Review:  In Card Shark Cheating Is Life and Death

I love video games. They’re able to give us experiences like Card Shark, where no other medium possibly could. I would say the closest films come to the same feeling is with the film Rounders. In that film, Matt Damon’s card hustling character is joined by Edward Norton’s cheating character, and they have to find suitable games to win enough money to pay off a debt. The premise behind Card Shark is surprisingly similar—except it takes place in an alternate history pre-revolution France—and you’ll learn every underhanded trick in the book as you cheat your way from being a lowly peasant to playing at the king’s table.

Card Shark is an adventure game with an emphasis on card play. Except, you’re not actually playing cards—what you’re doing is trying to cheat. A knowledge of cards isn’t required, however it will help, as you navigate through the many different types of ways to take money from unsuspecting adversaries. You play as a mute server, and as such, are essentially invisible to the drunken aristocracy as you fleece them using a number of different cheating techniques.

Screenshot: Card Shark

Each location you visit in Card Shark has a game attached to it. Whether you’ll be serving drinks and signaling suits with wiping movements (really) or jogging cards to shuffle a deck in the order you want it (seriously.) While Card Shark actually goes over each of these techniques, you’re not really performing these cheats. These are real-life techniques from real-life cheaters—stuff like deck switching, card marking, and the art of sleight of hand. You won’t actually be performing any of these actions directly—however, you will have to perform quick-time  type events to get the tricks to come off properly. It’s not about just the proper button combinations, either—you have to have your wits, and fast reaction time to get the money without suspicion. While you’re performing merely quick-time type events, you’re still deciding when to keep cheating and when to take the money and run.

Card Shark isn’t just a game about cheating—though there will be plenty of it. Along the way you’ll uncover a rich story with great dialogue—and you might even be privy to a royal conspiracy. For those of you who love to save scum (like me) Card Shark is a bit hard to get into. Save scumming isn’t really an option. Your progress is saved as you go, and any decision you make—mistake or success—is permanent. And that can mean getting yourself into a situation that can be very bad if you make too many wrong moves and are discovered.

Screenshot: Card Shark

I spent most of my time with Card Shark on the Nintendo Switch, and it’s absolutely amazing on that platform. The Switch version allows for touch controls that are my preferred method of play. The touchscreen controls give an extra tactile layer to the cheating, and makes it feel like you’re actually jogging cards and setting the deck to your favor.

Card Shark is the type of art house video game that only publisher Devolver Digital would put out. However, while I enjoyed the game’s premise, art, and even the dialogue—I just couldn’t enjoy the gameplay. Card Shark is gorgeous, and objectively a well put together game, I just had a hard time finding the fun. I guess I’m just not really a Card Shark. There is definitely an exciting experience packed into Card Shark, but there is a lot of trial and error with a system that tries its best to mimic cheating in a fun, game-like way. And I just don’t think it quite succeeds at the “game” part.

Card Shark is available now for PC via Steam and the Epic Games Store and on Nintendo Switch.

A Nintendo Switch key was provided to us for this review.

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Antal Bokor

Antal is video game advocate, retro game collector, and video game historian. He is also a small streamer, occasional podcast guest, and writer.