Most video games about cards are deck-building strategy games. Digitised Magic The Gathering-likes. Card Shark is a card game about playing cards, and, more specifically, about cheating at playing cards. When I previewed it I said that it turned out I was quite good at cheating, but now I have played the full build I can report that I'm bad at that, too. The worst I can say about Card Shark is that it doesn't make failure fun.
To play Card Shark, you don't even need to know how to play cards. You (a mute French peasant boy) meet unscrupulous knave and cool ol' lad the Comte de Saint Germain, who quickly sizes you up as a natural card cheat. He teaches you a number of tricks to win money from gamblers, each a kind of mini-game to build a favourable hand for the Comte. At first you're pouring wine at the same time as checking an opponent's highest card, and memorising sneaky codes to indicate suit and value. But later on each technique - all with appreciably cheaty names like The Baby Shuffle or The Honeyed Flip Flop or whatever - has multiple steps involving card counting and memorising and a discrete series of control inputs. Your job is to do each of these steps correctly, but quickly enough that your mark doesn't get suspicious.
This is an excellent balancing act to pull off. You feel like the cleverest person in the room when you do it right, gradually raking over more and more money from the idiot aristocrat opposite you, and some of the tricks you learn are for how to win a swordfight, or flick a card on target to frame someone else. It's all enhanced by the sort of inherently dashing setting for Card Shark. We're in 18th century France, you see, within spitting distance of The Scarlet Pimpernel, and it turns out that winning money is only a small part of the point. You're actually trying to uncover a conspiracy about King Louis and his secret marriage (something which I understand historians generally agree happened even though there isn't much evidence for it, possibly because it is more fun) and each time you win you climb to a higher echelon of card table. As you gather information the complexity of tricks you must pull, and the stakes in all senses, climb higher and higher.
Perhaps the thing I love most about Card Shark is the style. It is an immensely stylish game, like a cat walking the runway at Paris fashion week, and the 2D, illustrative style of art really sings. The little figures on screen are so emotive, despite being drawn in quite broad strokes, and they remind me of my favourite children's books even as they're cussing each other out or stabbing each other by candlelight.
It's a lovely world to return to, but the problem is in the leaving and coming back. I even said in my preview that Card Shark will be one of those games that it'll be hard to come back to after a couple of days doing other things. Guess what? I was right! After playing it over a few days, and playing other things in between, it became clear that Card Shark requires 100% of your attention. Leaving it for even a day made me forget the complex rules of different types of shuffle or deck stacks, and when that happens you're bollocksed until you can find your feet again.
Thankfully, there are tables you can go to and practice (sort of), and earn a bit more money. Card Shark also gives you infinite second chances if you die, and a community bank if you run out of money. If all your cheaty-lessons are wiped from your internal blackboard you can also call up a basic list of what steps you need to do for a particular technique - but it is very basic. It's: 'swap out deck, pick the best cards, shuffle correctly', rather than 'to in-jog a card you need to flick the thumbstick thiswise, but only do that after you've put the cards in the right order so the Comte gets two picture cards. Oh, he's second in the deal? Okay so that means you need to do one low value, one high, one low...' I don't have a bad memory, but remembering how one particular trick was supposed to work one evening took me so long I almost burst into tears. Because you have to get every step right, or it's goodnight sweetheart, start again from the last checkpoint.
There's an awful lot to admire about Card Shark. I want more games that do something original like this, that find beauty from odd angles and tell stories in new ways. But playing Card Shark like a real person - with breaks, and other things to do - is hard. If you can't count cards, and find rubbing your tummy while patting your head at all difficult, Card Shark will likely have you absolutely mogadored.