Release Date: May 31, 2023
Developer: Strange Scaffold
Publisher: Strange Scaffold
There’s a series of famous paintings from the late 1800’s and early 1900’s featuring dogs playing poker in various settings; there’s a good chance you’ve seen at least one of them represented in a TV show or movie over the years. Sunshine Shuffle, the latest game from eclectic indie developer Strange Scaffold, asks the question: what if these cute animals were actually retired criminals, and what if you got to play poker with them on a boat in the middle of the ocean?
Sunshine Shuffle is a brief, narrative-focused experience about uncovering the story behind a bank heist that went wrong twelve years ago. You play as a private investigator who’s been tasked with uncovering what really happened all those years ago, with the promise of amnesty granted to the former criminals in exchange for their story. The whole game takes place around a poker table on a paddleboat in the middle of the ocean, and the objective is simple: play some Texas Hold’em, and soak in the stories of these deceptively cute-looking critters.
It’s all quite simple in its execution; in Sunshine Shuffle, you’re either playing cards, reading dialogue, or both at once. You could argue that it’s either a story-driven poker game, or a visual novel with poker gameplay mixed in. Whether you’ll enjoy Sunshine Shuffle directly corresponds to how much you enjoy one or both of those things. For my part, I’m always down to soak in a good story, but have never been much of a gambling guy. Fortunately, Sunshine Shuffle does a great job introducing the rules of the game, and I found it pretty easy to digest as a relative newcomer to the game. You can refer to the tutorial at any time, and the on-screen elements do a good job at showing what other players at the table are doing, like raising bets or folding, to help you make strategic decisions.
I also appreciated that there’s no real penalty for “going bust” – losing all your chips. At the start of the game, all players at the table start with 500 chips, and I was worried that I would have to restart the story if I lost. Fortunately, when this happens, all players simply reset to 500 chips again, and the story continues. In other words, there’s no real penalty for failure. This could be a negative if you’re looking for a realistic representation of gambling, but if you’re simply here for the story, I think this was a wise approach. (It’s also possible to simply not participate in a hand, so if you want a break from the cards or simply want to watch the story play out, that option exists.)
Of course, poker games are a dime a dozen – the unique selling point of Sunshine Shuffle is its surprisingly dark story, which explores the circumstances that led your tablemates to a life of a crime, and how exactly it all went wrong. The visuals and presentation of the game swerve completely in the opposite direction, embracing chunky, low-poly, colorful character designs. Upbeat ska music plays in the background (if you want) and the animals explain their brooding backstories in Animal Crossing-esque warbled voices. It’s a surreal contrast that may not necessarily make sense from a thematic standpoint, but I found the dissonance led to some funny and shocking moments that may not have worked had the game taken a more straight-faced approach. (This is all very much in-line with the absurdist nature of Strange Scaffold’s other games, perhaps most notably their game An Airport for Aliens Currently Run by Dogs.)
The writing is great, too. Characters are initially reluctant and sometimes outright hostile to you, anxious about your presence and hesitant to open up. As you progress through the story, they slowly reveal more and more of what happened. There’s some great banter between the cast – I particularly loved Fidelius, who plays the role of the stoic, grizzled leader who keeps the cronies in line. Sometimes characters will interrupt the poker game to have a side-conversation, too, which helps sell the setting of a high-stakes poker game among “professional colleagues”.
All that said, I do think Sunshine Shuffle could benefit from some extra content, and a little extra polish around the edges. My biggest gripe is that some of the non-story dialogue – specifically the quips where characters remark on your poker skills (or lack thereof) – start repeating way, way too early. There’s also only a handful of music tracks in the game, so after those started repeating, I tuned the music off entirely. While it’s nice that you can unlock decorations to spruce up the boat’s interior spaces, I would have preferred some additional card games present to mix things up. I think that most of this is forgivable considering the smaller overall scope of the project, but there’s one decision that baffles me – for some reason, you use the B button to accept/advance in menus, and the A button to cancel/back-out. In other words, it’s reversed compared to how literally every other game on the Switch works. I got used to it eventually, but… it’s a strange oversight.
Sunshine Shuffle is a niche title, but it’s an approachable and fun way to play poker, and the simple cardplay is made significantly more interesting by the unique approach to storytelling. I loved hearing the “war stories” of the snarky, untrusting cast, and was surprised by how adeptly the writing managed to tackle serious emotional beats while retaining a cute and family-friendly presentation. While I’d like to have seen a little more variety in the package overall, what’s here is compelling and unique, and worth trying out for (patient) fans of experimental narrative games.
Sunshine Shuffle copy provided by the publisher for the purposes of this review.