Hand Of Fate Review – This Is Cardcore

Take a bunch of old ideas, stitch ’em together, and create something refreshingly enjoyable. Hand of Fate plays with a full deck!

01

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.

02

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.

03

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.

04

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.

05

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.

8.5/10
Great

atypicaloracle
Guest
atypicaloracle
I went and got this game on Xbone after seeing the Squirty Play on it. I really enjoy it, though the “Plague” court combines with the RNG aspects of the game to make me more than slightly insane. I did like that the game even points out that you’ll see the same cards over and over again, and “the Player” (as I refer to him, since the other guy is “the Dealer”) is surprisingly interesting for a silent protagonist. All of these cards are based on his own memories after all. Another plus, though, is that the composer put the… Read more »
TSotP
Guest
TSotP

I also watched TotalBiscuits “WTF is…” on this, and he did say that the actual fighting was a little lackluster and unresponsive. I wonder. Do you think the fighting might be better if it has a “Dragon’s Crown” style? Even down to the sprites being 2D and looking like they are flat? i think it would work really well with the Card theme as well.

Plips
Guest
Plips

I’m so glad you reviewed this! I saw it pop up on Steam and went from incredibly intrigued by it to very pessimistic about it. It sounded like they tried to combine too many things in a way that I wasn’t sure would work out. I’m still not sure if I’m sold on it but I am that much more likely to actually try playing it now.

Matt
Guest
Matt

Jim, the next time you make a jab at a poorly made Unity game and then make your disclaimer about there being good Unity games, you ought to use this title as your go-to example of a great use of Unity. =)

Snowskeeper
Guest
Snowskeeper

I’m okay with Lionel, because he actually offers you something; Devil’s Carnival is long, and almost never rewards you with anything worth having, even after obtaining two Huge Successes. It had some pretty cool writing–I still want to know just what the Hell was going on in there–but my problem with it is the same as my problem with Sunless Sea; too many repetitions will spoil the broth. They will NOT fill our hearts with love.

Snowskeeper
Guest
Snowskeeper

(I’m very fond of the Dealer, and the minimalist story was actually pretty well done, for all its cheesy cliches. I might just be too young to have gotten tired of them, though; I’ve been told that about other things before.)

Dave Dogge
Guest
Dave Dogge

I liked it on PC … the combat is perhaps it’s weakest component but the presentation is excellent, oddly I preferred it to Hearthstone, it needed just a little more card variety I thought.

Morthasa
Guest
Morthasa

Now I really want to see some webcomic or other do the “Dealer’s mother” scenario described in the review!

Anonymoose
Guest
Anonymoose

i dont know the animes is this yugioh?

BAH!
Guest
BAH!

No, you’re thinking of the pokemans. This is closer to Beyblade.

Dr. Mel
Guest
Dr. Mel

Paragraph 1 “one imagines candles”, you missed the s, ya dingus!

BAH!
Guest
BAH!

Random dungeons and never-the-same-twice-in-a-row challenges are all well and good, but I absolutely refuse to play any game where “luck” has a significant influence on the player’s ability to do well. The one thing I hate more than failing is failing regardless of how well I play.

Now, that’s not to say I think this game is “bad” or “poorly designed”, but it is definitely not for me. Good review.

Billy
Guest
Billy

The “Some situations require relying on luck, represented by four cards that denote degrees of either success or failure” doesn’t appear to rely on luck. The game shows you the four cards before flipping them over and shuffling them, and the shuffle animation appears to be legitimate. In other words, you can follow the card movements with your eyes and know which card is where. Of course the shuffle tries to make it a non-trivial task, but it doesn’t appear to cheat, at least from what I’ve seen in gameplay videos.

ElektroDragon
Guest
ElektroDragon

Wow, really? You’d hate Backgammon then! I guess you also refuse to play ANY dice or card game in real life too?

BAH!
Guest
BAH!

If it’s with friends who are also under the same “danger”, I generally have no problem- though I won’t play RISK anymore. But Hand of Fate is single-player.

Snowskeeper
Guest
Snowskeeper

Fair enough, although I’d argue that overcoming Fate is one of the main themes of the game. The Dealer repeatedly states his admiration for your ability to force your way past anything Fate sets against you, for example.

Quickeyes
Guest
Quickeyes

Its actually not that hard to find the good card in the shuffle. When the card you are following is on top then its very easy. When it goes under others if you are very careful you can see it underneath and above the others. It is hard, but is not luck driven.

