The debut title from Australia's Defiant Development, Hand of Fate, is a highly interesting blend of a roguelike and a collectible card game. While some areas suffer a lack of polish, the title still provides a thoroughly engaging base experience with plenty of room to build in the future. Some areas may well turn players off, such as the significant difficulty spikes towards the end and the relative weakness of the action-RPG part of the game, but the developer deserves credit for how well it manages to blend the two experiences together.
The game's premise is a supposed game of life and death between the player and the mysterious Dealer. The aim of the game is for the player to defeat the Dealer's thirteen bosses, with one being the target for each round. Players go into every round armed with a deck of encounter cards and deck of equipment cards that they will hope to earn from these encounters. The Dealer then adds his own encounter cards, including some shops, to the deck and the round begins. Each round consists of a number of floors or areas made using these encounter cards, which the player goes through until they find the exit to the next floor or the round's boss card.
"A thoroughly engaging base experience with plenty of room to build in the future."
Encounters vary in how they are beaten, most often some variation of choosing from certain options or fighting their way through a 3D, real-time battle. Many also feature the equivalent of a shell game, where players attempt to pick out a success card from the four presented to them. Many encounters will reward players with items or even some new equipment or encounter cards if defeated successfully, while a failure will often result in an undesirable consequence, such as HP loss.
Hand of Fate becomes a bit less fun when it begins throwing out significant difficulty spikes, starting around the sixth round. Less than favourable cards become far more commonplace and there is a much heavier reliance on the luck of the draw. The game is still very enjoyable for the most part, but along with more frustrations thereís a somewhat diminished feeling of accomplishment in the knowledge that good fortune has played its part. That said, the bad draws usually aren't ever enough to doom players themselves. Itís when they combine with the shortcomings of the 3D battles. Long, unstoppable animations and the ability to only hit one enemy at a time with the regular attack mean that the player is liable to simply being swamped in encounters with many enemies, which are very common in the latter rounds.
The battle system is where the game would likely benefit most in future changes, doing a passable job in its current form. While the card-based portion of the game is balanced well enough, a selectable difficulty level for the battle system portions would do wonders for both accessibility and adding further challenge for those who want to keep playing. The system itself is very straightforward, the player character faces off in various arenas, often containing traps, against the various monsters drawn by the dealer. For example, a Three of Plague card means there will be three rodent opponents. There's a single button for regular attacks, another for countering and reflecting attacks, and one more to roll out of the way. Depending on their current equipment cards, players may also have access to a couple of special abilities as well.
The story of the adventure within each round is by necessity a generic affair, but some of the encounter cards provide interesting little vignettes that sometimes continue into further encounters and a few even hint at the wider tale of the game. Decisions made in encounters play out the same way each time, so once players get to grips with how one is completed they can make a decision about whether its risks and rewards make it worth keeping in the deck. The premise of everything being a game with unclear rewards should it eventually be won holds true and isn't expanded on at all for most of it, although reviews have indicated that the last round's opponent is somewhat of a surprise. Some extra narrative comes in via the Dealer's commentary to the player, often attempting to mock or cast doubt on the player's decisions.
Should players have completed the story, or want a break from it, they can check out the game's endless mode, a nice touch that lets players just sit back and enjoy the gameplay systems. Provided players aren't forced out by the latter difficulty spikes, the campaign can be completed in between ten to fifteen hours. Although fairly short in RPG terms, this feels like a good length for the game, preventing the game from having to rely on any filler. Rounds themselves will never take more half an hour to go through, making the game a nice option to just pick up and play for a short while.
The game's visuals do the part without being stunning. The various animations during the card sections work nicely in adding movement and flavour to proceedings, although it would be nice to have the option to skip some of them. Having to the sit through the whole process of the same set of cards being shuffled and dealt again can add to the annoyance of losing after a tough draw. The 3D arenas are pretty generic fantasy fare, with pretty standard effects and enemy designs. Music is another area where things work well enough without being the epitome of the medium, and the same goes for both the sound effects and Dealer's antagonistic commentary.
Hand of Fate has a lot going for it. The card-based encounter system is highly engaging and does a great job keeping the tension, with players never certain whether the cards they were hoping for or fearing are going to appear next. It's a very good debut outing with plenty of areas that can be built upon; the action-RPG and card game combination is very much the sort of game you could see providing a ton of multiplayer enjoyment, although watching someone else play is quite entertaining as is.