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Card Shark review: Playing the hand you weren't dealt

(Switch/PC) **** Age: 12+

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YOU might picture an action game requiring deft thumbs as something like Call of Duty or FIFA. The ones that demand mastery of shoulder buttons, twirling thumbsticks and muscle memory.

Card Shark confounds expectations despite being a ripping yarn about an 18th-century conman working his way through French society with an eye on riches and status. If it sounds an unlikely premise for a game, wait until you realise it’s a nerve-shredding, thumb-sweating piece of theatre.

Playing as a servant lad befriended by a wealthy society-climbing scoundrel, you form a partnership with the goal of cheating your way all the way to the king’s table. Perhaps you might glance over an opponent’s shoulder to assess his cards and then signal the strength of his hand to your accomplice. Or maybe you might mark a card as you’re shuffling them such that your pal gets a favourable draw. Or introduce a false deck that gives you an unfair advantage.

All of this is conducted under the beady eyes of the other players, who won’t take kindly to being duped for their money. Thus you must flawlessly pull off the tricks using lengthy combinations of the joysticks and buttons. This is where it starts to get dicey because Card Shark features almost 30 cheats you learn in succession. Your memory will be severely tested as you dredge up the combo needed to deceive your target while executing in a brief window of opportunity. Fail and at best you might lose some cash. At worst, well, you’ll need to discover that tense ordeal yourself.

Dressed in a handsome cartoon style with appealingly staccato animation and underpinned by a period soundtrack, Card Shark weaves an intriguing back story into the gambling and deception. Not everything is what it seems and you begin to suspect there’s little honour among thieves.

Of course, we should deduct marks for the malapropism of the title – card sharp is the correct name for a swindler who excels at skilful chicanery with a deck in his hand. But maybe that’s another trick the game pulls off effortlessly like a gifted grifter – making you ignore something amiss that’s right in front of your face.

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