Dozens of games feature testosterone-fueled heroes with guns as big as their muscles, but few projects star aristocratic con men. That makes “Card Shark” a standout in the world of video games. It’s as rare as a unicorn.
The project takes place in 18th-century France and follows a mute serving boy, who ends up in the care of the Comte de Saint Germain. Although he’s dressed like a nobleman, the Comte is anything but that. He’s a trickster who goes on to call the boy Eugene and takes him under his wing in order to teach the youth how to cheat at cards. It’s almost like an Enlightenment-era “Paper Moon.”
As Eugene, players learn 28 techniques (not all of them focus on cards) that help them through several trials and tribulations. They’re portrayed as minigames that require players to be perceptive and count cards. All of this is done under some time pressure. Sometimes players have to remember and signal the right suit and face card. Other times they have to stack the deck for the Comte. The longer it takes, the angrier an opponent gets and it can lead to calls of cheating and eventually death.
THE MAGIC SLEIGHT OF HAND
What players are doing is essentially learning the basics of card-based magic tricks. The big benefit of video games, though, is that players don’t need the preternatural dexterity to perform the techniques. “Card Shark” attempts to weave the gameplay and the story as the Comte teaches Eugene the cons, and they pursue the truth behind the “12 Bottles of Milk” incident.
It’s a nice setup, but the biggest problem with the project is that the developers at Nerial do a bad job of teaching players the concepts. At the very least, the techniques require an ability to multitask. Players will have to pour wine while also peeking at an opponent’s hand. At the worst, it inundates players with a slew of multistep techniques and jargon.
“Card Shark” throws a lot at players and it’s done in a haphazard fashion partly because players can pick from several locales through the campaign. That freedom is great for some games, but when you need to teach players the language of card tricks, that prevents the game from hammering home concepts, cementing players’ mastery and building on those techniques. At times, the Comte mentions tricks I’ve never heard of before and I just felt lost in the learning process.
All of this makes the “Card Shark” learning curve steep. It will take dozens of practice hands before players memorize the signals for card suits. What makes matters worse is that the controls don’t feel responsive or intuitive on the Nintendo Switch. Throw in time limits during the con and it’s a recipe for frustration.
That’s a shame because the gameplay isn’t as sharp as the narrative, which is full of court intrigue and backstabbing. Players learn the secrets behind the Comte and his particular interest in Eugene. All of that is bulwarked by visuals that look like storybook illustrations. Despite the minigame aspect of gameplay, everything has a way of sucking players into the conspiracy. An even nicer touch is that Nerial steeps the game in history as the Comte and Eugene run into the likes of Voltaire and Casanova.
If players aren’t impressed by that, Eugene even has run-ins with Death, depending on how well players are at cheating at cards. Speaking of that, I did run into a game-breaking problem bug. It essentially stops the progress when confronting death a second time and trying to get back to the world of living. If players beat the being in cards or pay the toll, “Card Shark” offers no way to move on.
Because the game allows one save slot per campaign and autosaves, I’m essentially stuck, and that ruins a game that has holds so much promise.
1 1/2 stars out of 4
Platform: Nintendo Switch, PC
Rating: Everyone 10 and up©2022 MediaNews Group, Inc. Visit at mercurynews.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.