Review: Hand of Fate

HandofFate_1

“Come play.”

The Dealer’s hands move and the cards swirl in patterns in the air before your eyes, and before you know it, you’re swept into a world of adventure in Defiant Development’s Hand of Fate, an absolutely mesmerizing deck-building/action RPG.

You could call it a dungeon crawler, except that you’re the one creating it. Effectively, you’re combining decks of cards you create with cards the dealer tosses at you to determine what happens. Some have noted the game’s hearty Dungeons & Dragons vibe, likening the dealer to a sort of dungeon master. I’d point up greater similarities to a different game—Talisman, where, like Hand of Fate, you’re drawing cards to determine your items and encounters.

Every movement through your card-dungeon costs you food, one of the three resources you’ll have to carefully manage as you encounter and battle monsters, navigate trap-filled mazes, or track down bandits who’ve laid heroes low. Once you run out of food, your movements hack at your health meter, which, of course, reduces the chances you’ll survive the next enemy attack.

HandofFate_2 HandofFate_3

The dealer, meanwhile, proves a fascinating character, a grizzled sage full of quips, insults and observations on your gameplay decisions that manages to remain fresh and interesting throughout most of the proceedings. Given that you’re trapped at the table with him, it’s a good thing he’s such interesting company.

Luck (or fate, if you prefer) does play a hefty role in each adventure. You might encounter the traveling merchant card early, before you’ve had the opportunity to even accumulate a small pile of gold, thereby missing your chance to score a key weapons upgrade. The dealer, on the other hand, might salt your ambush encounter by drawing a pair of sixes, unleashing a whopping dozen enemies at you at once. After about the fifth story mission, each of your adventures takes place with some kind of curse in play—maybe you’re losing gold at the end of every battle, or maybe the enemy damage is multiplied.

Battles play out like a less technically advanced version of the Batman Arkham games, where, if you pay close attention to icons above enemies’ heads that telegraph their attacks—and you happen to have a shield equipped–you can unleash a well-timed counterattack to both deal and avoid damage. There’s a cool effect at the beginning of each battle in which the cards you’ve earned appear above your character’s head then phase downward through him, bestowing your various items and artifacts as the battle begins. If you die in the middle of the level, you actually get to keep the cards that come with the tokens you’ve already earned by besting enemies and encounters, a touch that only lessens the rogue-ish frustration of having to rinse-repeat to advance.

HandofFate_4 HandofFate_5

And repetition is definitely Hand of Fate’s Achilles’ heel. Even with the full range of encounters, weapons and events on offer here, you’re going to become awfully familiar with certain characters and locales. And an awful lot of encounters are resolved by a multi-card monte minigame that begins to wear out its welcome well before the game’s end. When almost every battle ends with an enemy who tries to trick you by playing dead, it’s easy to believe that fate has programmed the deck.

Hand of Fate also suffers from a couple of tech issues (on PS4 at least), but they’re more annoying than deal-breaking. The load times between the card table and battle or shop visits are awfully long. Typically, when you’ve completed a level (either by beating it or getting your head handed to you by, say, the King of Dust), the game’s graphics stutter as they segue to the dealer collecting the cards and sending them swirling again. Neither of these things affects your ability to play and win the game, but they’re impossible to miss and, given the horsepower of modern consoles, entirely unnecessary.

Hand of Fate pulls its gameplay elements from a deck of familiar sources, but it’s created an experience unlike just about anything out there. You owe it to yourself to step up and shuffle. Like the Dealer says, he may have spent infinity creating these cards, but he didn’t expect you’d take that long to make your decision.

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Clever deck-building meets action-RPG gameplay
+ Game strikes a nice balance between fate and fairness
+ The Dealer’s a deep, nuanced character
+ Watching the battle-prep effect never gets old

Cons:
– Repetition is an onerous reward
– Tech issues mar the game’s polish

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on PS4, also available on PC (via Steam) and Xbox One
Publisher: Defiant Development
Developer: Defiant Development
Release Date: 2/17/2015
Genre: Action/Deck-building RPG
ESRB Rating: Teen
Players: 1
Source: Review code provided by developer

About the Author

Aaron R. Conklin has been writing about games and games culture for more than 15 years. A former contributor to Computer Games Magazine and Massive Magazine, his writing has appeared on IGN.com and in newspapers and alt-weeklies across the country. Conklin's an unapologetic Minnesota sports fan living in Madison, Wisconsin, home of the Midwest's most underrated gaming vibe.