A couple of months ago (November 2017), I was excited to hear that a sequel to an old favorite had been released – Hand of Fate 2. However, with all of the other games that have been coming out, I got distracted and temporarily forgot about it. Now that the chaos of the holidays has died down, it’s caught my attention, once again.
After watching the trailer for the new game, however, I was reminded that I had never finished the original. This wasn’t due to a lack of entertainment value on the game’s part, but rather the fact that Dragon Age: Inquisition had been released a few months prior, and I just wasn’t done exploring every last nook and cranny of it. To atone for this tragedy, I recently re-installed Hand of Fate and gave it another go.
Here are my thoughts from going back through the original Hand of Fate (available on PC, PS4, and Xbox One), as well as the reasons I think you should totally give it a shot. As always, I will try stick to broad strokes and mechanics to avoid significant spoilers.
Hand of Fate is one of those games that doesn’t fit a particular genre, which makes it difficult to describe. I could tell you that it involves cards and deck-building, but that would give you entirely the wrong idea. I could tell you it’s a mix of Gauntlet Legends, Choose-Your-Own-Adventure, and Mind Maze (look it up, kids – it’s a classic!), but that would leave you utterly bewildered. Or I could say, “I can’t describe it – just play it,” and you’d forget all about it by tomorrow (and this would be cut rather short).
Instead, I will give you a brief summary of how it goes. You are playing the Game of Life and Death, and the only other major character is the enigmatic Dealer, who doubles as the game’s narrator. You are given a deck of cards that includes items and encounters. As the game progresses, you’ll earn more cards, but we’ll cover that later. To start a game, you pick a boss, customize your deck, and watch the Dealer do some fancy shuffling. After this, he “deals” a map, with encounter cards acting as places and interactions for you to… encounter. You make your way across the map, kill the boss, and Bob’s your uncle.
While technically accurate, this is a vast oversimplification of a surprisingly deep game, so let’s discuss a few of the other aspects that stand out.
Defiant Development is not a large developer, and that’s made pretty clear in Hand of Fate. Don’t go in expecting Mass Effect graphics or Shadow of War lore, for example. In many ways, this game feels pretty bare-bones – the combat is very basic, there’s only one voice actor, there’s no character customization to speak of, and game-play doesn’t change much as you progress.
I’m here to tell you that none of that matters.
What Hand of Fate lacks in big-budget features, it makes up for in the details. The atmosphere, for example, is superb. Aside from the occasional cut to combat inside one of the cards, you never actually leave the table where your character is facing the Dealer. From the dimly-lit room to the medieval feel of the card art to the masked Dealer himself, the player is really drawn in to the world of the game. This doesn’t wear off over time, either, because the narrator’s interjections consistently add more to the lore and atmosphere.
Speaking of which, the narrator/Dealer is one of the best parts of the game. The voice-acting is phenomenal, and I never get tired of hearing what he has to say. If you play long enough, he will start to repeat himself, but as you unlock new cards and progress through the game, he’ll make new comments, making the game feel fresh even as you do the same stuff over and over.
The Dealer is your sole source of plot, or what little there is of it. You’re told straight away that you’ve taken great pains to reach the Dealer, and you’re wagering life in the Game of Life and Death. You’re not told what you’re hoping win, only that you will die if you lose. This gives you a rather interesting relationship with the dealer, because he is trying to kill you while simultaneously giving you advice and keeping a companionable tone. If there’s anything I hope the sequel keeps, it’s the level of intrigue and entertainment the Dealer adds to the game.
Obviously, in a game with an antagonist called “The Dealer,” there is going to be a heavy emphasis on cards. Before you turn your back in disgust, however, I implore you to hear me out. This isn’t, in the strictest sense, a card game. All of the characters, equipment, and adventures you experience in the game are represented through cards. Some encounters will consist of reading a blurb about something that happens to you. Others involve choices, such as whether or not to disturb a king’s tomb or what gift you’d like from an elf maiden. Many encounters have tokens you can earn, which unlock new cards for future rounds.
What it boils down to is that this is not a card game like MTG or Yu-Gi-Oh! Rather, the cards in Hand of Fate are the vehicle of the game. Think of it like a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure story in which every card is a new page in the story, except because the cards are shuffled and you get a different map layout every time, you never get the same story twice. They also contribute to the old-timey feel of the game, with encounters like “The Maiden” and “Tavern Wager” which are so simple, but at the same time so satisfying. Modern games have given us a craving for complexity, but Hand of Fate reminds us of the beauty that can lie in simplicity.
Because of the nature of the game, it’s broken up into small 5-30-minute chunks, rather than giving it all to you in one go. This gives the sensation of “just one more” after every round, and allows for a more coffee-break approach, if that’s what you’re in for. Personally, I’ve sat down with Hand of Fate for hours at a time, largely because I keep telling myself “Just one more, then bed.” Five rounds and several satisfyingly unlocked cards later, and I haven’t regretted a moment of the sleep I’ve lost.
And that’s just it – the word “satisfying” keeps creeping in, no matter how hard I try to avoid it. Beating a round is satisfying. Unlocking new cards is satisfying. Hearing the Dealer say something new is satisfying. Something that Defiant has clearly mastered is the art of giving players satisfaction for every step forward they make. There’s no question that this is a game I’ll be able to install one, three, ten years from now without my enjoyment being diminished in the slightest.
To make the game even more replayable, they’ve added DLC. Now, if you’re anything like me, nothing will make you groan like seeing those three letters put in that order. Typically, DLC costs extra money, meaning you need to pay more to get everything out of a game you already own. Don’t fret, though. While the DLC will currently run you $5 on Steam, which isn’t unreasonable, I haven’t purchased it and still somehow have access to extra content, so it appears there’s some extra content that was included in standard updates.
What I don’t have access to are the extra Fates, which are cards that modify the game in various ways. The Nomad, for example, doesn’t allow you to carry any extra equipment, but gives you an extra quest in return, or the Shadow Agent, who makes you worse at combat, but more lucky in chance draws.
But the best stuff, by far, are the additional storylines you get. These are encounters that you unlock as you go, so you’ll start with the first encounter card of each, then after you unlock those tokens, you earn the next card in the side-plot. I’ve been putting an emphasis on these cards, and they’re fantastic! They add a little flavor to a game that is otherwise very light on plot, and you start to feel connected to the various characters introduced through these mini-stories.
The bottom line is that Hand of Fate is a unique game that is very worthy of your time and money. If you want to dive straight into the sequel, that’s totally fine, but I’d start with the original, since it’s only $20 on Steam (vs. $30 for Hand of Fate 2) and you can get a couple dozen hours out of it, easy. I guarantee you’ve never played anything like it before.
Played Hand of Fate? Share any thoughts you have with us in the comments!