The storm lashes at the small window of a small dark carriage, rolling along a lonely road. A struggling and oily candlelight slumps across the wooden table before you, letting you glimpse at a pair of reddened and swollen eyes behind the mask and under the hood. The Dealer sits opposite, raising and shuffling the deck in mid-air with nothing more than a nonchalant gesture. The cards play out before you and the Dealer rests his hands to either side of the tabletop, blighted by sores and scars. Fate is decided, right before your eyes. All that remains is for you to play out the story and the role you have been dealt.
This gorgeously gloomy scene is where Hand of Fate 2 spends most of its time – behind a table, sat opposite a dark and hooded mage. The cards before you in the centre of the desk shape the adventures and trials to come, just as with the previous game. A dish sits ready to hold well-earned tokens from special cards. But, in the edge of your vision, you will also notice some new additional features. Dice lay at your right hand; a strange-looking pendulum sits to the Dealer’s left. There is more at play than there was before. The Dealer himself even says as much. But there is no time for explanation now. The cards are drawn, and you will just have to work things out for yourself.
As means of a brief catch-up, the original Hand of Fate was a clever RPG roguelike deckbuilding game of a fantasy nature where gameplay was by means of a map of playing cards that each represented a random encounter for the hero. These encounters will either lead to a game of chance at the table or will whisk you off to a combat arena to test your mettle. The narrative played along themes of taking risks, gambling with your wellbeing in order to gain a little more help for the trials ahead, and the question of whether it is all worthwhile - if the good you think you are doing is worth all the pain. The sequel takes this gameplay, and these themes, and runs with them. The core aspects remain the same. You set off on adventures following a map built from cards. These are drawn from a deck built between you and the Dealer – a mix of trials and, hopefully, benefits. Your collection of cards grows as your adventure progresses and you overcome both encounters on cards and the overall episodes of the game. This expanding card collection provides more options for you to compile a deck that can properly support you in overcoming the challenges ahead.
Quickly, though, Hand of Fate 2 sets itself apart from its predecessor. For one thing, you can choose your character’s gender and appearance now. But you will also find much more variety and depth in the story. This is no mere search for glory – checking off a list of ever increasing enemies that you must defeat in battle. This is a tale of intrigue, revenge, corruption and heroism. A usurper has taken the game from the Dealer and changed it to suit their needs. The game you play is one built from adventures already lived as the hero makes his way to the Dealer’s game table – created by him in order to see that you are worthy to help him take back what once was his. You begin by tracking down your father’s amulet, stolen by a group of thieves led by a mage. On completing this challenge, you are presented with the first of many big changes to how the game is played – your first of four companions. These companions come with their own stories and quests that you work though as part of your deck for each mission, offering a little extra depth and drama to go alongside this new game mechanic.
Defiant have worked very hard in a lot of areas to make Hand of Fate 2 something very distinct from the original game. The role of these companions is not only in offering assistance alongside equipment and blessings in combat but in also offering help for succeeding in the additional Gambits that this sequel introduces. In the first game, finding success in an encounter was quite literal as you played ‘follow the lady’ to gauge your ability to carry out your decisions. In this new game there are several additions to not only add more variety but to reflect different forms of challenge and the skill, or luck, that would be required to achieve success. The dice and pendulum on the table alongside the cards represent two of these new mini games. Rolling the bones is a straightforward matter of getting a target number from three dice. The pendulum, alternatively, presents more of a test of skill in stopping a swinging beam of light to land on certain blocks of changeable size that also swing back and forth along with the beam. The third new addition is the wheel of chance, where a number of cards are set spinning around the Dealer’s head and you need to stop the wheel so the card you are hoping for lands in front of you. All of these games are made more challenging when required, with targets becoming more difficult to land and with the speed of shuffling or swinging being increased.
And these new tests of luck and skill play a much more important role in how the game is played. There is a little less emphasis on combat in Hand of Fate 2 – though there is certainly plenty of combat to go through. This game, instead, is built on twenty-two episodes that each have a variety of issues to overcome and solutions to find in order to succeed. One objective is to track down a stolen artefact for the Emperor. Another is to collect resources to build up the defences of an Imperial fort in the northern mountains. The developers have done a good job of providing a whole new challenge within similar mechanics, and the cards reflect this change in focus. Weapons and armour are still in plentiful supply. But on top of this are many more items and blessings intended to give you that extra edge in games that regularly stack the odds against you.
