Hand of Fate is about all the other fantasy games you’ve ever played. It takes all the familiar encounters, both magical and mundane, and distills them into tarot cards full of the faces of friends and foes. But instead of telling the future, these cards tell only of the past: the places you’ve visited, the deeds you’ve done, the monsters you’ve defeated time and again, and—as the dealer will tell you—you’ll defeat once again some other day. As you uncover more and more memories by sorting through the cards and their infinite configurations, you come to understand that you really have done all this before. You’ve been ambushed by pirates on stormy seas, you’ve already fought lava golems, you’ve disturbed devils and wandered deserts. The dealer, the cartomancer, is the Dungeon Master, yes, but he’s also the Game Developer, whose games you have played, are playing, and will continue to play, no matter how many times you die.
Some of the best games exist between genres or, as Hand of Fate does, across genres. It isn’t the product of “let’s make a roguelike,” but rather the gift of a vision: let’s make the game we want to make and let the world classify it. So I’ll try: card game, roguelite, action RPG with a pinch of Choose Your Own Adventure. If that sounds like a perfect combination, that’s because it nearly is.
A basic session of the dealer’s game plays like this: you select the equipment and encounters you want to appear in the game and the dealer adds his own to the mix, usually enemies, curses and other tricks. He then lays them out—face-down, mind you—in a randomly generated configuration that looks like a primitive dungeon map. You move about the cards, overcoming or succumbing to each encounter, searching for an exit or a boss, all the while maintaining your health and hunger. Sometimes you have to make decisions that will doom you or carry you to new lands and sometimes you have to fight.
Battles take place in small arenas with Arkham-style combat. Combos increase your attack power and you need to take advantage of weapon abilities, shield bashes, artefact powers, and parries if you hope to come away with your life. The combat is surprisingly responsive, even if the movement is a little floaty. I would have liked more variety, but I almost always looked forward to the next fight. Hand of Fate does an incredible job with pacing and balancing skill and luck. You need your wits, dexterity, and a little good fortune to succeed.
The deck of encounters is a cornucopia of variety. From your own repertoire of cards, you can select a friendly goblin that might give you food or replace your magic weapon with a rusty axe. You might choose the beneficent maiden or the devil’s fair, a risky funhouse of danger and reward. There’s the cursed treasure, the twilight ritual, and a variety of merchants, but watch out for an ambush! The dealer might throw in a cursed hanged man or a gauntlet of traps that you have to navigate in third person. Though I like the idea, these are among the least successful segments because of the floaty movement controls, but they’re thankfully (surprisingly) forgiving.
Unlocking more cards is my favorite aspect of Hand of Fate, and it’s also the only way to find the best items, the ones that will allow you to beat the game. Each new card comes with a token that can be gained by filling some unknown condition. You might have to give gold to a pair of traveling minstrels or acquiesce to a merchant’s dubious request. Tokens unlock more cards, many of which have tokens of their own to unlock, and so on. There are more wrinkles and nuances to the system that aren’t immediately apparent, but I’ll leave you to discover them. That’s how the game works, after all.
The difficulty in Hand of Fate varies perhaps more wildly than in any other game I’ve ever played. The first four or five levels are almost insultingly easy and yet the final level is Dark Souls difficult. In between, you have levels ranging from “just right” to “plead with God for it to be over.” But the final level in particular is an insidious, twisted curse. The battle encounters are overwhelming, often lengthy, and misfortunes far outweigh boons and blessings. If it weren’t for a few immensely powerful items, I never would have beaten the final boss. Still, I struggled and cursed and spited the world for hours before my final victory, at which point I broke out into song and dance. To get an idea of the escalating difficulty, know that I spent about as much time on the final level as I did on all the other levels combined.
Some players will be frustrated by the role luck plays in each level; noticeable throughout the game but no more apparent than in the final level. There is, however, a great deal of skill to balance that and, well, it’s all part of the game. Others might be frustrated with the lengthy late-game battles, particularly the incredibly brutal final boss. There are also occasional technical difficulties. One of my final boss fights was ruined by a massive frame rate drop. Thankfully, I could quit the game—which fixed the bug—and restart the fight. If you quit in the middle of a fight you can start it anew. It’s a small kindness, a little loophole that allowed me to circumvent the glitch that ended my life too early. Without the framerate issue, I would have beaten the game right then and there.
At first, the mishmash of experiences—desert next to a deep river next to a ladder leading into a forest—seems odd and nonsensical, but you soon realize that the configurations aren’t simulating real dungeons. They instead represent the fractured and fickle memories of an old adventurer, his mind like a palace gone to ruin and decay. Discovering new encounters is fun from a gameplay perspective, yes, but also from a narrative perspective. I wanted to beat the game to find out exactly what would happen when I bested the dealer. Would I in essence beat all the games ever made? Would all the other fantasy RPGs out there suddenly cease to exist, vanish like magic? Probably not, but that’s how convincing the conceit is.
Hand of Fate is as mysterious and unpredictable as the fortune telling cards with which it tells its story. It is as rewarding as it is challenging. This is brilliant game design combined with that coveted je ne sais quoi that makes good games into great games. This is gaming at its most mystical.