Hand of Fate 2 was always going to have big shoes to fill. The original Hand of Fate was an absolute gem, and while it seemed to sneak up on the majority of press and players, it ended up being one of my favourite games of 2015. The way it expertly managed to interweave arcade-y action RPG combat with a procedurally generated overworld card game was somewhat astonishing, especially for a relatively unknown development team. But because that game was executed almost to perfection, I was curious as to how a sequel could top it, or whether it was even possible to improve upon a formula that already worked so well the first time around.
The simple answer is: Defiant Development have opted not to fix what isn’t broken. Instead, they have added more and more elements of randomness to Hand of Fate‘s already irresistible cocktail of chance and circumstance, but further balanced the sequel by increasing player choice, agency and preparedness.
Hand of Fate 2 might appear alien to those unfamiliar with the first game, but like its predecessor, it’s easy to fall in love with once you’ve picked up the basics. ‘The Dealer’, who’s looking rather more decrepit after the events of the first game, sits across from the player. He reveals that there are 22 challenges to be completed, challenges that play out across overturned cards on The Dealer’s table. Each card is an ‘encounter’, which could mean a damsel in distress, a band of thieving gnomes, or a burning building, to name but three of the game’s seemingly endless encounter varieties.
Most encounters offer the player a choice. This could be a choice between saving a life or ending one, choosing to engage in combat or sneak past an opponent, picking food over gold, or choosing to roll dice rather than leave your fate to the cards. This is one of the biggest changes introduced in Hand of Fate 2. In the original game, an encounter’s outcome was dictated by a hand of shifting cards, generally sorted into Success, Failure, Huge Success, and Huge Failure. This system returns, but it is joined by dice, a spinning wheel of varied cards (think Wheel of Fortune only with more plague), a trio of dice, and a swinging pendulum that must be stopped in the right place. It’s a great way of keeping the game’s core systems in place (a series of tiered outcomes weighted by their level of success, which can be influenced by gear, player perception, or even the outcome of combat), while making the mini-games themselves more varied and interesting. If you simply aren’t too good at picking the correct card from a shuffled pile, rolling the dice now appears to be a much more appealing option.
The second layer of Hand of Fate 2 is made up of its combat sections, small arenas of Akrham-esque warfare, the scale and difficulty of which is generally dictated by the cards drawn. You can dodge, counter and use limited special abilities – and while the action is never tactically straining, it provides a refreshing change of pace from the slower, more methodical Dealer’s table. If you’ve played well on the board, you might have fewer enemies to contend with. On the other hand, you might have purposely chosen to increase the difficulty of combat in the hopes of reaping the rewards back on The Dealer’s table. Perhaps most importantly, life lost in either plain carries over to the other, so a wrong move in combat can have a deadly effect on your next turn with the cards.
Players are no longer limited to a sword and shield as before – Hand of Fate 2 gives the option to dual wield knives, or take up a heavy axe or hammer. It seems like a simple, almost clichéd change, but once again, it completely alters the way you approach a challenge. You might find that you prefer the quick-striking ability of dual blades, but if you’re set to be fighting ranged or armoured enemies, they might not be the best fit, regardless of your skill in wielding them.
Companions serve as the game’s second major enhancement; the player can now take a single ally into battle, and is occasionally joined by other soldiers depending on overworld play. Whether it’s the hardy Northerner Cjolborn or the deceiving mage Macaleth, these companions fight by your side both on and off the battlefield, providing helpful bonuses on the board as well. For example, Cjolborn can offer the player an extra die after a failed dice roll, so taking him on a journey filled with dice encounters is pretty much essential.
Hand of Fate 2 ramps player choice up to a really satisfying level, meaning the uneasy feeling brought on by random rolls never overwhelms your ability to prepare for a challenge. The game will recommend the optimal hand of encounters, equipment, supplies and companions to take with you, but it’s often a good idea to experiment with new hands to see which ones best fit your play style.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about Hand of Fate‘s successor is how much richer and more rewarding the world feels, both on a mechanical and storytelling level. In the original game, there were moments in which the narrative felt a little tacked on, like a series of fantasy tropes rather than a new world in and of itself. This time, the fairly bland skeletons and lizards aesthetic has been overhauled with a more charming, almost Pratchett-esque sense of humour. Encounters can range from disturbing to hilarious, and there’s always a sense that your actions are taking place within a real, breathable world, even if it has been invented by the Dealer sat opposite.
For as many home runs Hand of Fate 2 hits, there are a few misses here and there. While combat feels sturdy as before, and is always accompanied by some impeccable sound design, there are moments in which the game doesn’t seem to play by its own rules. For example, if a musket fires at the same time as you’re attempting to counter a phalanx attack, there doesn’t seem to be a hard and fast system as to which attack, if any, manages to hit you.
In addition, while most of the challenges in Hand of Fate 2 are designed to best display the game’s ingenious mixture of chaos and order, one challenge peculiarly takes away the fun and excitement of overturning a new card, by having the player trudge back and forth across uncovered ground to collect wood and stone. It’s a baffling choice, but it doesn’t undo the fantastic work done across the game’s 21 other levels.
At the heart of Hand of Fate 2 lies the feeling that you can always fight your way out of a situation. No matter how high the deck may be stacked against you, there’s a glimmer of hope waiting in a hand of dice or an enchanted sword. It’s this amalgam of circumstance and skill that made the original game so alluring, and it’s only enhance in the sequel. While they may have added plenty of new elements to their winning formula, Defiant Development have clearly understood what worked about the first game. They’ve engineered a sequel that feels richer, more rewarding, and more captivating than its predecessor, a masterful blend of action, chance, strategy and tough decision-making that makes high stakes poker seem like a game of Clock Patience.