Usually, my desire to play particular games comes from the hype of critics who I trust or the simple fact that it’s a new entry in a series that I love. By contrast, Hand of Fate’s hook was all I needed to hear in order to shell out the twenty bucks needed to acquire it.
Hand of Fate is framed as a Deckbuilder/Roguelike hybrid, played one-on-one against a hooded figure known only as The Dealer. The player is tasked with defeating him and his twelve champions in a card game of his own design. This is the roguelike portion of the game, with each run of the game lasting for roughly twenty minutes, and failure (or a defeat of one of his bosses) starts a new hand. Persistence between play sessions comes in the form of the deckbuilding part: the player has to put together both an equipment deck for themselves, and an encounter deck which decides what challenges they’ll be facing. New cards are unlocked for both decks as the player defeats each encounter card for the first time.
The moment-to-moment gameplay is relatively simple, and mashes up a couple genres in its own right. Most of the game takes place on the table between you and The Dealer, as you move a small statue of yourself across floors made up of face-down cards in various arrangements, flipping the cards up and dealing with the consequences as you go. What happens next depends on the contents of the card, but will usually be of three varieties: a text-based choose-your-own adventure scenario, a shop where you can spend the gold you’ve acquired on various things, or a multi-opponent fight scene.
The game’s main source of tension is the give-and-take between two resources – food and health. Every move the player makes drains one denomination of food and recovers a bit of health; if the player runs out of food, they lose health with each movement instead, and if they run out of health, it’s game over. As such, the game is one of risk management – weighing the knowns and unknowns of each move to decide on the best course of action. The stakes fluctuate at every turn – you’ll end up on the Blacksmith’s Gratitude card and get the opportunity to pick up a weapon that lets you mow down your enemies, or you’ll flub a card draw at the Wheel of the Gods and get hit with a persistent curse that makes you unable to receive any healing – so you’re constantly adapting to new circumstances.
Tying the various disparate elements of Hand of Fate is the one-on-one conflict at its heart. At stake is something much more immediate than the global consequences of typical videogame plot lines – the player’s own pride. From the start, The Dealer is condescending. He taunts you at every turn, loudly declaring the perfection of his game and reminiscing of the many opponents he’s beaten in the past. Every session starts with a showy display of his magic powers, as he shuffles and deals the cards using telekinesis with an overwhelming air of nonchalance. Seeing this smarmy jerk’s frustration mount with each defeat of one of his twelve guardians – from bemused to nervous to threatened – is intoxicating.
At the same time, you are the newest in a succession of people who have tried to beat The Dealer, and choosing not to see the entire game through means that you are just one of many who have quit. In short, if you stop playing the game, The Dealer has won – and though he may be nothing more than a series of polygons, a strong voice actor and some well-written over-the-top dialogue, this result was horrific enough to my real-world person that I never once entertained the idea of uninstalling the game before he got his due, even when the going got rough later on.
That late difficulty spike is one of the game’s few problems. Hand of Fate is not particularly difficult for the most part, and I didn’t lose a single game until about halfway through; after that point, it starts getting trickier, but never so much that I ever felt truly threatened. Then the last three stages introduce debilitations that are so crippling that they feel unfair, which is especially true for the final boss, who is nigh-impossible without one specific piece of equipment. I would have liked the game to be more difficult overall, with the challenge following a more gradual curve.
Other faults are smaller, but present. The game’s protagonist is a mute player stand-in with no dialogue other than battle grunts, and as such it feels like create-a-character functionality – or at least the ability to choose between a male or female character – would be warranted. The game’s combat, a simplified and less demanding version of the Arkham games’, feels surprisingly good, but could use a bit more enemy variety in the later stages; rather than necessitate more complex tactics, it simply throws more baddies at you. This makes later battles more intense, but still feels mostly the same as the beginning of the game.
Regardless, Hand of Fate is a singular experience, one which drew me in more than any videogame in recent memory. That such a mish-mash of styles such could be pulled off with so much confidence by a relatively new team of developers (a company by the name of Defiant Development, for the record) is nothing short of miraculous, and I look forward to seeing where the studio goes next.