Platforms: PC, PS4
Reviewed On: PC
Developed by: Defiant Entertainment
Published by: Defiant Entertainment
Review code provided free of charge by the publisher.
2015’s Hand of Fate from Defiant Entertainment was one of those genuinely wonderful surprises, a game that came out of nowhere with a small budget and a loving team who had a concept they wanted to turn into a reality. So over two years later we’ve got a sequel, and like the first game it has come out of nowhere. I didn’t even realize there was going to be a Hand of Fate 2 until the press release stating it was released landed in my inbox. Is this one a wonderful surprise, too?
Once again you are taking on the role of a nameless hero playing a unique game (er, within a game) against the mysterious masked man known as the Dealer from the first Hand of Fate, his face and hands now sporting the scars he earned during that story. His incredibly hypnotic voice, acerbic wit and comments remain your constant companion throughout the game as he guides you toward an ultimate goal that he hints at. Is this a game of life and death? You might assume so, except at times he even seems encouraging and his game is surprisingly fair. He’ll scathingly comment on your failures, yet sometimes share in a laugh, perhaps mentioning how you seem to favor a specific card or how you’ve once again wound up relying on religions and prayers to get you through.
It’s like a 1-on-1 session of Dungeons & Dragons where you and a friend take on the roles of adventurer and dungeon master. The Dealer’s voice actor is absolutely terrific, to the point where he actively manages to cover up the fact that he’s basically speaking in vague terms about many things. Break down a lot of his comments and they’re basically meaningless.
Well, except when he says, “Every element of the game has improved, even those elements which at first seem familiar.” He’s not kidding as the developers have seemingly left no stone unturned in their quest to make a stronger sequel. From better graphics to added mechanics, user interface tweaks and much more Hand of Fate 2 looks to bury its own predecessor.
But let’s start with the basics of what the game is: You explore a board made entirely of cards which come from the Dealer’s personal collection and from your own stockpile that are gained throughout the story by completing primary and secondary objectives. You’ll earn new cards for beating the main challenge, but other cards along the way contain opportunities to unlock even more cards. You’re represented by a golden figure and you can move it to any adjacent card, flipping it over and activating the encounter that it represents. Some of these are simple text-based events like chatting to an innkeeper who wants to trade or a chance visit to Goblin Town, while others will have you fighting enemies in third-person. You might venture into a dark alley and choose between the obvious trap that has some great equipment as bait or the unknown chest. Maybe you’ll help a woodcutter, or encounter some enemies on a narrow bridge where you can opt to fight or risk diving into the water below.
As you explore you use up food which serves to heal you as well, and so there’s some resource management to be had as you sometimes you have to hurry towards the objective to avoid taking starvation damage or sell equipment in order to buy food. A fairly big change for the sequel is that you can set up camp on completed cards, and that lets you buy food and equipment, and sell your existing gear. It’s a great, simple change.
As fantastic a concept as the first Hand of Fate was its biggest flaw was simple repetition; after the five-hour mark or so the experience began to lose its luster as more repeated cards showed up and the simple mechanics struggled to keep players going. To the developer’s credit they’ve sought to solve this problem by adding a bunch of new elements into the game to help keep things interesting, alongside the expect raft of new cards. The biggest change is the game is now divided into 22 challenges, each having their own unique gimmicks. In Strength, for example, you have to play with a sliver of health and a curse that stops food from healing you, while another challenge has you trying to figure out which of three people is an assassin. Yet another puts you in a gigantic forest where you have to race against Empire forces. A personal favorite of mine had you taking soldiers into the wilds to mine stone and gather wood to shore up a forts defenses, all while constant barbarian hordes moved across the board to assault the fort. Quite a lot of the objectives boil down to hunting the map for stuff, but there are some great gimmicks that cleverly use new mechanics to keep everything feeling fun and interesting.
Other smaller additions help keeps things feeling entertaining, Like before there are times when you have to randomly choose a card to determine success or failure, but now there’s a dice minigame where you have to beat a minimum score, plus there’s a spinning wheel of cards where some skill can actually get it to land on exactly what you want provided it’s not going at max speed. On top of that there’s the pendulum where you have to stop a swinging laser at exactly the right moment. If the idea of dice and random card choice doesn’t sit well with you the whims of luck can be countered by some benefits you gain from equipment and other stuff.
You also get to drag companions along on your quests this time, with a total of four to choose from, each with their own benefits. The Wanderer, for example, can add an extra die during dice tests, and packs a pretty reasonable punch in a fight. They also come with their own personal quest cards, providing opportunities to flesh out their personalities a little. Like the main storyline, however, there’s not exactly a lot of actual plot to be found. It’s vague stuff kept to just a small collection of words.
