Card Shark is UK studio Nerial Limited’s first release after being acquired by Devolver Digital in 2021. Known for the Reigns series, Nerial Limited has brought its card-themed, meta-gameplay stylings to the French Age of Enlightenment. Combining an eye-catching, paper-cut-out visual style and deviously satisfying card-trick minigames with a surprisingly engaging story of royal intrigue, Card Shark is the very definition of effective simplicity.
Card Shark sees you take on the role of a mute tavern keep who, after being roped into helping a Count cheat at cards, is swept up in an escalating series of events in a jolly but tense adventure all over pre-revolutionary France. You’ll swindle fellow rogues and gullible nobles alike as you help the Count investigate the royal conspiracy of the Twelve Bottles of Milk, a secret that has the potential to shake France to its core.
The stakes feel high right out of the gate, and the desire to learn and master your new repertoire of deceptions never wears off. Before long you’ll be pulling off false shuffles, card marking, sleight of hand and even swapping out entire decks. It’s worth noting that you won’t actually be playing any card games, the gameplay focuses purely on the tricks that allow you to give the best hands to the player of your choice.
The way it works is like this: as you perform the various ‘mini-games’ required to pull off a trick, a bar along the bottom of the screen representing your opponent’s level of suspicion will slowly fill up. If this bar completely fills up before you’ve pulled off your trick you will be caught, and the consequences can be lethal. Don’t fret though, death is not permanent in Card Shark, and some say even Death herself is partial to a good round of cards…
These mini-games require simple button inputs but get more and more complicated as the game goes on. Eventually, you’ll need to tie several tricks together in a sequence, relying on your memory just as much as your dexterity.
One of Card Shark’s greatest strengths is how fresh each ‘mission’ feels despite the fact that you’re engaging with fairly similar mini-games throughout. The way the narrative is woven seamlessly into the gameplay is truly remarkable and there are twists and turns around every corner.
It doesn’t matter how much you’ve prepared a particular trick, Card Shark often requires you to improvise with minimal instruction. Adapting on the fly successfully, and thereby avoiding being sent to the Bastille or shot in an empty field somewhere, is extremely gratifying.
The soundtrack was recorded with a live orchestra and is appropriate to the setting, with lots of evocative strings, operatic singing, and even some xylophone. It adds a lot to the jolly-adventure-tinged-with-danger vibes of the game.
There were one or two instances where I was caught red-handed due to sticky controls or a UI bug, rather than any error I made on my own. Occasionally, the UI would suddenly give no indication of what my goal was or what the correct button to press was and so I would inadvertently run out the timer. Other times some stickiness with the control stick lead to me sending a winning card to the wrong person. One slip-up can be all it takes to fail a mission in Card Shark, especially towards the end of the game. This didn’t happen often, but it did happen enough to be frustrating.
Card Shark is an indie game that works brilliantly within the bounds of its scope and budget. The premise may be simple, but the execution is masterful. Pulling off the many different card tricks has you feeling like a veteran swindler in no time at all, and the story will keep you hooked until the very end. Small issues with the UI and controls may occasionally get in the way, but it’s not enough to ruin what is otherwise a wonderful time.
Card Shark was reviewed on PC via Steam using a code provided by the publisher.