You play through each challenge, named and themed around cards in the Tarot, to recount the hero’s journey through an empire dogged by troubles. War rages with tribes in the north, with mages and the use of magic, and with a rampant plague corrupting its citizens. You start out as a mercenary for the empire – a position questioned openly by the Dealer as you play. But your journey will bring you into contact with all of the various factions at work in the world. From Northern priestesses to leading figures in the Thieves’ Guild, you are presented with a rich world, full of life and intrigue – as well as questions surrounding the actions of the Empire. There is much more depth to the storytelling of Hand of Fate 2 compared to the first installment. It is by no means a mind-blowing story arc, but the world it resides in acts as a fantastic structure for the themes continued on from the first game – ‘Am I doing the right thing?’ ‘Is this risk worth the reward?’
Visually, too, the game looks much improved. They have tidied up the UI a great deal, keeping the display simple and restrained while, at the same time, offering a much clearer portrayal of the information you need. This is most apparent in the combat sequences, where the huge pile of cards cluttering the sides of the screen found in the first game is gone, leaving just the information relevant to the fight. Textures look much more detailed and have a truly tangible quality. Animations look much smoother. The subtle glances of the Dealer towards his cards as they levitate in front of him, as well as his little distracted gestures as he waits for your next move, offer a huge degree of character to your antagonist. The visuals during combat still bear a strong similarity to the Fable series and the visual modifications to this sequel is strangely comparative to those between Fable and its sequel – a comparison that grows stronger with the introduction of firearms and regimented forces. There is a lot more colour and vibrancy out in the open as much as there is added gloom and tenseness in the shadows. Everything about this game works to pull you in and get you hooked.
And, once you are in, the gameplay has some real meat to it to keep you interested. For a start, missions in The Hand of Fate 2 typically have much lower card limits than the original did, meaning you have to think that little bit harder when building the deck to take in with you. The variety in how the missions play out also mean there are a lot more considerations on what you will need to bring with you. Your focus is not just stacking the deck to pick up the weapon you need but also collecting the extra food you will require and ensuring you can secure enough of the new resource introduced in the sequel – Fame. Some equipment requires you to have reached a certain level of renown before you can use it, other missions will punish you for being too recognisable. Between the Gambits, the new enemy factions and the familiar resource management, your deck will need to be built to favour some things over others, and finding the right balance within the increased constraints in this sequel is a challenge in itself.
Combat has been kept relatively similar to the original, maintaining the now fairly obligatory fighting mechanic for adventure games. You attack enemies closing in around you – blocking when enemies turn green and dodging when they turn red. You have a shield bash, a special attack and a finishing move for when opponents are suitably stunned. A new set of artefacts are available for use during fights which, generally deal damage directly, buff your attacks or restore your health. You also have your companions. Your chosen companion will stand to fight alongside you, offering a unique special ability to help you alongside that will either protect you or stun enemies or break armour. At times, the controls can feel a bit sluggish to respond, with your character swinging away at empty air when you’ve been trying to turn them around for a few moments beforehand. Otherwise, it is a very straightforward system that can be ludicrously easy at times – and painfully difficult at others.
Which is an unfortunate truth for the whole game. While it is so engaging and so interesting and clever on the surface, the game is plagued by an issue that is clear in its title – fate. Luck and chance regularly influence a run and often prove a deciding factor. You can build a perfectly sound deck and breeze through all the combat encounters but still end up back at square one in a mission simply through not getting the breaks on a roll of a dice. The arrangement of the cards on each map are irregular as well, and have a tendency to leave you in absolutely dire circumstances. When these two ill fortunes combine regularly, the game can have the life sucked out of it and trying to make progress will feel like trying to break through a brick wall with a toothpick. Whilst the need for challenge in a game is obvious, falling at the mercy of an unkind random number generator is a difficult thing to accept.
And this is made all the more tough to take considering chancing your arm is one of the key themes to Hand of Fate 2. The game regularly encourages you to gamble. As with the first game, you need to give up precious space in your limited deck to learn what benefits new cards may provide at the cost of cards that you know can help you complete an individual quest, albeit not quite as much as you would like. The addition of Brimstone cards takes this further by putting the hero through incredibly tough challenges or ordeals to gain a big reward. This is fine as a concept, but fitting this into a mission becomes an even tougher balancing act for resources and health. Through these features, Hand of Fate 2 is almost conditioning you to take that gamble. So when a mission fails due to your rolling snake eyes twice in a row, even when you have managed to stack the deck in your favour, it doesn’t feel like a game that is hard but a player being hard done by.
In the end, Hand of Fate 2 feels like a bit of a Marmite game. Just like the Dark Souls series, it will put people off in frustration as much as it will draw people in for its difficulty. But those that do get drawn in will find a game full of challenging puzzles to discover and interesting encounters to unlock which will win this game many fans – and it will have earned them. It is a very attractive, clever game that tasks you with finding an efficient solution to elegant problems. The curse it has is in focusing so strongly on the fickleness of fate because, in doing so, it leaves completing the game as much in the hands of Lady Luck as it is in the skill of the player. And, if your luck has turned sour, that is when the fun stops.