Gambling is something I am not fond of. While I do think there is an art in playing it cool, tricking the opponents, and taking chances with a grain of strategy involved, the idea of losing earned cash due to luck is not for me. Oddly enough though, the concept of cheating without getting caught has always been intriguing to me because of the amount of planning and effort it requires. This and its beautiful visuals are why Card Shark caught my eyes, and since Casper has not looked at this project as of now, I figured I would give my thoughts on it.
Set in the year 1743 near Pau in the south of France, you play as an errand boy without a voice, working hard to keep a living under his patroness. However, after assisting an old man in cheating at cards, he is caught in the act and your master is accidentally shot in a quarrel. With nowhere to go and unable to literally speak up for what happened, you are taken away by the gentleman you helped earlier, who turns out to be operating with the Romani. Taking on the friendly gesture, you are shortly after tasked to go along with your new associate and continue his scandals in order to save up money for those less fortunate. Unless you decided to keep it all to yourself, that is.
Despite that there are choices to make throughout, most are there to enhance your avatar’s personality than to affect the story, which is clearly shown from the beginning. This is further not a bother, as the events occurring are immersive and enthralling. Anyone who has the slightest interest in history will be pleased to see and even interact with characters like Voltaire for unfolding the plot. Each of these important figures is well represented and I adore how they are not just used as a nod to their significance, making them actually memorable. Probably my favourite scenario is a profound conversation about losing that took place in a field of orgy.
I cannot say that everyone you meet is deep, but all have strong personalities that make them entertaining and work sufficiently off your main protagonist thanks to him being very expressive. Especially the dialogues are engaging, due to them having dark humour and using charisma in order to lure their foes or simply add to the circumstances you are in. Being told a tale of how an English lord lost his estate over a card trick or seeing your partner sarcastically flatter the other people around the table, is always good for a chuckle. All of these function as great contrasts to the times when the tension is high and you pray to not get caught.
Yet, there are not just exciting events of meeting a lying king, travelling to Germany for big wins or being chased by the soldiers for your falsely accused crime, but you are also somehow connected to a grander scheme. While it at first seemed like the story was going to head in a cliche direction, it truthfully comes with a couple of neat twists and bewitching moments. It can seem convoluted initially, but it all makes sense towards the end and provides overall a satisfying if small mystery. The quotes introducing each chapter that references the adventure onwards, are also nice inclusions for making you curious about what is ahead.
Finally, all of these lovely parts are tied together by the gorgeous atmosphere this setting brings. You will be travelling to diverse locations and meet personalities affected by their status, upbringing or the era of enlightenment, with all of them being gripping despite being present for only a short time. This is probably the sole unfortunate aspect of this tale, as it would be compelling to interact with certain characters more and see how they evolve, but I cannot deny what a splendid journey this title still offers through a captivating plot and fascinating encounters.
Story Score: 9/10
Sleight of hand
What might be surprising for those of you intrigued, is that you are not exactly playing the card games in this project. Instead, you are the one setting up the tricks so you can cheat your way through, with the results of the actual matches being automated. Within each scenario chosen from a map screen, you are being introduced to how you are going to deceive your opponents with new mechanics, such as explicit methods for stocking or dealing in order to get the best hand.
All of these are done through minigames and specific inputs of your controls. For example, you will have to pour someone a glass of wine as your partner’s servant while looking at their cards without spilling, and right after, you need to signal their most valuable set to your associate through how you clean the table. There is a ton of memorisation alongside the actions you must do in a correct manner, and failing or taking too long to do anything will raise the suspicion bar at the bottom of the screen, which if full will cause you to lose entirely. Because of these aspects, you need to keep a cool mind while also being swift and accurate with your motions.
The tensions can be high with the amount of multitasking and there are times when you have to act accordingly should one plan be off. You might have to move your hands awkwardly over a shiny object to see what your competitors get, be sure that your duplicates are not found or even realise that others can try to swindle you. Not to mention, while you can increase your bets, your adversaries will be more on the edge if they notice your confidence, adding more to the overall suspense this title brings.
