What do you get when you cross an RPG and a CCG?
Well actually the net result is rather clever. In the game by Defiant Development you sit at a table across from a mysterious figure for a game of cards, moving your token along random layouts that offer challenges, threats, conundrums and opportunities. Each round unveils a sliver of a story, uncovering sidequests and fighting your way to the finish line. It’s a rather interesting little take on a classic format that I picked up during the Steam Summer Sale.
You enter the hall of the game master, he paints you a picture of the fraught journey your character has undertaken just to sit at a table to play a game of lives. He reveals each and every champion you must topple in turn to win his little game, starting with the classic bandit captain, the Jack of Dust (with appropriately styled playing card) and working your way through his deck of nemeses from their various suites.
With every play you uncover a new breadcrumb along a trail of a sidequest, like following the trail of the exiled goblin in a bad moustache, Mister Lionel, who sends you back to a character you may have stumbled across a few times, an Elven Maiden. Or the White Court who’s opening scene pitches you against the same bandits you’ve fought a bunch of times, only to be told that these aren’t the typical “3 of Dust” cards you’ve been dealt repeatedly from the Enemy Deck, but agents of some hitherto unknown faction. It’s a clever little bit of world building that takes the elegantly simple mechanic so very real, taking the text boxes on screen spawned by bits of virtual cardboard, and giving the feeling that there’s a very real place under there.
And that experience doesn’t end there. The narrative of the game master puts you a little on the spot at times, little remarks about reliving the same memories over and over again when you draw a card you’ve seen before. If you want a great example of how gameplay and story being woven together, because no move you can make goes without some huge sniff of world building.
The deck is the key focus here. Every enemy is a card from a suite, from the typical mobs down in the low numbers to the bosses of the royal end, Jacks, Queens and Kings. Each suite is it’s own game theme, the undead, banditry, lizardfolk and so on. Some of the champions of the suites also bring there own specific cards to the encounter deck, giving them a theme that spreads further throughout their respective levels than the flip of their own card. It adds a structure to the random(ish) shuffles of the decks that lends a real story structure.
The actual visual design is something beautiful, mobs have just a hint of individual style, different clothing and armour styles kept to within their respective theme so that they are immediately visually distinguishable with their colour palettes and silhouettes. For example, a fight with a band of skeletons and bandits, I could tell the difference with my glasses off (no small feat by the by, I am blind) but I spotted a skeleton with an arrow still jammed in its eye socket, and another with its chest plate half-off; one bandit toting a headscarf, another bald with a huge beard.
One grievance I may put forward, there is no choice to the character you construct. You are the same guy with different clothes and armour every game, and with the semi-roguelike style of gameplay you only ever get one save to keep grinding at. I would have liked to have seen a little more character customisation, anything from a choice of gender to starting weapon, just to feel as though some personal stamp has been made. We needn’t choose the colour of the hero’s underbite or the distance between his nostril and elbow, but a little variety would go a long way.
The best part about Hand of Fate is the short window of time in which you can play a satisfying game. You can take on a single run at a boss for half an hour, or go on and on through the story or through endless mode for as long as you like.
Open the game to a sarcastic comment from the game master, choose your enemy from those you’ve faced before or tackle the next big-bad on the ladder. Build a deck out of those cards you’ve collected so far, choose to add or remove a few encounters from the possibilities before play so as to ignore a sidequest or try and make the journey easier or harder to taste, and begin! You start with a pocketful of coin, fixed health, and food to provision your journey, one of the more interesting play mechanics. Your token begins on point A and must take the trip to point B by whatever path you choose.
Your resource management, choice of path, combat skills, and pure blind luck all contribute to your success or failure… wow, it almost sounds like a roleplay and/or collectable card game. Luck may be the worst component, your chances of succeeding or failing at a task are randomly determined by picking from one of four cards, the nature of which will vary slightly according to the difficulty of the task. For example, while opening a locked chest you might have to choose one of the three success cards and avoid the one failure card, and yet when rocks fall from on high you have one success to find between two failure and one huge failure. Some of these failures can be devastating, and yet there is no means by which one can adjust one’s chances, and only hope to endure where everything else is managed by some form of skill.
So be it, no game is so utterly perfect for every player that a critical mind can’t pick some flaw, even if it is one of personal taste. Personally I find this a game that’s quite easy to put down after a short spell, and yet one I’m glad to pick up again, even as an entree to some other game or something to squeeze in between other tasks or jobs. A quick hand before work, something to kill time waiting for gamers to arrive for their weekly dose of punishment, or even something from which to pluck a random encounter to fill a gap in the table.
I am very pleased to see that Defiant are releasing Hand of Fate 2 later this year, and from the look of it we may very well be seeing beyond the veil of cards and text and deeper into the world beyond.