The concept of Devolver Digital’s “Card Shark,” a card game where the point is to rig the deck and cheat, had me so excited. While the story and artwork are amazing, the gameplay feels more like something from a brain game than I find enjoyable.
Starting out as a mute waiter at an elite restaurant in pre-revolution France, the player joins an experienced hustler on the road, collecting money to donate to the pool of a commune of outcasts.
The way a level often plays out is that in the carriage on the way to a destination, the hustler Comte de Saint Germain will show the player a new trick. This could be slight of hand or some sort of bit the player has to perform their role in. Then they get to the destination and play cards.
A suspicion timer sits at the bottom of the screen, quickly filling up as the player manipulates the game in their favor. While I would have loved to see more ebb and flow of the timer, having to strategically win and lose hands to see how long they can keep the opponent engaged, this bar mostly serves to count three successful executions before moving on. This is where the brain game feeling occurs.
The tricks are often little more than remembering some card and some series of movements. It’s not what I would consider a fun activity. I wanted to feel like the conductor of the table, reading the marks and seeing how much I could wean from them. Instead, I was quite stressed by the short timer. While the bar slowly filled, I desperately tried to remember which way to move the joystick when I saw a king of spades. Instead of being a compelling component of “Card Shark,” this gameplay was a hindrance.
While the pacing is quite methodical, telling a rich story that unfolds slowly, the gameplay expects a quick burst of execution. It feels out of place. To me, a game about sleight of hand is not just about moving quickly but about playing the crowd. With the player’s character being mute, the Comte de Saint Germain almost entirely fills that role. Along the way, there are interesting plot decisions that require observation.
I really loved the characters. They were complex and funny. But I didn’t find the game fun. I would have loved this if it took a slower approach, but the weaving between the chill vibes of the characters and scenery and the heart-pounding gameplay was exhausting. If I want my heart to pound, I would play “Hades” or something with much more mobile, action-oriented mechanics than memorizing cards like my life depends on it.
For me, “Card Shark” creates a high level of stress while providing a low level of activity. If I’m being asked to elevate into an excited state, I want to bob and weave; I want to make mistakes then recover; I want to make creative decisions then have to execute them. Instead, I am put under a clock and told to memorize and repeat actions. It’s not for me.
However, I do respect this game. There is an interpretation of sleight of hand here that just doesn’t align with what I find fun. Doing these sorts of tricks in real life does require moving quickly and accurately. This just isn’t for me.
If, like me, memorizing cards and moving quickly in a confined way stress you out in unpleasant ways, this may not be for you either. But that same stressfulness may be invigorating for others. I could totally understand if someone said they enjoyed this game or even if they said it was one of their favorites.
“Card Shark” oozes love for its characters and subject matter, creating an experience unlike anything I’ve ever gotten from a game before. It tries new things that I unfortunately didn’t enjoy despite my best efforts. But if you like rich story, great characters and pulling fast ones, “Card Shark” is a game you should check out.
Jeffrey Brown is an Arts Editor for the Daily Cardinal. He also writes for the Beet.