It is just unfortunate that many of these scenarios, while random in what cards you get, will also follow a scripted setup that makes it so you simply have to follow a distinct routine. There are certain curveballs included, but only a couple of missions will have you choose a strategy for the upcoming meeting, which makes it a shame that not more freedom to try out various ideas could have been implemented. Particularly the ending presents such promise by having it altered depending on how you play, causing this redundant format of you learning a new trick and then putting it to action to feel quite restricted.
Furthermore, with 28 ways to fool your opponents, the encyclopaedia for them should have been much better. You do get an insight as to what their purposes are, though a quick tutorial in the menu for a refresh on how they function would have helped a lot, especially when some occasions will have you use numerous of them. Some of these acts even blend in with each other due to containing similarities in controls and looks.
As for the income you get, it is really just a means to progress through the campaign since all missions will require a minimum bet. There is the aspect of donating to the caravan that took you in so they can aid those in need, but this is pretty much pointless. You are thanked for your contributions and this will change a minimalistic piece of the finale, though that is it. Because of this, I cannot call this rewarding or even worthwhile.
Luckily, these issues do not mitigate the delightful challenge you will come across. There are even other minigames included for some fun additions, such as QTE sword fights that have you memorise your rival’s stabs and where there is an opening for your counter. Despite that the overall journey can be overwhelming and require retries, none of the chapters is daunting, with only the finale being difficult due to testing your skills thoroughly.
Even by being somewhat linear in structure, Card Shark offers an entertaining and tense time that demands you to keep it cool and have your motions carefully executed. It is never dull due to the number of tricks to learn, the pressure of remembering both the cards and the movements, and having to perform fluently yet quick. There can be a feeling of merely duplicating what you were already taught, which is made evident due to the more free missions as a contrast, but it still provides a solid playthrough that will have you sweating.
Gameplay Score: 7/10
Hitting me before anything else is the beautiful visuals that focus on highlighting clear strokes of the paintbrush, which makes every component shine. Although it is not a representation of any style used in France at the time due to its lighter and cartoony aesthetic, I believe this was a smart approach. With this motive, this project still delivers gorgeous takes on the areas you are visiting with strong colours and mesmerising puppet animations that convey a ton of emotions. All of the characters come with emphasised features, such as distinct noses or subtle smiles, making everyone memorable and iconic from their designs alone. They all have portraits when they talk to one another too, with different expressions to indicate their feelings toward the varied situations.
Despite taking place mainly in France with some detours to neighbouring countries, you are visiting diverse locations like a steamy bathhouse, rough bars, inside a wobbling ship, and the outskirts of a forest on a cold wintery day. Each is a sight to behold with vast surroundings, interesting details, and nuanced shading. This excellent work extends to showcase the time passing, with captivating changes of colours making this effective. Even the candlelights affect the environment outstandingly.
With subtle indications of wind and critters being present, as well as touches like how you only see the background through a window while you are in your small cart, it goes to show that there was a lot of care and effort put into the presentation. Even the sketches for simulating taking notes are superb, and onwards demonstrate what a marvellous job the artists did here. The sole aspect that is done just as magnificently, is the audio.
Hearing the cards being shuffled, dealt or even bent offers specific cues that really make the games highlighted, which is admirable. The rest are similarly powerful despite referring to minor actions, such as pouring wine, footsteps, and fencing. I believe this was done since every move counts here and anything can go wrong within seconds, forcing the protagonist to be on the edge. It says something when I jumped at someone merely putting down their coins for a bet.
The music is no slacker either and contains a huge assortment to boot. Calm Latin choirs within a hospice, dark and subtle clings of violins by the ocean, lighthearted spinet in a party of people with clear status, and plenty more offer different tones that feel fitting for the settings they are used in. Every single piece provides a unique atmosphere that still correlates to one another through matching uses of instruments and genres, even if a select few came historically later. All of the melodies come with amazing buildups, varied rhythms, and strong notes to make every scenario impactful, creating a wonderful mix of classical compositions.
Presentation Score: 10/10
I believe this is a great example of how immersive a journey can be through this media. Everything is presented in a gorgeous manner with memorable events that unfold an intriguing plot, with the interactions being through fun minigames that ask the player to pay attention. While I believe more could have been done to not make the gameplay restricted, especially since this is shown in a couple of missions, it does not change the fact that I was enthralled the whole way through and sweating by the thought of ever being caught.