Take a bunch of old ideas, stitch ’em together, and create something refreshingly enjoyable. Hand of Fate plays with a full deck!
Developer: Defiant Development
Publisher: Defiant Development
Format: PC (reviewed), PS4, Xbox One
Released: February 17, 2015
Copy acquired via Steam press account
My local tabletop roleplaying group has a term, Ghost Doggin’ It, which refers to the creepy scenario in which only two people are involved in a game – a single player and the game master, each going back and forth. Named for the Ghost Dog RPG, it evokes nothing but discomfort and awkwardness as you think of two grown adults sitting too close to each other, doing voices and pretending to be characters for the benefit of nobody. One imagines candles being lit, and some creepily mawkish music playing in the background.
It’s okay if it’s at least three of you. Just two is plain weird, because of some reasons!
Hand of Fate is, essentially, a digital recreation of this nightmare scenario, as you engage in card-based roleplaying opposite a man old enough to know better. It’s also a surprisingly wonderful blend of genres that chews its own scenery with shameless charisma and provides an alluring amount of risk-and-reward dungeon crawling. Really though, that man is very old and surely has more important things to do than play a children’s card game in a dark room with strangers.
Fundamentally, the game presents a roguelike roleplaying situation. Adventures are randomly generated, you pick up all your gear as you progress, and if you end up dead, all that’s left is to start again. However, rather than manually crawl through a dungeon, your path is determined by a series of cards that the Dealer places face down on the table. Each turn, you move your character’s marker onto a connected card, which is then upturned and its consequences dealt with. Some cards feature encounters with monsters, others are akin to “Choose Your Own Adventure” stories with more than a little inspiration taken from the classic Fighting Fantasy books. There are also equipment cards, which grant the player weapons or armor, and Gain cards that offer food and gold. Curses and blessings bestow permanent effects on the player, while different shops allow you to exchange gold for goods and services.
Some situations require relying on luck, represented by four cards that denote degrees of either success or failure. These cards are shuffled and the player has to draw one blindly. Successfully sneaking up on an enemy, for example, may allow you to discard one monster card before a battle. Failing to creep past a set of shadowy tentacles, however, could cause you to draw from the Pain deck – losing valuable items or even maximum hit points.
Battles, like everything else, are randomly drawn from their own stack, meaning you could face any number of bandits, skeletons, ratmen or lizards. Combat itself takes place on small maps in the form of hack and slash action sequences. Using a counter system similar to the Batman Arkham games, enemy blows are telegraphed and intercepted with timed button presses, while damage is dealt simply by smashing the attack button. Some opponents have attacks that can only be dodged, while players can earn and use cards that allow them to cast spells or perform other special moves governed by cooldown timers. It’s not a particularly involved or elegant combat system, but it gets the job done and punctuates the card-based shenanigans just enough to keep things interesting.
Taking risks is a huge part of the game, with many optional challenges met along the way. A good deal of encounters can be avoided, but undertaking them is the key to earning tokens which unlock new cards for future games, and may let you draw from the Equipment deck to get new arms or armor. Of course, failure could mean losing an opportunity for tokens, or perhaps even suffering a curse – permanent debuffs that last for the entire run. Even exploring each “floor” can be a tricky prospect, as one food resource is consumed with every step taken. Food can be purchased at stores or won in encounters, but even so, replenishment cannot be guaranteed.
Some cards offer non-combat mazes, in which players guide their avatar through a series of trap-laden corridors. They’ll need to time their movements, know when to dodge, and avoid a bevy of spikes, spikes, and more spikes in order to reach the rewards and pick up new cards. As ever, the payoff can be a huge boon, but plenty of health might be lost in the process.
As games are won and cards unlocked, Hand of Fate evolves into quite the challenging prospect – the aim of each run is to fight through a series of card layouts and reach the boss encounter, taking on a challenging monster and clearing the dungeon – but one has to weigh getting there quickly before the food runs out against exploration in search of valuable advantages or tokens. After clearing certain milestone dungeons, the player’s starting hand is permanently upgraded, but enemies grow stronger and encounters pose nastier risks. Curses and blessings become more important too – most runs past the halfway mark impose added problems upon the player, such as projectile attacks hitting harder, or additional curses occurring every time new gear is bought at a shop.
For the most part, Hand of Fate is a tense action/card game hybrid with a lot to offer, but the challenge can sometimes feel a little unbalanced. For a start, the food issue tends to be more of a hassle than a fun problem to solve, as it drains quickly and only luck can bring it back. If you run out of food, you’ll lose health every turn you take, and this issue is compounded by the number of encounters that potentially take a huge chunk of those resources away. Buying food at shops is practically essential, to the point where it’s basically pointless trying to buy anything else. To date, gold is so unreliable and food is so crucial that the expensive weapons and blessings for sale at stores hold no value to me – better to spend all one’s cash on staying alive than picking up gloves that let you run faster in battle.
One other issue is that, despite the random nature of the game, many of the same cards inevitably reoccur time and time again. Lionel the disguised goblin won’t stop harassing me, and I’m so very tired of the Devil’s Carnival. You can build your own deck rather than let the game sort cards for you, swapping out the ones you’re sick of (provided the game finds your choices balancing), but there will always be ones popping up incessantly.
Nevertheless, the satisfaction you can get from turning near-defeat into victory is immense. There are moments when, starved of food and dangerously close to death, I’ve gotten lucky and stumbled upon a shop in the nick of time and resupplied, or uncovered the boss card just as I was running low, and pulled out a last-second win. The cards can be as kind as they are cruel, and even if you start the game losing a ton of health due to some horribly failed encounter, there’s still a chance of righting the ship and ending up on top.
It’s hard not to be delighted by the game’s curious premise and wonderful presentation. While not the most visually impressive game on offer, the conceit of playing cards opposite a weird old man is adorable, and the general mood and music create a nice – if somewhat Ghost Dogged – atmosphere. Only the Dealer is voiced, and his taunting lines are delivered with just the right amount of ham. My only major issue with the overall style is that I keep expecting the lights to switch on as the Dealer’s mother screams, “What have I TOLD you about using my candles for your stupid card game?” in the background.
Hand of Fate takes a solid idea and runs with it confidently, blending card games, roguelikes, RPGs and action gameplay to create something more inventive than the otherwise overdone sum of parts. Indeed, there’s nothing unique about any single element in this game – it’s all been done before, and often in a far more refined state – but there’s just something perfectly balanced about Fate‘s features that makes the whole thing work beautifully. With a story mode that’ll last a few hours, and an endless mode for continued randomized adventures, there’s enough content to keep one invested, and plenty of narrative silliness to uncover.
Aside from some problematic resource balancing and some unavoidable repetition, Hand of Fate is a clever game of risks and rewards that is well worth getting dealt into.