Review: Hand of Fate

I move the piece representing myself to the next down-turned card, which flips over and shows me a damsel in distress, held by bandits. I could assault them without a second thought, or try and win her over by threatening the marauders. As I decide on the latter, four cards pop up – one written huge success, one written success and two, failure. They turn again and are shuffled – I try and keep my eyes on the back of the huge success card, but by the second time it’s shuffled I’ve lost it – and when I pick out a card all I get is plain success. Of the six bandits I’d have to face down in order to rescue the damsel, two flee in fear – the rest become scattered corpses around their former captive. As I set her free, she informs me of a nearby cache of food – a welcome reward, as starvation was two steps away from knocking on my door.

Hand of Fate is a collectible card roguelite game where a mysteriously cloaked old man deals you cards – good and bad – in an admitted attempt to stop you from progressing in his board/card game. He is your nemesis, and if you didn’t know that yet you’d find that out after only a few minutes in the game. Chance and choice play equally important parts in Hand of Fate, and you’ll often feel that the latter is as random as the first – like many things real, cause and effect isn’t always immediately evident.

Choices abound in a choose-your-own-adventure way, and their consequences will more often than not be learned by trial rather than deduction.
Choices abound in a choose-your-own-adventure way, and their consequences will more often than not be learned by trial rather than deduction.

Hand of Fate’s gameplay centers itself on the aforementioned “choice and chance” duality, but has other important aspects: you’ll have to manage your ever-increasing deck – and remember the dealer, your nemesis? he will also sharpen his side of the deck with tougher enemies and win-or-die events as you increment yours with better weapons and supplies – with the equipment and new cards you unlock as you complete certain events and event chains, manage your food and health pools to avoid an early death and lock swords with bandits, lizardmen, ratmen, minotaurs and many other mythological and arcane creatures in a fluid-but-simple combat system not unlike the Batman: Arkham games (lots of tumbling, blocking, countering and attacking). These encounter segments see you transported from the game’s board of cards to an arena – and there’s plenty of variety here, going from sunny shorelines to wet swamps and dripping caves – where you’ll either face the monsters previously shown as cards or traverse a level full of hazards and traps.

The deck is also an important element of the game, more-so in the Story mode, where you’ll build it with the cards you’ve unlocked – picking which events you wish to face and which you don’t, and what equipment pieces you think are useful to have and which aren’t. The dealer also has a say in this process, as he’ll toss in monsters, events and equipment pieces with no regard to your will. Progression is clearly marked as both enemies and encounters begin to yield bigger rewards and harsher defeats, and within a few hours you’ll have encounters where a single failure could reduce you to one health point. The further you get into the game, the better your starting equipment: you’ll get different weapons, pieces of armor, rings and even blessings from the get-go, and appropriately harder encounters to balance this.

Combat is simple and easy, though overwhelming enemy numbers and environmental hazards might get the best of you.
Combat is simple and easy, though overwhelming enemy numbers and environmental hazards might get the best of you.

And while all these elements of its gameplay come together in a cohesive manner, what really sets the game apart is its narrative and what I’d arguably call the protagonist: the dealer. For those of you who have played a tabletop RPG before, or even board games where you interact with other people, the feeling of vivid player-with-player conflict I felt with the dealer will come as a memory. Not only does he ramp up the game’s difficulty as you get better and acquire stronger tools, he reacts appropriately whenever you defeat one of his greater minions, complete a particular card’s event or acquire one of the artifacts his guardian bosses guard. The voice actor and his script make a good job of antagonizing you in a believable way: here is your enemy, he wishes your demise, defeat him.

The cards and their events are randomly generated upon starting a level or the endless mode, and will have you making decisions that yield different rewards – better to put in the broader category of consequences, actually. The reason why I called the dealer the game’s protagonist is in part because of how your choices are dealt with: they are strictly modular. Aside from unlocking new cards if you approach an encounter in a certain way, the decisions you make rarely have story consequences more than a couple of minutes in the future. A few cards will spawn events on your current board, but nothing more ambitious than that. This means the nameless character you play is mostly void of personality, much unlike your nemesis: he’s a blank slate that shifts and changes according to what the player wants to get from a particular encounter.

