Platforms: Xbox One, PS4 and PC
Reviewed On: PC
Developer: Defiant Development
Publisher: Defiant Development
If you boil Hand of Fate down to its core elements it is essentially a pretty simple dungeon crawler where the adventure is randomly generated at almost every turn. Combat is basic and the dungeons very straightforward. Yet there’s something magic here, quite literally in regards to its story within a story. Hand of Fate is an often fascinating mixture of card game, tabletop roleplaying and videogame, a unique and somewhat innovative title. It’s ultimately flawed, yet absolutely worth checking out.
In a cabin at the end of the world you find yourself in a deadly card game against a strange opponent whose only desire is to soundly defeat you in the very game he created across untold years. The dungeons you delve and entire adventure that you go on are created from a deck of cards, a deck which you put together yourself. On the other side of the deck the dealer sits with his own deck, a set of cards that will be mixed with your own in order to thryour opponent who adds in a selection of things that you deal with along the way, taking a very standard idea and building a unique presentation around it. When it comes time to play cards arr drawn from the encounter deck and are laid out on the table face-down forming paths like those of a boardgame, and a bronze token represents your adventurer. You must simply choose a direction to go in, and the card you land on is flipped over to reveal what happens. Sometimes you simply encounter a wandering maiden who can offer supplies or gold, or you might see a weapon shining amongst the bones of a corpse at the bottom of a cliff, giving you the choice to climb down and try to retrieve it. In moments like this success or failure is may be handled by simply picking blindly from a set of four cards that determine whether you succeed or fail horribly. If luck isn’t the driving force behind the card then you’ll probably need to pick from a one or more lists of options, choosing exactly what to do in a given situation. You’ll come across priests, barter with the Devil himself, tackle angry mobs, retrieve wayward husbands from pubs, battle in arenas and try to navigate through mage towers. At times it feels like you’re playing something like Dungeons & Dragons, and at others it reminds me of the old adventure books where you flipped to specific pages to play out your chosen actions. But while some encounters come down to luck and others a choice, much of the time you’ll end up in a fight, where the game suddenly switches from a tabletop adventure to a third-person brawler, a somewhat jolting shift in perspective.
Combat marks the game’s single biggest weakness, sadly, attempting to emulate the flowing beauty of the Batman: Arkham games but without the same fluidity or level of production value. You can launch simple attacks, counter, stun and dodge incoming blows, all of which uses the exact same controller mapping as Rocksteady’s Batman games. Hand of Fate is hardly the only title to mischievously steal this system – with Shadow of Mordor being a recent example of how to do it right – it’s just that it gets it entirely wrong in the process. The key to the Batman games, and by extension Mordor, wasn’t that the fighting system was deep, but rather than it was incredibly smooth, responsive and boasted outstanding animations that made fights fun to watch. By contrast Hand of Fate has clumsy, basic animations, lacks the same level of response and sometimes even fails to register button presses correctly. The result is mediocre combat that quickly becomes more of a chore than anything else, a button mashing couple of minutes that does at least succeed in breaking up the gameplay a little, even if that break is kind of jarring. The only saving grace is that the different enemies do at least make things decently challenging, though some bigger arenas would be welcome. The areas you fight in are so cramped that enemies will trip over themselves while trying to maneuver. Some special abilities also help mix things up just a tad, like throwing knives and the like, but it’s far from enough. The rest of the game is so brilliantly enchanting that it’s hugely disappointing for the combat to be so lackluster.
Aside from defeating each level’s primary bad guy the main source of new cards with which to build your collection comes from tokens which are awarded by dealing with certain events that pop up on your adventure Naturally these encounters tend to be a bit different from the standard ones, yet surprisingly aren’t always more difficult, at least no in a traditional sense. They vary wildly, but importantly many of them don’t involve the combat system. Navigate through them correctly and you’ll be given a token, which is essentially a booster pack, granting you new cards to choose from and add to your deck. It’s not an entirely random selection, though, as tokens often contain a card that directly follows-up to the previous one, creating small stories within a story. It’s this system that provides you with a reason to include potentially dangerous cards in your deck rather than just loading up on superficially beneficial events. Importantly even if you die while adventuring you won’t lose any tokens, so if any particular section proves too challenging you can always grind away for some new cards to help out.
The deck of encounter cards is what makes up the layout of the dungeons, but equally important is your equipment. You begin every new adventure armed with basic gear, including a weapon likely to only strike fear into the hearts of cowardly rabbits. Along the way various cards will give you a chance to draw from the equipment deck you’ve created and tool up with things like flaming swords, a shield, a shiny helmet and new armour. Like the encounter deck the amount of cards you can have in the equipment deck is limited, thus choosing what gear to include can become tricky.
It’s not as simple as just adding new cards to your deck, though. A shiny new addition to your virtual collection only shows its name to you at first, leaving the details of exactly what it does hidden until it’s flipped over during your exploration of a dungeon. In a way it’s almost annoying because as soon as you get a new card you want to really to delve into its details and figure out if it’s worth adding to your existing deck, but instead you must wait until pure chance allows you to happen upon it. This does, however, mean that you’re liable to want to use the card at least once in order to discover what it does, thus the game ensures that you don’t simply stick to the same things.
