Hand of Fate was one of those games I really wanted to like more than I did. It had a lot of promise and even more personality thanks to an enigmatic antagonist, The Dealer. It offered up an interesting twist on the roguelite genre, and embraced the card mechanics so confidently you couldn't not be charmed by it.
Sadly, too many missteps and unpolished game elements relegated it to the massive pile of 2015’s also-rans. Unlike many of those, however, Hand of Fate was a title I never forgot, and I had a lot of hope it would do well enough financially to see Defiant Development come back with a better and more polished follow up. After a sizeable delay, that follow-up has seen itself installed on my PC, and after 30+ hours in all, I can say with complete confidence that Hand of Fate 2 is the superior game, but also that sadly, the biggest flaw in the original remains as a blemish on the sequel.
For the uninitiated, Hand of Fate is a card-based action RPG roguelite. Its sequel leans far more heavily into the RPG genre and forgoes almost all of the roguelite features that shaped the first game. This new take is a significant improvement in almost every way over the constant resetting in Hand of Fate.
After his defeat in the first game, The Dealer has called you back for another round of card-based violence. As before, you collect cards throughout your adventure, and they literally become the dungeons, monsters, companions, and equipment you encounter in your journey across a rather expansive new game map. Each location offers up new challenges and layouts, and also ways to fail and die. You might eventually prevail, depending on a combination of your skill and a whole lot of luck. A whole lot of luck.
The basics of the game are simple. As you move through the overworld map, you complete quests and collect cards. These come in a few flavours – Encounter, Equipment, and Companion. These cards then become available to you to be used as your quest deck in each subsequent location. The Dealer will also add his own cards to the deck. This combined deck becomes the places, people, and items you will encounter during the quest.
Location cards become the quest map, with each card representing a place, a quest, or an encounter. Equipment cards are the items you can collect and use during the quest, and the Companions cards will be your allies at your side both in battle, and during the various skill and luck challenges. All location cards are placed face down on the table creating a path with each card revealed as you move your counter onto it.
A key strategy here is to be very careful with the cards you select in your quest deck. Having a lot of challenges or encounters may net you gear and supplies you need to explore each map, but you’ll be at a greater risk of death, and you never know what The Dealer has laid on the table. Take along too many weapons and you lose a lot of defence and useful skills available from other gear. Take too many non-weapon items and you might be easy pickings for the game's many and varied foes.
This element is one Hand of Fate 2 absolutely nails. The importance put on deck building cannot be overstated, even if it is not obvious at first. A balanced deck will make your journey more profitable and potentially less perilous, but of course you can double down on the danger and rely heavily on your skills and good fortune to see you through, in the hope of even greater rewards.
There are a lot of secondary and tertiary elements that you will discover as you build out your deck and collect tokens to unlock additional cards. Each adds a new element to your quest, and you can even go back to previous quests with your expanded collection to tackle them a new with a new deck for a better reward.
Each quest location in interesting, and revealing the map as you move through a quest is a fantastic combination of anticipation and trepidation. The Dealer’s narration adds a rich flavour to events. His rich timbre is almost soothing, all the while carrying a barely-veiled note of threat. In that role, Anthony Skordi knocks it out of the park. His combination of menace and mystery carries the narrative core of the game with ease. Not enough credit can be given for his performance, and he is the main reason I keep on coming back for more, even when other game elements became far less compelling.
The development team has nailed the tone and atmosphere throughout. The graphics may not be cutting edge, but they have plenty of personality, and are coupled with subtle but evocative sound design.
That brings us to the combat. Here your skill will be tested, but your patience will be tested even more. Hand of Fate's combat was simple and shallow. Combat in Hand of Fate 2 is more dynamic and responsive, but sadly it is still just as simplistic, with only the bare minimum done to improve it.
Light and heavy attack, block, parry, and dodge make up 99 percent of combat. There is a special power attack for every weapon you can charge up, and your companion will also have a special skill to aid in combat, either in offense or defence. But just as before, combat all too often becomes spam the attack button, and block, parry, or dodge as indicated by the coloured incoming attack indicators.
Despite my initial excitement in the improved reactiveness and some interesting new enemies, combat still quickly became uninteresting. This is not helped by the fact that 2017 has been a great year for melee combat systems – Nioh, Nier, Shadow of War, and Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice to name but a few, and all shine as evolved and refined combat experiences. Of course, Defiant is a much smaller studio than the ones behind those hits, but it feels like more time should have been spent on Hand of Fate 2's combat. It was the one thing that hobbled the first game, and it’s done so again. It is not a game breaker, and is certainly functional. It however is never compelling, and eventually rather dull.
Outside of combat, there are a few interesting and occasionally infuriating game systems. These are the gambits. Some quests will require you to succeed in a gambit of some sort, be it dice, cards, a wheel, or the pendulum. The first two are all about luck, either rolling higher than a set value, or selecting one of a series of facedown cards. I don’t enjoy straight up luck in my video games – it always feels bad to lose to something you have no actual control over. Thankfully you can pick up bonuses, blessings, or companions that can give you an advantage, or additional attempts. This helps to mitigate some of the frustration, and makes those cards very valuable, but never really makes these systems fun.
The pendulum is far more satisfying, and requires exceptional timing to stop its swinging arm on the intended target. It’s challenging, and succeeds in feeling like you’ve really accomplished something which a dice roll or card flip can never do. I actually looked forward to this challenge, and never found it too frustrating, despite the rather impressive volumes my voice reached as I expressed my displeasure with a well-deserved NSFW phrase or two.
The final gambit is the wheel, and I hate it! Much like the pendulum it’s all about timing, but in this card based wheel of misfortune, the physics of the wheel are at best unpredictable. Instead of stopping dead on the card you select, you need to account for its inertia. But judging the relative spin speed is almost impossible, and at high speeds you can’t even distinguish what the cards on the wheel are. As a result, it ends up feeling like luck rather than skill, and just as unsatisfying and frustrating for it.
In fact, some frustration was a companion throughout my time with Hand of Fate 2 – not really for what it is, but more for what it could have been. I had so much hope for the game, but as is the case with its predecessor, I want to like it more than I do. It only trips up in a couple of areas, but they are significant stumbles. Defiant Development has once again almost made something amazing, and there's still plenty you can do with this hand.