Card Shark and Postal: Brain Damaged – Zero Punctuation

This week in Zero Punctuation, Yahtzee reviews Card Shark and Postal: Brain Damaged.

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What is it with the indie sphere and card games these days? A few noteworthy card battlers come and go and now tabletop chic appears to be in. Like with last week’s Neon White presenting all its guns as cards even though the only way a tabletop would get anywhere near that game is if it was being used as a vaulting horse. I just feel there’s something inherently fucked about the concept of card battling video games. Card games and board games were invented because someone wanted to imagine a big awesome fight between two scary dragons and cards were the best solution available at the time to visualize that. But now we actually have the technology to visualize an actual big awesome fight between two scary dragons and we’re using it to depict the fucking cards. It’s like using a vacuum cleaner to scare off the family pets while you lick the carpet clean. And things reached a new zenith of weirdness last week when I played Card Shark, a new indie game about card games where you don’t actually play any card games. I assumed you did from the way the Steam page described it, which is why I was a little hesitant to try it. I got my fill of video poker mashing the quickload button in the first Leisure Suit Larry game.

But no, the Steam page is just bad at bringing across what you actually do in Card Shark. It is a hard concept to summarize, but come the fuck on. “Adventure games?” As ever, that’s about as informative as telling us it comes in a box. In truth, Card Shark is a collection of minigames themed around a wide variety of techniques for cheating at cards. A few shitty ones that are little more than quick time events but an otherwise rich smorgasbord of challenges based around observation, memory and refined skill as you use a variety of methods to stack decks and peek at your opponent’s hand. The actual playing of the card game we skip past. You do your little cheating thing and then it cuts straight to you raking in coins as if to say “Obviously you won, you were cheating, you were also breathing in and out the whole time and we didn’t feel the need to spell that out, either.” So as I say it doesn’t actually play like a card game, it plays more like something halfway between Papers Please and Wario Ware. Every story mission consists of learning a new sequence of minigames from your mentor, practicing it a few times and then doing it for real under some slightly stressful time pressure.

For the chumps you’re taking to the cleaners will smell a rat if you hover the card you’re dealing them over the rather conspicuous mirror on the table for more than thirty seconds. But the story is the main draw, here. It’s set in 18th century France, so presumably the constant stench of cheap perfume and excrement is another thing the game doesn’t feel like spelling out, and you’re a mute peasant boy who starts with nothing but a natural talent for sleight of hand and an Assassin’s Creed protagonist level tendency to bump into famous historical figures, who becomes an apprentice to a redoubtable aristocratic conman and gets embroiled in a cross-country web of intrigue between various powerful figures that keeps devolving into card games for a range of extremely contrived reasons. “Yes, I will tell you what I know of the scandal with the King’s mistress, but only if you beat me in a card game first.” “Aha, I have cornered you and now will force you to face swift and brutal justice for the terrible crime for which I have vowed revenge, but never mind that, let’s play cards for a bit.” I like how the game never says what specific card game anyone’s playing at any point. Maybe the writers couldn’t be arsed to do the research. I’m just gonna assume it’s Yu-Gi-Oh.

All in all I quite like Card Shark, having to sweatily stack the deck as the suspicion meter climbs and you momentarily forget how adding up works creates some great escalating tension. That said, there’s not much depth to gameplay. You learn a minigame sequence for each story mission and then never do that specific one again, unless you do the optional card games for extra cash but there’s no use for cash except to give it all away to the poor, and all the poor will do is change some dialogue in the ending, the ungrateful mooching gits. Maybe we could’ve paid them to stand outside the window making distracting monkey noises while we do the trick ruffle shuffle. So the main thing I dislike about Card Shark is its insubstantiality which meant I have to somehow find an even flimsier game to review for the remainder of this video. Hur be hard be hard be hard – oh here we go: Postal Brain Damaged. Postal is a franchise with some history to it. Basically whenever mainstream media decided Mortal Kombat was the root of all society’s evil, there was always a sector of the industry that would passive aggressively taunt them by making games that were full of all the unjustifiable gratuitous violence the detractors imagined.

So the Postal games are slightly janky pseudo-immersive sims that are the video game equivalent of a bumper sticker depicting Calvin doing a naughty wee-wee, stuffed with violence and profanity to the point of total meaninglessness and then dressed with a bit of pop culture referential humor that aged about as well as Haley Joel Osment suspended in a vat of yoghurt. But in our current age video games make so much money for corpo scum it’s no longer politically convenient to scapegoat them, and no amount of doing naughty wee-wees on cardboard cutout representations of morality crusaders has the power to shock anyone now that American schools get shot up more often than the green beans in the cafeteria get reheated and the official government response every time it happens is “mug to the camera like Jim from the office.” As such, Postal Brain Damaged takes the franchise in about the only logical direction: total and complete nihilism. So they dropped all the slightly tortured immersive sim business and just made a retro-style boomer shooter because Steam only has enough of those to keep you occupied for a conservative ten or eleven decades.

The premise is, Jeff Lebowski meets The Punisher by way of Beavis and Butthead Postal Dude falls asleep and must navigate an unsubtle satire of modern society in a sort of Doom Eternal meets Psychonauts fever dream. And while the visuals are striking little is done to improve the retro shooter model, and it even brings back a few of the classic fuckups of the genre: a system where you store powerups and choose when to use them ends with me hoarding six fiery urine potions I never use because it takes about five button presses to bring them out and I’m busy trying to avoid being pooed on by some terribly caustic satire of the American consumer. Anything that calls itself a boomer shooter whose rocket launcher explosions have all the impactful feel of a used condom slapping against the side of your grandma’s mailbox needs to get off the stage and rethink its life. Postal Brain Damaged is a game that’s going to be very swiftly dated on multiple levels – the trend for pixelly FPSes is going starts to pass any day now when everyone getting nostalgic for PS3-era cover shooters with a bloom lighting system that looks like we washed our contact lenses in bleach. And then there’s the creaky referential humor about the Coronavirus and Elon Musk and who the fuck makes jokes about furry conventions anymore? Why don’t you take the piss out of Rebecca Black while you’re at it? What? Oh, ask your mum.

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