Collecting these cards brings a none too subtle hint of the TCG (trading card game) genre as you build up a small arsenal of cards to build your deck from. Constructing your deck isn’t complicated stuff, but there’s plenty of enjoyment to be derived from picking and choosing between the cards you’ve earned across your adventures. Naturally the cards that tend to offer powerful benefits, be it access to your better equipment or even a blessing, tend to have potentially danger negatives. And of there’s always the desire to include cards that will give you an opportunity to snag another token or two. You’ll also be able to gather gold in various ways which can be spent at shops and the like for health, supplies, new gear and more.
Toddling around the dungeons in search of your ultimate foe is complicated by a system of supplies. On every adventure you pack a certain amount of food, and each time you move from card to card you expend one of those rations in the process, slowly draining your supply. More food can be purchased from handy merchants or acquired through the effect’s of certain encounters, or in some cases even lost due to unforseen circumstances. Run out of food and instead of regaining a small amount of health for every move you make you’ll lose a chunk of 10 health points instead, a sizable penalty.
The absolute star of the show is your opponent. Indeed, it’s fair to say that without his presence the rest of the game would be mildly enjoyable, certainly, but would not have anywhere near as memorable. Clothed in purple his dialogue and voice are frankly perfect. At times he taunts, and others shows grudging respect for your skills. He teaches you the game and through his layered words you slowly uncover the story, for lack of a better word. There’s no true narrative in a strict sense other than that you’re facing off against this mysterious man in a cabin at the end of the world. Still, his words communicate a fascinating, if often vague, lore. He carefully weaves a deliberately vague world around you, with just enough hints of strange magics to keep you intrigued. He is a teacher and your foe, a man to be admired and reviled. At first he is relatively polite yet detached, but as you conquer his collection of cronies he becomes more aggressive. After a while he does begin to repeat himself, but generally the game manages to mix up his lines enough for a few playthroughs.
His handling of the cards further helps immerse you into the world. On a purely technical level Hand of Fate is entirely unimpressive, lacking a lot of fine detail and smooth animations. None of that matters, though, as he shuffles, deals, adds and moves cards with a wave of his hand, the pieces of cardboard flying around the table in mesmerizing ways. It’s hard to put into words just how compelling the mixture of this strange character and the handling of the cards actually is. It’s the character that truly sells the rest of the game.
Which is not to say that he and he alone somehow carries the rest of the game. Those cards will get a hold of you, too, constantly demanding that you earn new additions for your collection. But Hand of Fate’s biggest weaknesses also stem from those cards. On the one hand they can create wonderful adventures where you encounter things like a strange circus that simply fades away once navigated, or moments where desperate for food you sell your shield for rations at a shop, only to stumble upon plenty of edible goodness on the next turn and a pile of enemies that really make you wish you still had your shield the next. On the other hand runs of pure back luck can lead to things like having to fight several groups of enemies one after another, leading to a tedious sequence of battles. Or you might find yourself victim to a series of harsh cards whose results are dictated by fickle luck, rendering you heavily wounded just because chance wasn’t on your side for the past few movies. Meanwhile repetition can set in pretty quickly as you encounter the same cards over and over, or just begin to tire of the basic gameplay loop. IN some instances I ran across the same card on the first section of three different dungeons in a row. The more familiar you become with your deck, the more you can tire of seeing certain cards pop up. Thankfully each dungeon only tends to run around 20-minutes, so they’re perfect for short sessions. Regardless this is a game which loses its luster fairly quickly, always managing to intrigue but struggling to engage for its full run time.
As someone who has played a lot of card and tabletop games over the years what I love about Hand of Fate is how it brings to life the very feelings you have when playing something like Magic. As terribly geeky as it sort of sounds when you get really into playing a card or tabletop game, like I did when I was a kid experiencing Yu-Gi-Oh! or listening to a talented games master explaining a situation, the battles taking place between sheets of cardboard and figures can come alive in your imagination. Hand of Fate takes this idea quite literally, opting to remove the element of chance from combat by simply putting you right into the fray instead.
Aside from the primary story mode there’s also Endless Mode, which pretty much does what it says on the metaphorical tin, pitting you against a never-ending dungeon. Deck construction is out in this mode, and instead every card in your collection is used to create the playing area, plus additions from the dealer’s deck, too. The idea is just to keep going for as long as you possible can, a goal made more difficult by the inclusion of curses that are applied to you and other obstacles along the way. Endless Mode serves as a good way of earning a neat pile of shiny new tokens, but most people will likely tire of quite quickly.
An intriguing blend of card collection and third-person brawling Hand of Fate certainly has a unique selling point. Exploring a dungeon created entirely from your own collection of hard-fought cards brings a personal edge to the adventure, and the mysterious man who acts as your opponent makes for an outstanding games master and antagonist. As good as the gameplay is it’s just a shame that it struggled to keep me engaged after a while. Constructing a deck from new cards remains enjoyable, as does venturing through a land created almost entirely by your own choice of cards, but the game quickly settles into a routine that struggles to maintain that initial sense of wonder. Couple that the inherent problems attributed to a card game and weak combat and what we have is a fine game with some great ideas that never quite manages to execute them properly. Regardless, Hand of Fate is worth your time and your money. It’s a breath of fresh air in an otherwise stagnant industry.