RDBG #3: Hand of Fate (2015)

The third entry to meet my criteria is already one of the more unique: it is as much an action RPG as it is a roguelike deck-builder. Released through Steam Early Access on July 7th, 2014 and receiving a finished build on February 17th, 2015, Hand of Fate was crowdfunded by its Australian developer Defiant Development. It received a sequel in 2017, and its use of reflex-dependent combat makes it a take on deck-building that still feels special in 2022.

Premise and Gameplay

Hand of Fate pits the player against ‘The Dealer’, a mysterious cloaked figure who serves as antagonist, opponent and narrator. Upon starting a run, the player and the Dealer mix together cards of their own choosing to form a deck that serves as both a game board and resource system for the third-person combat encounters (think of a very stripped down Arkham Asylum or Bayonetta). With a number of these cards set face down on the table, the player chooses a path from card to card, turning them over and triggering choose-your-own-adventure-style events, traps, rewards and encounters in the hopes of finding the one that allows them to exit the area and progress to the next one until either the boss or player is defeated.

The Dealer in the midst of mixing an upsetting number of encounters into the shared deck.

The choose-your-own-adventure comparison is apt. You don’t play cards against each other. Rather, each card you choose will outline a scenario your adventurer finds themselves in and then present you with choices (often luck-based to resolve) to decide the outcome. For example, the Hero’s Remains card sees you coming across a funeral for another adventurer and you are asked to return their sword and shield to their hometown. Your options include using them for yourself or returning them to their rightful place for a different reward – both options will curse you if you don’t reach their hometown card quickly enough. Resolving a card’s scenario in a certain way often unlocks ‘sequel’ cards that build on the scenario or its relevant characters if you add them to your deck for future runs. Given this piecemeal approach to narrative, you won’t learn a lot about the totality of Hand of Fate’s world by the time you finish, but the vignette approach always keeps you wondering what’s waiting behind your next step.

Card scenarios oscillate between darkly humourous to… just dark.

Further variation is added by choosing a ‘fate’ before the run – functionally a character class, but with the potential to run into unique scenarios or cards. The Wildcard DLC pack adds an additional 9 fates, with some really out-there variations. One of my favourites is Iron Hunger, who eats equipment instead of food, a resource needed for movement and healing. I got through a significant chunk of the game with your bog-standard adventurer, but whoever you choose, it isn’t going to transform the experience of combat as significantly as choosing a different class in Slay the Spire or Dream Quest does. You will still be whacking a lot of things in real-time.

Let’s talk about that action combat a bit. It’s not the deepest of its type, but I would argue that you probably do not want to overcomplicate the twitch combat when the card gameplay is having such an impact on how you take and receive damage. When a fight starts, you will be put up against a number of foes. Options include dodging, deflecting projectiles, and using artefacts gained from cards that create effects like calling lightning onto enemies or temporarily repelling damage. Incoming attacks can sometimes be dodged or countered with a well-timed button press, but when you’re getting properly ganged up on by six or more enemies, it’s often better to try to split them up and defeat them one-on-one. End-of-run boss fights are decently challenging, but late game battles can get a bit frustrating if you stumble across enemies before you’ve had much chance to gain adequate equipment.

Defeating the last enemy in an encounter triggers a ludicrous slo-mo effect as their body ragdolls in reaction to whatever you last did to them. Hilarious.

Randomised Elements

This is the first game we’ve seen that lets you have some direct selection of what cards may show up over a run before it begins. These runs are not totally random every time. If you choose the same ‘chapter’ multiple times, you will gain a sense of what cards The Dealer is going to shuffle in, and as such get an idea of what threats you will come across and prepare your portion of the deck accordingly. The main story takes place over twelve of these chapters, and I was having a reasonably easy time until the final three chapters, at which point the The Dealer takes the gloves off and shuffles in some real beasts to ruin your day. Even if you know they’re coming, you just hope that they come your way in such an order that you can pick up some good resources first.

