends and colleagues will thank me, then, not because I have learned how to shuffle decks dishonestly or fake a coin flip, but because I am carrying out these scams on the regular against various fictionalised versions of 18th Century French philosophers. Out of my way, Voltaire! The Card Shark is at the table.

Two Card Shark characters set up for a sword fight.

Table of Contents

Misdirection

Card Shark begins with you helping a man cheat at cards before swiftly upping the stakes to a life-or-death chase game with the King of France's henchman. It doesn't give you a great deal of time to question the underlying mystery and forces your character, a mute orphan under the 'care' of a cruel landlady, on mission after mission to donate money to the persecuted Romani community and escape the detection of your pursuers.

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With so much going on, and so many card tricks to keep track of and remember, Card Shark builds on its story in between games of cards. Each person you defraud offers a touch of information about the history of your character, the deeper-lying scandal, and the people you meet along the way.

The Comte de Saint Germain is your caretaker and guide on this journey, introducing you to a huge roster of fascinating characters. It's a real star-studded cast, too. The Marvel Cinematic Universe of 18th Century France. Voltaire shows up as I mentioned, but that's far from the lot. You have opera singer Julie d'Aubigny, painter Clément Belle, mathematician Jean le Rond d'Alembert. Even Louis XV is kicking about.

I love the Assassin's Creed vibe of your character meeting whoever the biggest celebrities or historical figures happened to be in that area, and Card Shark makes sure to jam as many in as possible. Were it set in the modern day, I imagine I'd have played tricks on Kylian Mbappe with the help of Daft Punk.

That's not to say it feels forced, though. The way the story plays out (an enchanting mystery with a fair few twists to keep you on your toes) means that it makes total sense why all these people are frequenting gambling halls and having every single conversation over a game of cards.

The main characters of Card Shark sit at a table with Voltaire.
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Simplified Sleight

I can't palm a card, much less flick through a deck and subtly bend a couple of aces to slot into my mate's hand. Thankfully, even I, one of the least dextrous people on the planet, am able to pull off tricks in Card Shark.

A combination of movements must be memorised and repeated depending on the cards shown. It's kept nice and simple, with you usually needing to give the Comte high cards or his opponent low cards. There's a lot to learn, but it's drip-fed to ensure things don't get too much too quickly.

On the way to a meeting, you might learn how to shuffle the deck while keeping certain cards at the top. The next day, you can combine this strategy with a method of dealing that lets you force the best cards into your teammate's hand. Later on, when you're up against card masters with their own tricks up their sleeve, you might even utilise these methods alongside some more underhanded tactics and accuse them of being the dirty, rotten cheater rather than you!

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It feels wonderful to pull everything together and get the win without arousing too much suspicion, and the stakes actually feel genuine. If you get found out you get sent to prison, and if you mess up your trick, you'll lose whatever money you bet, meaning there's real pressure to get everything right and fit in a couple rounds of practice beforehand.

The main characters of Card Shark sit at a table with a bunch of sailors and play cards.

Slightly Riffled

It's fascinating to play a game that actually teaches a skill most people don't have, and the openness with which card tricks are discussed makes Card Shark all the more interesting given the mystique magicians usually carry themselves with.

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There were a couple of times when the tricks seemed a bit more obtuse than I'd like. I'd learn a trick and the order of the players would change, meaning my counting was all out of whack and I'd resort to a bit of trial-and-error. On the whole, though, the challenge and difficulty curve suited me nicely, with the option to tweak the complexity mid-game in the menus offering a nice bit of customisability to the experience.

I played the Switch version and was subject to a few crashes when entering a new scene too, but given the autosaves, this was rarely an issue.

Card Shark is exactly the kind of game I adore. Nerial has taken card cheating and made it into a storytelling method, and they've done it so brilliantly that I even forgot just how weird it is that everyone's just out here playing cards at every opportunity. Made a new friend? Cards. Betrayal? Cards. Think someone's on a secret murder mission to kill you? Well, pal. Get your decks out, it's dealin' time.

Card Shark
With its unique hook, surprisingly in-depth gameplay, and fascinating mystery, Card Shark is an absolute delight.
Nintendo Switch
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Card Shark was reviewed on Nintendo Switch. A copy was provided by the publisher.