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Hand of Fate (PC) artwork

Hand of Fate (PC) review

"While I've played better games this year, none were as immediately likeable as Hand of Fate."

Hand of Fate (PC) image

I'm happy to be able to review Hand of Fate since any hard facts about the game would probably turn you off. It's a roguelike (ugh), card-based (whee), tabletop-themed (bleh) dungeon crawler (urk) with a heavy dose of Arkham combat (what else is new?). Not that I take issue with any of those individual ingredients, but don't all of those things put together just sound like the dullest game that ever dulled?

And yet, while I've played better games this year, none were as immediately likeable as Hand of Fate. The fantasy setting may have you bracing for the long grind, but this is actually one of 2015's most accessible core releases. So much of the game is randomized that it's easy to just sit back, enjoy brief snippets of narrative and engage in some lightweight arena combat while the rules and complexities of Hand of Fate are unveiled. Once all is understood, the game becomes dangerously addictive while still perfect for quick sessions, and it's all anchored by one of my favorite characters in recently video game memory.

That character is the Dealer, a mysterious hooded figure who occupies the screen for the majority of the experience as he sits across the table from you. He did not create the game, he frequently reminds you; he merely perfected it. Hand of Fate is presented as a tabletop game, which serves as a constant reminder that for all of the bandits and skeletons and lizardmen that you hack to pieces, the Dealer is your one true foe. He taunts you every step of the way, mocking your decisions and applauding your failures. But as the dungeonmaster, he remains dutiful. He comments that he could easily design the game to be unwinnable, yet proclaims that it's all fair, and that you will be beaten fairly. He's the most memorable type of foe: one with a code of conduct.

Voiced with wry menace by Anthony Skordi, the Dealer is Hand of Fate's sole source of both personality and world-building, and he couldn't be more up to the task. He seemingly never runs out of things to say, and nearly every line is equal parts funny and intimidating. It almost seems silly how seriously he takes all of this, but the actual stakes are deliberately blurry; we don't know if this is a dramatization of a simple board game or if we're in some fantastical world propelled by real magic. He dismisses other fortune tellers for being frauds, yet distances himself on the grounds that his powers are genuine. He hints that others came to play the game before you, and that they, too, were silent. Everything he says is so fascinating that even if Hand of Fate wasn't any fun to play, it'd still have value.

Hand of Fate (PC) image

But it is quite fun. It's a tabletop game in which players move pieces through several levels of a randomly-generated dungeon, each space represented by a card dealt from a deck. You can win new cards by completing certain events and customize your deck to increase the likelihood of you gathering better equipment, but at the end of the day, everything's randomized. That's the intended fun of a roguelike, of course: learning some easily-digested basics and variants and then having to adapt under constantly-changing circumstances.

While there are a few bits in which you must navigate dungeons riddled with traps, 95% of the actual interactive bits are arena-based battles which strongly channel the Batman Arkham series, in which you take on large swarms of enemies with quick attacks, quicker movements and well-timed counters. You've done this before, and the combat alone wouldn't be enough to carry Hand of Fate. What carries it is everything that happens in between those segments, the numerous events that shape how challenging combat will be. People and obstacles can help or hinder your journey, and taking risks (which involves having a quick enough eye to distinguish the "success" and "failure" cards in a shuffled pile) can heavily affect your money, food and health – all three vital resources in making it to the end of a full session in good health and with the right equipment to bring down the boss.

For the most part, the wavering stakes make for a thrilling game that's both deep and accessible, though its one flaw is that its final level is psychotically difficult. The final encounter is a boss rush that's somehow bad even by boss rush standards, since you need to fight twelve of them, three at a time, in one go. There are also so many additional setbacks thrown at you during the final stage that actually making it to the boss in decent shape felt like blind luck. Randomness is one of the game's draws, of course, but for the rest of the campaign, I'd felt that any handicaps foisted upon me could be overcome with raw skill. This one time, it seemed possible to be screwed over for reasons beyond the player's control, and I just wound up jumping into the fire until all of the pieces magically fell into place.

But while I do hate it when a game becomes needlessly frustrating in its final stretch – seriously, devs, please make sure that your game doesn't leave a sour taste in our mouths at the last second – I can still recommend Hand of Fate as one of 2015's biggest surprises so far and one of the most charming indies in quite some time. It's a game that turns its technical limitations into artistic choices, and it's a stew of familiar elements that feels unfamiliar as a whole.


Suskie's avatar
Community review by Suskie (May 04, 2015)

Mike Suskie is a freelance writer who has contributed to GamesRadar and has a blog. He can usually be found on Twitter at @MikeSuskie.

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