Sunshine Shuffle is a fun and even clever idea that falls to bits in execution. There’s some genuine genius in there but it becomes such a struggle to play through far too quickly for its own good.
On the surface it looks adorable: There are a bunch of cute animals, from birdie to kitty, capybara to otter, and you’re playing poker with them. Not strip poker (and thank the marker for that), just good, wholesome poker between colourful buddies. But then within seconds, the capybara starts swearing at a rate that seems destined to give Kano from that Mortal Kombat film a run for his money (okay not quite, but still).
Yep, Sunshine Shuffle is a surprisingly dark game. Almost subversively so. You play as a young detective (very young, since all the other characters keep calling you a “child”), and you’ve actually been drawn to this steamboat poker game to investigate a group of criminals (the four animals you’re playing against). You’re tasked with listening to their stories over the gambling table banter, and then deciding whether to let them walk free or not. I really wasn’t expecting to get an effort to Raymond Chandler up anthropomorphised gangsters going into this game, but there we go. This is a good example of the creative opportunities that are unique to video games.
It’s actually a strong concept, and it’s clear that the team thought about what they were doing in crafting it. The idea of dropping little stories and backgrounds to the characters in among the poker banter as you play does have a natural quality that comes across as authentic. We’ve all sat at poker tables and the conversation does flow across various topics and also some comments about the game playing out in front of us.
The biggest problem is the execution of the writing. Because your attention’s going to be basically split two ways as you play – the cards and the conversation – you’re not going to be as “tuned in” to either of them. On the card side of things that’s not such a problem since poker’s a simple game. However, I frequently found myself glossing out and over lines of dialogue because the dialogue is a touch too overwrought at times. In real life, as you play poker, you’re not exactly discussing Heidegger or Derrida. Conversations needed to be simpler and require less direct concentration for this idea to work. Throw in the (very) occasional typo and odd turn of phrase, and Sunshine Shuffle behaves like it should be a visual novel at times, rather than something where the narrative is only afforded one-half of the player’s attention.
As a consequence of this I never quite connected with the characters like I might have if I was able to completely focus on them. The stories go to some pretty dark places, and the overall experience is very adult. It has moments of levity too, of course (a lot of them come from the capybara with a foul mouth), but it would have been nice to be able to better focus on the narrative, because it deserves undivided attention.
Once you do get to the end of the “narrative” – generally within a couple of rounds of poker – you’re invited to continue playing even though the narrative itself has come to an end. Unfortunately, at that point the characters revert to being robotic, parroting their relatively limited poker banter with no further characterisation. That’s the point where you’ll release that without a distraction away from the poker, the card game is also nowhere near as good as we’ve seen elsewhere. To the developer’s credit, each AI opponent seems to have slightly different behaviours – some are more conservative in how they bid and play than others – but nonetheless, when you play poker without bluffing and other psychological tricks, it becomes a really dry numbers game. The AI’s also relatively basic, and will regularly fall for your same bidding tricks and generally behaves quite predictably. That too is a big issue that tends to cripple a poker simulation.
While I’m a fan of the presentation and personality of the characters, the card game itself is less consistent. There’s a nice effect of the first three table cards being dealt, but afterwards, there are some animation cuts that can make it more difficult to follow the state that the round’s in than it should be.
Perhaps the biggest that Sunshine Shuffle throws up, however, is the utter lack of consequence in the poker game. You do earn some in-game currency that can be used to buy new decorations for around the boat, but otherwise, the singular goal that you’re working toward is driven from the narrative side of things. You’ll find yourself asking why play poker at all, and that’s really not a good sign for a poker game.
Finally, as a side note, the Switch version needs a bit more optimisation, as there are some noticeable delays in pressing buttons and while poker’s not a reflex-based game, the lag does make everything feel even more lethargic. The presentation really is gorgeous, with an incredible soundtrack to back it up, but all those little issues are going to dampen the initial enthusiasm for it.
I really wanted to enjoy Sunshine Shuffle so much more than I did. I love poker, noir, and anthropomorphised characters. It should have been a slam dunk, but unfortunately, the execution of the strong concept left me cold. I can see what the developers were aiming for, but sadly they never quite get there.