I usually shy away from videogames that attempt to recreate the strategic depth and often frustrating randomness of a card game, particularly when the game renders cards simply as “cards”, rather than as the monsters or spells they purport to represent. If CRPGs like Baldur’s Gate were invented to provide typical RPGs with more visual context, why then should card games be any different? Hand of Fate looks to combine both the unpredictability of card games with the fast paced combat and visual feedback of a typical action-RPG, and unbelievably, it succeeds with flying colours. Not only does Hand of Fate manage to seamlessly blend the world of hack-and-slash games with the much denser world of card gaming, but in doing so it has become an early contender for my personal Game of the Year.
In Hand of Fate, the player sits across from The Dealer, a mysterious, aged figure with a deck of cards. They set about playing “The Game of Life and Death”, a sort of cross between traditional playing cards, tarot cards and choose your own adventure games. Before each round of The Game, the player builds a deck of item cards and encounter cards which are then placed upon the board along with The Dealer’s random set of cards to “spice things up”. From here, the player can move around the board and overturn cards – some good, some bad, and many occupying a space somewhere in between. Each move the player makes consumes food, but regenerates health, and gold can be used at chance encounters or shop cards as a means for purchasing food, equipment or other boons.
Each level is a chance to defeat one of The Dealer’s most valued and dangerous henchman, all of whom possess more sinister versions of classic picture card names (King of Dust, Jack of Scales etc.) These levels offer up new challenges, though decks can be tweaked beforehand to include more helpful cards, and weed out those you might find troublesome or boring. In this way, Hand of Fate sticks to a fairly rigid structure and rule set, whilst still allowing an awful lot of player freedom and agency. I personally hated encounters which required me to have a lot of gold on hand, so tended to swap them for new cards or combat encounter cards.
Rather surprisingly, for a game which is ostensibly about cards, combat is fantastically fluid in Hand of Fate. Combining the hit-counter-dodge system perfected by the Arkham series with the tone and aesthetic of Fable, the game pits you against a variety of ranged and melee combatants, from skeletons, to bandits, to rat-men. All of this is fairly typical fantasy fare, but each monster design feels fresh and interesting, and there’s more than enough variety in the game’s encounters and boss battles to keep things engaging.
Some cards offer up encounters which revel solely in chance; the player might come to a treasure chest containing a valuable weapon, but they must first pick out a “success” card from a shuffled deck, and be sure to avoid the “failure” cards. This makes up the choose you own adventure portion of Hand of Fate, as it offers up a significant amount varying decisions which force you to carefully ponder your resources, equipment, and how lucky you might be feeling.
Though a great deal of the game’s encounters crush you with bad card draws and random events, it never feels unfair or unwarranted, rather an understandably punishing manifestation of The Dealer’s not-too-subtle desire to see you beat. About half way through the game, The Dealer points out how tightly designed and intricate the systems and features of his game are. For any other game, this might seem arrogant, but he’s absolutely right. Everything about Hand of Fate is simple, focused and neatly put together, which means it can throw heaps of surprises at the player without ever straying too far from its own rules. What’s more – the player’s equipment and resources reset completely after each level, but any new cards they encounter are added to the deck builder, so the game dons its rather over-worn rogue-like hat confidently. Each level presents a fresh start, but there’s always a feeling of progress and learning, even if it’s simply through a better understanding of the game’s intricacies on the part of the player.
A great deal of the game’s charm can be attributed to the dealer himself, who is performed with the perfect balance of subtle mystery and Emperor Palpatine ridiculousness. He frequently flourishes cards, fiddles with trinkets, and passes comment on the cards you choose (“I think you’re just including that card so you can get a shield more quickly”). It’s subtle, but it makes Hand of Fate’s main character feel like a living, breathing human, rather than a mindless videogame puppet. At times, it’s impossible to put the controller down and resist The Dealer’s snide remarks and verbal attempts to throw you off course.
Similarly, the game’s combat arenas are designed with the same love and attention to detail. Every tavern, forest, ship and cave represents a beautiful slice of The Dealer’s world, and though the arena’s outskirts can always be seen, it almost feels as though one can escape the confines of the cards and explore his intriguing fantasy universe. It actually shocked me how varied and many the combat arenas are, since these only make up about half of the game’s overall play time, and each individual location might only be seen once or twice in an entire playthrough.
There’s little wrong with Hand of Fate, though it obviously isn’t perfect. Boss fights are often rather underwhelming, since some of them can be felled after dishing out only a few sword blows. The Dealer makes a points of “bigging up” his main generals like some sort of mystic hype man, but sometimes his words are far too kind. It should also be said that the game’s final stage takes on a decidedly linear path, quite literally pitting all the cards against you whilst eliminating a lot of the freedom other levels had. That’s about all I can say to besmirch Hand of Fate‘s unabashedly golden record, though, since it’s so elegantly put together in almost every other way.
The game’s real triumph then, is its ability to teach a rather obtuse sounding cards game with short but effective tutorialising, in order to quickly emerge the player in its bizarre concoction of Magic the Gathering, Fable and D&D. Rarely does a game strive for such lofty heights and exceed them, but Hand of Fate takes its incredible concept and absolutely knocks it out of the park.