Herein lies the key weakness to HoF’s deck-building, which is that you rarely need to do any deck-building of your own. Completing a run will usually unlock a handful of new cards for future runs, and it wasn’t until multiple run failures near the end of the game that I started trying to actually make my own decks. Before then, I was more than happy to hit the ‘Recommend’ button and just have the game rotate in the new, often strictly-better ‘sequels’ of cards that I’d just used from my previous run. Because there’s rarely much headscratching to be had over composing your deck, this makes it all the more apparent that you are at the mercy of luck in later runs – if I’m already outfitted with both what I and the game think are my best cards, why is there such disparity in how far I get before getting crushed in multiple runs of the same late-game chapter? It could be that I’m not particularly good at the combat, but I’ve been playing action games a lot longer than I have deck-builders, and it wasn’t until the end of the game that I started needing multiple runs to beat chapters. The game gets a lot harsher with health and resource penalties and throwing up inopportune encounters that you’re in no state to fight. Patience becomes a greater asset than skill at this point.

The artwork is wonderful. Even though I didn’t do a lot of deck-building, I found myself here a lot just to admire the cards.

Presentation

Seven years down the line, you can still crank the settings on Hand of Fate and have it looking very nice. Some odd lighting decisions oversaturate bosses and darken their surroundings during their intros, which is a shame as they represent some of the game’s more interesting visual design. Great care has clearly been taken to have the game feel like a one-on-one with a mysterious opponent who only gives you glimpses of their personality and worldview as time goes on, helped in no small part by the wonderful voice acting of Anthony Skordi. Seams begin to show the longer you play. The Dealer will start repeating his clips of dialogue sooner or later, and while it doesn’t break immersion it may become a little wearing to hear a repeated observation on your fifth or sixth attempt of a late-game run. Lastly, I have nowhere else suitable to add this, but I insist on drawing attention to it: upon defeating the Queen of Rats, The Dealer warns you that “a million half-orphaned rats will fall upon you like a tide of horror”. What an excellent quote. I dream of quitting a job with a line like that at the ready.

The Jack of Skulls does in fact have a face, you just wouldn’t know it from his intro, where he’s apparently in the headlights of an oncoming truck.

I’d also like to give credit to Jeff van Dyck’s score, exciting and understated in equal measure. It does a great job of adding tension to fights but also knows when and how far to take its foot off the tempo for a hint of ambience when you’re simply choosing your next path. One bit of cinematic flair that I find never stops being thrilling is the shuffling of your deck together with The Dealer’s upon starting a new run, which is accompanied by a galloping bit of acoustic guitar work. Like a good TV intro, it really gets the hype going for another instalment.

Closing Remarks

Hand of Fate is worth your time if you want a more visceral interaction with your deck-builder. In particular, its early to mid-game, when it still has a lot of new events and equipment for you to try out, makes for compulsive playing. However, it is strange for a game in this genre to feel this apparently mechanically shallow or offer this little replay value. Beyond beating story mode, assuming one has the patience to power through several unlucky endgame runs, all that remains is Endless mode if you really like the experience on offer, and that’s about it. The DLC classes offer some interesting twists, but I think the game’s world and tone would really have to click with you personally to keep you coming back after beating it. I’m very much looking forward to seeing which of these rougher edges the 2017 sequel rounds off. With some further refinement, I think there’s a real winner of a concept to be found here.

Standout Cards

Mister Lionel becomes a recurring character throughout many of the game’s cards, often making dangerous propositions in the hopes of mutual gain. This one often shows up early in runs, providing a basic reward and a little levity. We never get the whole story behind Mister Lionel, but we don’t need it – it just makes for good flavour.
Several other cards hint that the game’s world is grim, populated largely by the doomed. The Lonely Bard is a follow-up to The Lovers and Angry Guild Master cards. He has become an alcoholic after the woman you helped him escape town with abandoned him. Fail to pay him coin and he plays a song so bad it lowers your maximum health.
Maze of Traps is quite special because it triggers mazes that must be navigated via the combat engine. They can be a tad overdesigned, but they demonstrate an initiative for using gameplay mechanics in ways other than their basic intent, which is to be applauded.

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