I want to begin this by saying that while the game is still considered a beta, it is surprisingly polished and offers a great deal of gameplay. The story is simple enough, where you reach a cabin at the end of the world, with cards shuffled and then spread out onto the table in a variety of patterns. You move from one card to another, like squares on a path in a strategy game or board game. Each step taken decreases your food supply by one but increases your health by five. Each time you encounter a new card on the table, it is flipped over and the event it shows plays out.
These cards are almost never completely good or bad. Almost. There are a handful of cards that give you boons of your choosing, such as The Maiden who lets you decide if you would like higher health totals, more food or more gold. The majority of these event cards present a handful of options. You might see a glittering weapon at the bottom of a ravine. Try to scale down to acquire the weapon, and you could be better equipped for the battles ahead. Fail and you could wind up causing significant damage to your health points. This is where Hand of Fate gets itself in the weeds a bit, but I will talk about that later.
Often these event cards lead to enemy encounters that can only be solve through combat. The fighting itself is fairly basic, especially during the first few levels. It reminds me a great deal of combo-heavy superhero games like the Batman Arkham or Spider-Man titles. At the very least, you always have a rusty axe in hand, but other weapons found along the way might increase your damage or attack speed, and the different classes of weapon have a distinct feel to how their combos play out. Many enemies have some sort of a defense mechanics (skeletons use a shield, wizards bring up an energy barrier in front of themselves) that need to be circumvented before your weapon can deal damage (striking with a shield or kicking outward can do this, or simply timing until they attack and flanking said enemy usually does the trick). There is a roll maneuver that allows your character to dart into the fray and deal some damage, and then try to roll back out of it, and once you have a shield the option to counter and avoid becomes easier as well.
These battles take place in a wide variety of arenas. Some of these spaces are claustrophobic in how tightly everyone is packed in, creating a serious problem if you have a large number of enemies or a handful of enemies who use area attack that leaves almost no safe space on the screen. Other arenas have traps such as arrows or fire shooting out of walls. Some enemies are ranged, others are melee. Overall the combat is fairly simple but fun, though the battles can sometime feel a bit uneven if you happen to pull a large number of powerful enemies in a small space.
Every time combat kicks off, a card (or more) is drawn that represents your opponents. This is the first reference to my earlier statement in how Hand of Fate can feel just a bit unbalanced due to its overly heft reliance on random luck. You may pull two cards that each present two fairly easy enemies in a wide-open environment where you can very easily dispatch them. You could also wind up in one of those aforementioned smaller arenas with almost no room to move, fighting three mages and four skeletons - almost all of these characters can shield themselves while the mages lay down area of attack. The end result is nowhere to go, no quick way to hit multiple enemies at once and usually a quick death.
So while I am on the topic of random luck, I want to address my biggest gripe with Hand of Fate so far, and it is that the game is entirely too reliant on luck for everything. Every level has a handful of encounter cards that get shuffled in, such as extra gold, or dealing with a rockslide event. Four cards will come up when these events occur, and they can have a range of options such as two that are success, one that is huge success and one that is failure. Huge success might mean you evade the event and maybe find treasure. Success might mean you avoided the landslide and found some bandits to fight (and then gain some loot off of). Failure might mean you get hit for three cards of random damage, losing say, 5, 10 and 5 more life from the unlucky event.
Sometimes the event cards are so deeply stacked against you that you have one card that offers success, one that offers failure and two that offer huge failure. Take the same basic example, and huge failure might mean five cards worth of damage taken - meaning you could be out as much as forty or fifty life (out of a default max of 100).
Now again, this is all luck based. You cannot see which of the four cards you are drawing, you simply see what the odds are before they are flipped over. I usually just click the first one each time because there is a 25% chance at whatever. If there was some sort of visual indicator or skill involved, I might not be so nonchalant about it at this point, but there is really very little reason to bop over to the third or fourth card when the first has the same odds as they do of being good or bad.
