Developer: Defiant Development
Platforms: PC, Xbox One, Playstation 4
Release: November 2017
Played on: PC
The original Hand of Fate was a quirky action role-playing/tabletop card game hybrid that was fun to play despite a couple of glaring flaws (mostly its stiff, unwieldy combat system). Two years later, a sequel comes along – it’s bigger and better in a lot of ways that count, but part of the charm that made the first game stand out just isn’t there anymore.
The sequel’s core mechanics are basically the same – you spend most of your time navigating semi-randomized levels, built out of cards from customizable decks, reading lots of text, managing resources and equipment, and playing games of chance. Every once in a while, you reach a combat encounter, at which point the game switches to a third-person action game à la Batman Arkham. Completing certain encounters and beating levels gives you tokens which unlock more cards for you to use.
It may sound complicated and difficult to wrap your head around, but actually playing it is very intuitive. It’s one of those unusual formulas for a game that just clicks instantly.
Gameplay wise, just about everything in Hand of Fate 2 is tweaked, improved, streamlined or expanded upon. Levels are bigger and more varied, aiming to offer unique challenges and modifiers – in one level you have to collect a certain number of relics, but each relic comes with a curse that adds a layer of difficulty. Another level has you try and figure out the identity of an assassin by going around and collecting clues.
A number of levels have multiple objectives – beat the level and you get the basic silver token for completion, but master that extra objective and you’ll get the gold token. Replaying levels and experimenting with different decks and loadouts is encouraged – some cards unlocked later in the game have tokens that can be obtained only by going back to earlier levels.
You also have companions this time around – four characters that not only have particular skills, but their own unique quest lines that can be completed in any order. See a companion’s quest through to the end and they’ll become even more powerful, not unlike how Mass Effect 2’s loyalty missions worked.
Each companion has both an active ability for combat and a passive ability that helps with one of the four different games of chance. In addition to the original’s card shuffle, you can also throw dice in order to match or beat a certain goal, spin a wheel of cards or swing a pendulum around.
One of the bigger problems with the original Hand of Fate is that it got fairly repetitive and dull in the final stages and while some of that creeps into Hand of Fate 2’s late game as well, the more open-ended level structure and the extra variety in terms of challenges and games of chance make the significantly longer sequel consistently engaging.
It also helps that the combat has been refined. The problem with the original’s combat wasn’t just that it was fairly rudimentary. More often than not, it felt stiff and unresponsive, as if the game was struggling to keep up with your input. The Arkham freeflow combat style was built around speed, precise input and a high quality animations that make a pretty simple system look cool and feel fun. Hand of Fate didn’t have that.
Hand of Fate 2 is better at it – attacks, counters and dodges are easier to time and carry out successfully and the kind of equipment you bring into a fight carries more weight this time around. Light weapons work well against Thieves, Heavy weapons do more damage but are slower etc.
There are still a few frustrating things. I found myself getting hit because I was locked into an attack animation and couldn’t dodge or block far too often, particularly when I was doing finishers or trying to avoid area of effect attacks. Finishers also tend to look weird and glitchy, especially when the game goes into slow motion at the end of combat and shows my sword clipping through some dude’s head in the goofiest way possible. Still, it’s nowhere near as janky as some of the stuff in the first game.
Overall, it’s a definitive improvement, but the combat is still lacking in one pretty important aspect – even at its best and smoothest, it’s still just not all that fun. Like in the original, combat is the least interesting part of the proceedings and in later levels, where the combat is both more frequent and more difficult, I started to feel a bit of that frustration that made me give up on the first game.
One aspect in which Hand of Fate 2 comes up surprisingly short is with the Dealer. In the original, The Dealer was both the main narrator and your principal opponent. Anthony Skordi’s performance gave the character an undeniable presence and a ton of personality, so much so that The Dealer was arguably the first game’s most memorable feature. He was the glue that tied Hand of Fate’s disparate elements together and kept you coming back for more despite the game’s shortcomings.
In Hand of Fate 2, The Dealer is more of a backstage presence. He’s still around to deliver cryptic warnings or make fun of your failures, but nowhere near as prominent or interesting as he was the first time – and that’s a real shame.
Hand of Fate was built around beating The Dealer at his own game – that was its through line. The snarky, mysterious bastard starts off condescending and gradually becomes more and more frustrated as you inch closer and closer to defeating him. Progress in Hand of Fate brought about the same kind of catharsis I felt whenever I went after the Riddler in the Batman Arkham games – yeah, going after every single collectible was annoying , but seeing that arrogant prick break down in impotent rage as I bested him made it all worth it.
The Dealer was that kind of opponent – he made me want to play Hand of Fate despite its problems.
Hand of Fate 2 does have an overarching narrative. It has some pretty interesting ideas and a fair amount of decent world-building going on, but it’s never as compelling as the visceral desire to kick The Dealer’s ass was in the first game.
Despite The Dealer being a bit of a disappointment, Hand of Fate 2’s presentation is still one of its strongest features. The art style and overall art direction still nail that mix of high fantasy flare and cosy tabletop card game setting, and the music is excellent. You’re given pretty decent customisation options in terms of crafting your nameless player avatar, which is a welcome change from the one model you got in the first game – and you can change your appearance at any time, even mid-level.
All the gameplay improvements and additions make Hand of Fate 2 significantly more engaging on a moment-to-moment basis. Finishing any individual level feels way more satisfying than beating the game itself as a whole. That being said, I sunk about 30 hours into Hand of Fate 2 and enjoyed damn near most of it, as opposed to the 10 or so I played the first for without even finishing it.
Hand of Fate 2 is weird like that. It does everything so much better than the original with the exception of the best thing about the original. Still, I highly recommend it, especially if you did enjoy the first one.