Environmental hazards are present in nearly every 'combat' encounter, and the maze-levels are particularly full of them.
Environmental hazards are present in nearly every ‘combat’ encounter, and the maze-levels are particularly full of them.

The game also features an endless mode, which puts its roguelite category to its truest meaning. You’ll have at your disposal every encounter and piece of equipment you’ve unlocked so far (for better or for worse) and you’ll descend the several levels until your life is claimed. Things get gradually harder as at each layer you complete the dealer bestows upon you a curse, or reduces your supplies/health, or steals a piece of equipment from you (did I mention you’d likely HATE him by the end of the game?). Eventually the dealer will claim your life, and then you’ll have a satisfying screen giving you your score, how well you did and leaderboards to compare your greatness to that of others. And that’s all very proper, because if it weren’t for this and the increasing difficulty you might find yourself getting bored by the same encounters, dialogues and remarks. The dealer only has so much to say, and the deck does have a limited amount of cards – though the developers have released a couple of free patches with new encounters and a DLC with more of them -, so much so that my return to the game was more as a desire to push myself further down the levels of the endless mode rather than find something particularly new.

The combat and gameplay of the game isn’t particularly difficult, and whatever tribulations you face will likely be fruit of your resource management – knowing when to swap gold for food and when to give out gold or food in certain events in return for a different reward – and your luck. There’s no denying luck plays a heavy part in the game when certain events have you flat out dying if you pick a ‘Heavy Failure’ card or having your resource pools reduced in one way or another. Hand of Fate is a card game and it isn’t afraid of flaunting that fact: failure will come as a product of bad luck. Experience and time with the game’s systems will help you diminish luck’s influence by improving yourself in its other aspects, but at no point will you be invulnerable to fate’s capricious whim.

Cards abound, be them encounters or equipment, and your survival will depend on how you chain them and your blessings and curses to your favor.
Cards abound, be them encounters or equipment, and your survival will depend on how you chain them and your blessings and curses to your favor.

The game oozes beauty in its design and artstyle: from the finely drawn cards which reminded me of those well-crafted tarot decks to the fantastic use of lighting and ambient sound to evoke the feeling of being in a desert, on a ship or fighting a coven of  mages at a lightning-lit hilltop, the dealer will bring you from the red felt of the game’s table to the encounters seamlessly, making it feel like a story is being told by your decisions, in real-time – a charm that lasts for a good while, right up until you begin to repeat encounters too frequently. While this modularity removes the moral weight from your decisions, it cuts out the fat many RPGs have and lets you go from one major event to the other in your quest, no boring fetch quests or grinding to halt your progress.

Hand of Fate is an interesting enough foray into the card game genre. It manages to successfully mash together a handful of different game genres, wrapping them in pretty Unity 5.0 graphics and a thematic, non-intrusive soundtrack. While the endless mode might be too much of the same for one who’s already beaten the game’s story mode, there was enough meat on the latter to leave me satisfied even if I decided not to play the endless mode. The dealer, with his strong personality and frequent interjections as you perform certain actions and take specific decisions, felt like a living, breathing nemesis – one that compelled you to beat him – being a fresh breath of air into the antagonist section of video games, which too often rely on cookie-cutter tropes for its villains, uninspired and opaque, and was the clear star of my time with the game. Long after you’ve forgotten the game’s particulars and mechanics, you’ll remember his quips, remarks and criticisms, a chastising voice reminding you in appropriately diminishing terms (as you defeat more of his minions) of how feeble you are.

The challenge is there for those who find enjoyment in the game's mechanical aspects.
The challenge is there for those who find enjoyment in the game’s mechanical aspects.

The whole game seems to be a solid, if simple, group of varied elements – basic action-rpg combat, basic collectible card game deck building, basic roguelike elements, basic decision-making a la choose-your-own adventure – all there to sustain a strong narrative and a strong character, the dealer, in his quest to stop you – a drama that diminishes in relevance the more you play and re-play the same encounters, and the more you visit its endless mode, which lacks the innovative panache of the story mode. Like many stories, Hand of Fate is a game best enjoyed the first time you go through it, with many new things to see and  discover – and having taken a few dozen hours just to see all the event chains, I wouldn’t say this is a short trip.

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