Xuan Ducceschi
Guest

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ElektroDragon
Guest
ElektroDragon

I’m glad you gave this a good review! I LOVE this game! Much better review candidate than *ahem* another reissue of a title everyone and their mother has already proclaimed as gaming perfection.

James
Guest
James

I really enjoyed this game until the final couple of boss fights when you basically needed perfect luck to progress.

I recommend never using a recommended deck after you start to get a larger deck, the game places the shittiest cards right back in the deck. You can take out cards like Lionel as well, only locked cards stay in the deck, those cards unlock pretty quickly IIRC.

Enuo
Guest
Enuo

Kinda sounds like Magic the Gathering with more stabbery.
Sign me up.

Snowskeeper
Guest
Snowskeeper

It’s nothing like Magic the Gathering, but it’s still very good.

Hondo Bogart
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Hondo Bogart

I just wanted to say thanks for the Pulp reference.

Wasteland
Guest
Wasteland
To be clear, it’s not that the same Encounter cards just keep reappearing endlessly as you play; rather, if you’re building your own decks between runs, some of the cards are “locked in” for your deck until you meet various requirements. After that point they become optional. Lionel’s encounter, for example, is the easiest way to get a basic shield in the early going. So the game locks him in until you’ve beaten a certain number of bosses (by which point you’ll have more item choices, and a shield will have become part of your basic kit). Others require that… Read more »
Babaganoosh13
Guest
Babaganoosh13

Is Malcolm still the antagonist, or is this a complete reboot?

Huhhhhhhhhhhh09
Guest
Huhhhhhhhhhhh09

I could see them making a pretty cool co-op game with this concept, I also like the idea of setting it in a modern setting. Make the DM a kid in his moms basement and blend some humor into the game. Still HoF looks pretty cool and I’d like to play it eventually.

The Dringus
Guest
The Dringus

Actually, someone has done something very similar to that suggestion already.

Check out CardHunter; cute little free to play that, I think, respects the player’s time.

Clark Kent
Guest
Clark Kent
“Aside from some problematic resource balancing and some unavoidable repetition”. That last one seems like a big problem in a roguelike which is already repetitive by nature. If The Binding of Isaac is so great it’s because each run ends up being different thanks to the variety of items and interactions present. But after watching a few let’s play I’ve already seen the same cards a fair number of time and that seems like a crippling problem for me. Plus, the combat system doesn’t really change so you basically end up doing the same thing over and over… doesn’t seem… Read more »
The Spearman
Guest
The Spearman
Part of it is that as a deck building game, you choose a hand of the encounter and item cards that will be generated during the run. Some weapons are better stat wise, and some just have better gameplay, and you keep them in your deck. Most encounter cards also come with a bonus token that you get the first time you succeed in it, since each encounter only happens once per game, at most, you’ll find yourself recycling a card you unlocked early until you finally beat it 4 or 5 encounters down the line. It’s still a resource… Read more »
MajorGrimbly
Guest
MajorGrimbly

I was really into this game until I hit the final boss fight. I like a challenge in a boss, but that one’s just unfair. Still, it’s a neat little game, and – as with Rollers of the Realm, which came out late last year – I’m always interested when developers try to mix-and-match genres to come up with something unique. It makes a nice refresher from gritty modern shooters, or icon-cluttered ‘open-world’ titles.

Mattspeakswords
Guest
Mattspeakswords

I’m also having trouble with the final boss. I think there’s a trick to it, but playing a full curse-ridden game before each try is too much.

Hoonster
Guest
Hoonster

Nymph of the Sweetwood resets your character. You lose everything but basic gear, 100 max health, and 10 food. Yes, including the curses and the blessing. You will have an easy run if you encounter this early in the run.

MajorGrimbly
Guest
MajorGrimbly

I’ve actually devolved to the point where I’m just ‘Alt+F4ing’ after every failed attempt so that my game reloads just before making my final move onto the boss’s card. It’s cheap and scummy, but I’ve got to be nearing a dozen failed attempts at the thing. It’s kind of spoiled the experience for me.

Avenger93
Guest
Avenger93
I asume you refer to the actual final fight not the last card boss. In that level, there really is one thing you must have: Nymph of the Sweetwood. Drawing that in the first 2 maybe in a pinch 3 floors then you at least have a chance to pass. As for the fight itself … it really isn’t that hard. You just need to figure out the proper order in which to eliminate each encounter. My tips are these: Dust suite: they are all mele so they will rush you, so just doge and get them to separate a… Read more »