Cheat your way to riches in this unique indie title.
Don't cheat. That's a creed that has been ingrained into me since a very young age. Over time I began to realise that the meaning to that creed is not exactly literal, but more so a direct warning as to the often harsh repercussions that come to those who are caught cheating. So, to me the whole concept of "don't cheat" has rather become "don't get caught cheating". It may seem scummy to say, but we've all cheated at some point, whether it's syphoning money from the bank in a casual game of Monopoly or having a cheeky glance at a friend's test paper when stuck on a hard question. The point is, cheating is and should be frowned upon, but there's no denying that there's also an art to the process of not being caught cheating, and that's precisely what Nerial is looking to show with its latest indie game Card Shark.
You see, Card Shark is unlike any other game I've played before. The entire concept revolves around swindling opponents, and the narrative takes you - a mute young bar worker - on a journey alongside experienced cheater Comte de Saint-Germain. As you can probably guess, the story itself mostly just tasks you with making as much money as possible, without being caught or facing the consequences of being discovered mid-ruse. And of course, without failing your deceptions and becoming broke as a result.
But where Card Shark sets itself apart from a simple conning experience is in the fact that this game puts you through a crash course of card tricks and deceptive efforts. From simply learning how to mark cards and switch decks without raising suspicion, all the way to figuring out how to rig a coin flip - it's all here. And you'll need a very absorbent memory to survive, as the new tricks come thick and fast, and you'll have to master them quickly, as if you mess up, your targets will either seek reparations or perhaps even simply exact their own form of justice on you.
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Fortunately, this process of mastering techniques isn't as complicated as it would be in real life, and you don't need to worry about having fast fingers, a poker face, and enough skill to masterfully shuffle decks without messing up your trick. Still, this doesn't change the fact that each technique (of which there are 28 in total) has its own set of mechanics and moves that you need to keep tabs on, whether that's basic injogging (a move that allows you to remember the position of a desired card) or memorising the exact duplicate cards that you are using in a deck, to ensure that when it is shuffled again, the duplicate cards are not dealt out.
As for how this is handled in-game, Card Shark is a title that is drowning in quicktime events. Using a controller you can flick the analog stick one way to shuffle a deck, and then another way to injog, and so forth. Add to this actual quicktime events where if you press a button too early or late, the trick fails. It may seem pretty straightforward, but Card Shark doesn't remind you of each move (you can turn on a tips option if necessary), meaning there will be a lot of occasions where you simply press the wrong button, due to a bit of confusion, and screw the whole ruse up. It's really not an easy game at all, and that's both a highlight and an issue at times.
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It's a highlight because it gives a good sense of the gravity of your actions. As Card Shark is set in 18th Century France, it's not quite as civilised a culture as is today, meaning if your plot is discovered, you may just be shot on the spot. You can imagine how you really do make each move, each decision with the utmost care, and likewise how Card Shark demands a truly concentrated player - else failure is almost a certainty. But, this is also one of the reasons why Card Shark can be a little frustrating to play, because the number of techniques you're expected to not just learn but master expands so unbelievably quickly that you are pretty much bound to fail unless you already have a bit of an affinity for card tricks in the first place.
This is the case because you can't take time to think over your actions midway through one. There's a bar at the bottom of the screen that signifies the target's awareness of the scheme, and if the bar fully fills up, the target will either simply call out your actions and leave, or get a little more heated. This bar will only start to fill when you take too long figuring out your next move mid-ruse, or will spike if you screw it up. It's there to describe the target's perception of what is truly happening, meaning anytime you arouse suspicion (perhaps with too hefty a bet in the first place), the bar will fill up further. Hence why you have to think about every action, be fluid in your moves, and most importantly... don't mess it up.
Card Shark isn't a long game, and doesn't have a particularly complex or broad narrative, but what it does have is a core set of mechanics that will make you want to keep playing, to keep scamming, and to keep becoming a more efficient and effective cheater. It's not easy to do in any sense, but that's part of the charm, because if it was easy, everyone would do it.
And for that reason, I'm quite enthralled by this delightful and unique indie game. It won't be for everyone, and for a lot, I can imagine it'd be quite the frustrating experience, but if you can keep a cool head, and study and keep practising, what Card Shark offers is a truly rewarding game where you feel like you're learning about the intricacies of card tricks on top of actually being given the tools to perform them, and from my experience, doing so will leave you with a nefarious and mischievous grin that will stay with you long after you close the game.
8 / 10
Engaging to play. Really makes you feel like a skilled cheater. Techniques are broad and have enough variety that none feel too similar.
Quicktime events aren't for everyone. Can be a lot to take in at a time. Rather demanding.