However, this is about more than my cyber-laziness here. Let me illustrate one of the examples I had in the fourth level. There is a card where an angry mob wants half of your food. If your provisions run out, instead of regaining 5 health with each step, you lose 10 life. There were five cards next to me in a straight line from the starting point. I had no choice but to encounter each and every one along the way. First card I encountered this mob card, and they demanded that I give them half of my provisions. I reluctantly agreed (and all rounding goes up), so on the second card of the level, I had already gone from 10 to 4. The next card was an encounter card involving some bandits. One success, one fail, two huge fail. I drew a huge fail and lost about forty life due to the damage cards drawn. So on the third card I was now already down to 3 food and 60 life. I moved onto the next card and again drew the mob. Well, I did not have much food left, told them to bugger off, and they wound up kicking my tail and taking the rest of my food. Next card was yet another tough encounter. One huge success, one fail, one success, one huge fail. I yet again drew the huge fail, would have lost all my gold (had I earned any to that point), and lost fifty life, leaving me with now 10 life, no gold, no food. I took my next step and died. Four steps, never a chance to actually play or do anything, and I lost.
Now mind you, this was an exceptional example to this. I do not want to beat Hand of Fate up here, but I wanted to explain why I was at times very frustrated. It was a game I was easily invested in, which made the moments of what felt like unfair frustration even more aggravating. It was the only time I failed to reach the first staircase in a level, but it illustrates just how much luck is involved. Get a few bad cards early on, and you might not be able to make it through the level, making you want to just give up and start over again. Get a really cool event card late in the level, you might decide not to try its challenge because of fear that it will end your journey through the level. Each level is a one-and-done. If you die, your progress (except for seals, which I will discuss in a bit) is lost and you have the whole thing to do over again. Again, if there was a bit more skill involved here than luck, it might not feel quite so harsh, but I spent about three hours on level three just due to ridiculously bad luck thwarting me along the way.
Now, that being said, I spent three hours on a level that was frustrating me, because I was also having a good deal of fun with the game's mechanics, which really do feel fresh and inventive. First, the way one assembles a deck comes in two parts. One is equipment, and in it you add rings and armor and weapons that can be doled out as rewards along the way. The other are the encounter cards, which I described above. What is often very cool about these encounter cards is they have seals on them. Meet the condition to break the seal, and they offer you prizes at the end of the level (win or lose). The conditions vary by card. One might be to win a series of gladiatorial combat sessions, while another might be to give 10 units of food to a wandering beggar. These will often unlock series of quests that you can encounter. Again, quite often these are also reliant on luck. One example was working with a ship captain to find a buried treasure. I encountered that card seven or eight times before the lucky draws worked out for me and I finally got to the end of that quest, and it unlocked some gear and more encounter cards for later, having broken that card's seal.
As you advance to new levels, the number of cards in your deck increases. The levels have more cards and therefore take longer to beat, and there is a much wider array of options that could turn up with every card that is flipped over. It is a fun, suspenseful system - especially on levels where the card paths are not linear, but give you options. It is still luck, but at least then I feel as though I had some say in how things played out.
An additional sense of progression would perhaps help, as you start almost every level the same way (unless you do mix up your deck, which there is no reason to do if you did not break any seals on the last round). There is no experience, so beating enemies yields nothing aside from whatever item card you draw post-combat (if you even get to). That can make the forced encounters with no rewards somewhat frustrating, because you simply lose life in battle and spend your time doing it, with no real advancement.
It is worth reiterating that Hand of Fate is still in its early stages. Characters look fine in combat for the most part, though the collision animations can look a bit rough at times. There are sections of the game where there is no audio when you are at the table. There is nothing really in the way of tutorial, so my understanding of the food and health relationship was lacking until near the end of the first stage. Also it would be really, really nice if the shuffling animations that kick off each stage could be skipped. Having had to redo that one level about a dozen times, I really could have done without watching the dealer shuffling and laying out my cards over the roughly half of a minute or so each time.
Ultimately Hand of Fate so far is doing a good job of straddling several genres, and at the end of the day the formula is a bit rough, but also highly addicting. Certainly the odds could be a bit frustrating, the penalties a bit harsh and these can lead to moments where the game simply feels unfair. That all being said, I kept coming back for me, and am very curious to see how Hand of Fate continues to develop. It is not very often a game comes along and actually feels distinctive and original, but Hand of Fate is precisely those things - and it has a lot of room to grow.
Preview by Nick