The game getting a lot of buzz at the WASD game show in London this past weekend was Card Shark, by Nerial and Devolver. And having spent a bit of time with it, it's easy to see why. It's gorgeous, charming, and different.
Card Shark is a game about learning card tricks, or cons, in 18th Century France. You, a young mute man, unexpectedly find yourself on an adventure after being semi-willingly roped into a ruse at a restaurant you serve in.
The Comte de Germain reveals to you a con he intends to play on someone later that evening - with your help. This involves your looking at the other person's hand while pouring their wine and then signalling to the Comte which of the card-suits the person has most of.
Mechanically, there's a few things going on. Firstly, there's the wine pouring, which you do with the left stick, tipping the bottle while being careful not to overfill and spill it - those frocks were ever so hard to get clea. At the same time, you look away from the pouring to read the person's hand.
Then, you signal to the Comte what you saw. You do this by wiping the table in a certain way. Depending on which suit you're signalling, you either circle the left stick clockwise, anti-clockwise, move it left and right or up and down.
It's not easy. Pouring and card-reading at the same time is particularly tricky, and the gestures aren't easy to recall. It's just enough of a challenge to instil a bit of panic and produce a smile.
Regardless of how well you do, the con doesn't go to plan. Your mark's 'suspicion' rises too high and a violent, fateful altercation breaks out - the result of which sees you begin an adventure across France and beyond, learning one con after another.
I learnt three of 28 cons, and I want to briefly mention the second because it changes the mechanics again. It involves dealing three cards onto the table and moving them around, while asking your mark, the person playing, to keep track of the Queen.
This is done in a kind of rhythm-action way. Each card has a corresponding face-button you press to move it, and a shrinking circle appears around them to show the time you have left to move them. There's a 'good' moment and a harder 'perfect' moment to hit, and of course you can fluff the timing and fail. The desired rhythm is smooth and constant, which happens to be the same rhythm the cards should be moved around with, which is neat.
The added magic is the ability to cheat and swap the Queen card for another while the other cards are moving, pulling the mark's attention. This requires another timed button press as well as a choice moment: do you actually want to cheat (a recurring question throughout the game)? Your decision will be based on what you know of your mark and how easy they are to fool.
The mechanics change again for the next trick, which involves cutting and slightly offsetting cards in a pack, and for the next trick after that, which is an evolved version of the wine-pour con you begin with. Soon you're card-counting and dropping extra packs of cards in pockets and folding the corners of aces. It's a brief glimpse at a game which seems unafraid of challenging you, and one which teaches the theory behind actual card tricks.
That's all very nice and quirky. But what really lifts Card Shark to buzz-level is how it's put together. It's got a very unique look, as if it were a comic strip in a satirical paper of the time. Characters are papery on top of warm, loose, pastelled backgrounds behind.
The action alternates between a side-on view when you're exploring areas - interacting with people and things in a kind of adventure game way - to a hands-eye view when interacting with cards. And there's something very Quentin Blake about the hands, with their wobbly lines and lack of detail on the inside, as if they still need to be filled in. It's very eye-catching, very effective.
There's also a wonderful cheek and charm running through the game. The dialogue is genuinely funny, spouted jovially from the mouths of morally dubious characters trying to cheat each other.. But it's also in the little touches of the game, like the way your mute character responds in facial expressions rather than dialogue. The expressions appear like pictorial dialogue choices and though they're simple drawings, they're immediately readable.
It's a really playful and confident package from Nerial, the same studio that brought us Tinder-like kingdom ruling game Reigns, and the recent colourful adaptation of Animal Farm. And there isn't too long to wait to play it. Card Shark is due this year on PC and Switch, and if you hurry, you can catch the demo on Steam.