Combat has been improved too, taking its cues from the likes of the Batman: Arkham games in that you’ve got a button for attacking, one for breaking an opponent’s defenses, another for dodging and finally one for defending against an incoming strike when the appropriate glowing green icon shows up. The end result is completely…competent. Despite the fact that fighting lots of baddies was a huge part of the first game the combat was always a drag, and while it is better here and thus makes the numerous fights a bit more fun the simple truth is that the game lacks fluidity and feels somewhat clunky in its execution. Since the enemy variety isn’t huge the fights do start to drag more than they should as well. Some updates to finetune the responsiveness of the controls and timings should help quite a bit, though.
Like before the best part of the game is slowly acquiring new cards by not only beating the main challenges but also by completing secondary objectives on other cards, some of which can take a while to figure out as they may even require you to get something else from a different encounter. As you embark on a new challenge you’ll get three tips about what to expect, letting you tailor the cards you want to add to the game. You can pick a companion, select encounter cards, choose what equipment will pop up and decide on a few starting supplies. A warning about food might lead you to stock up on encounter cards that you know can provide chances to get more supplies or you might opt to include a number of ways to get your hands on some of your best gear, but the catch is that until you actually run into a new card on the board you won’t know what it does, so there’s plenty of incentive to try out newly acquired cards in order to discover their secrets. It’s the enjoyment of a real-life collectible card game without the soul-crushing knowledge that you’re ultimately going to become obsessed by buying a neverending stream of booster packs that will slowly destroy your bank balance.
Story is where the game struggles. There is an overarching plot with the Dealer himself, but aside from the occasional comment as you progress through the challenges it’s kept in the background for the most part. Each challenge has their own storyline and are only connected to each other by the fact that you’re a roving hero who seems destined to bumble into a variety of situations, but they’re basic stuff with forgettable characters. Really the true tale comes from the encounter cards, like running into a waterfall of youth or chasing a Goblin into Goblin Town. And yet at times the game’s own cards play against it. It’s a little weird to be navigating a sprawling forest before coming across an arm wrestling competition or random friendly tavern in the middle of nowhere. The variety of cards available to choose from can often be at odds with the stories the game is telling. It’s not a particularly big problem, though.
While the developers may run on a tight budget the large majority of the game taking place in the form of cards has allowed them to provide some pretty good graphics where needed. Watching the Dealer swirl cards around with a wave of his hand before they form the playing area looks great, and during combat while the animations may not be the smoothest there’s a pleasing level of detail to be found on enemies, yourself and the environment. There’s an almost Fable-like style that pervades the character models which I really enjoyed.
But the most amazing thing of all in Hand of Fate 2 is how it’s a game about collecting cards and yet somehow doesn’t have a microtransaction to be found anywhere within its digital bones. In an era where EA somehow managed to jam upgrade cards that could be bought with real cash into a Need for Speed game it’s nice to see developers snubbing such crude tactics in favor or working to a sensible budget and charging a good asking price for the finished product. I hope it’s a sales success for them, because they deserve it.
Okay, okay, counting the lack of microtransactions as something amazing is doing a huge disservice to Hand of Fate 2 and its creators. I’m impressed by how good a sequel this is, keeping what made the first game entertaining while also fleshing it out with solid new additions to the formula that help it cruise past the five or six-hour mark where the first game struggled so much with ease. I was still enjoying the various challenges a dozen hours in, and getting quite excited about new cards I was acquiring. The satisfaction of picking out equipment and encounters for each new challenge kept me going, especially when I had to accept that the cards I currently had might not be suited to the challenge so it’d be best to come back later.
That’s a lot of praise I’ve been ladling out, so it’s worth mentioning that the game’s biggest flaw can be its occasional habit of flipping over a card and then screwing you over. Most of the time there are ways of mitigating events or working around luck, but there are also a few times when the cards just don’t like you. You might try to hide from a patrol because you have no health left but fail the dice roll, leaving you to battle it out. Sure, skill can carry you through the fight, but there’s no denying that some bad luck has left you in a poor position and having to restart the entire challenge because of it can be annoying. It’s worse when you’re on low health, flip over a card and simply die without any chance at all.
Don’t fret, though, because these moments were rare and while it was annoying to occasionally restart a challenge due to pure bad luck the game is strong enough that replaying something doesn’t feel like a chore. These blemishes never got in the way of enjoying Hand of Fate 2, a game that is, in my very pointless opinion, worth buying.