Wot I Think: Hand Of Fate 2

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The great rage is dead within me. I no longer feel hatred. In the first Hand Of Fate (review), a sly and effective singleplayer collision of roguelite and collectible card game, I fought onwards primarily due to a deep and burning desire to wipe the imagined smirk off the face of The Dealer, an AI-controlled dungeon master and nemesis rolled into one, whose e’er-taunting voice was the exact sound of a perpetually-raised eyebrow.

Hand Of Fate 2 is a superior sequel in many respects, but either he’s mellowed or I have. Now, we play the game together, fond old sparring partners rather than eternal enemies.

Hand Of Fate 2 is a lot of things, but it is mostly this thing: travelling across a board comprised of face-down cards, some of which contain choose-your-own adventure dilemmas, some potentially deadly dice or find-the-lady challenges, some of which contain item shops or bonuses, and a fair few of which activate third-person melee combat which plays out as a speedier, poppier take on the Batman Arkham games’ counter’n’combo brawling. Throughout, you must manage health and hunger, and pursue tests of chance that will add new cards to the pool.

The Dealer has his own cards to play, filled with dangers and disasters, and all told Hand Of Fate’s essence flickers rapidly between luck and skill. Importantly, it almost always feels like skill is the key, as opposed to a potentially miserable sense of being unfairly buffeted by the cruel winds of fate.

So far, so Hand Of Fate 1, but the sequel’s main objective (outside of obvious sequel things such as more graphicsy graphics, new cards and weapons, and wanting to sell more copies) is variety. I had a great time with Hand of Fate – for about six hours, then I had a slightly less great time for the next six hours, and then I wandered off and forgot about it. I’d seen the vast majority of the cards, I’d fought endless, barely changing variations upon the same fight, and all that lay ahead of me was the dour pursuit of completion rather than any remaining surprises. What HOF2 does to solve this is to be structured as a series of sub-campaigns, each with their own boss, their own perils and – and I don’t mean this as an insult – a gimmick.

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There’s the one where you take massive health damage from snowstorms on about every two of three moves. There’s the one where you have to rescue a certain number of townsfolk (e.g. by rolling dice to see if you can pull ’em out of a fire, or by fighting off marauding zombie-things). There’s the one where you accrue clues as to the identity of a would-be murderer as you progress, and then have to deduce which of three characters they are.

Effectively, every 45 minutes or so HOF switches things up in a pretty big way, while still remaining a game about cards, dice and sporadic hack’n’slash argy-bargies. Even once you’ve seen every major variation, you can attempt them all again with a dramatically different deck comprised of assorted unlocks. These include companion characters who provide a moderate amount of assistance in combat, but more importantly have their own sub-quests which progress into new cards as you complete their stages. Unlike most everything else in HOF, companion quests are persistent across sub-campaigns – a small thing which binds what might otherwise feel quite disconnected missions together.

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Also rejiggered in the name of greater variety is the combat, which has been made meatier, more convincingly like the swordplay from, say, a Fable game. More enemy types, more requirements for specific tools for specific jobs, big boss fights and, something I didn’t hugely dig, a split between prompts for rapid evasion (red) and rapid countering (green). None of these timing challenges are in any way different, but there’s no rhythm to the switching between them so I kept finding myself in this odd situation where my fingers, probably haunted by ghostly memories of Guitar Hero, kept incorrectly guessing which button was going to be needed next.

This system might make the combat feel more active than straight-up sword smashing would be, but it also ends up being a tad annoying – and in turn the fights become the element of the game that feels the most repetitive. I didn’t feel the same overall ennui I did a half dozen hours into HOF1, but my sighs every time a card triggered combat became steadily more theatrical. I should say, though, that the game looks great in this mode: chunky but not cutesy characters with bags of personality (you get to design your own player character, by the way), and some lovely environments in the background. It’s almost a shame that there isn’t a fully-fledged RPG in this world and with that art, though even as I write that I realise that more stabbing is the last thing I want from HOF right now.

Routine fights didn’t bother me anything like as much as did the gnawing sense that The Dealer, the first game’s most esoteric and memorable aspect, was a significantly diminished figure here. His lines were always canned, sure, but he felt like a true opponent, one who both mocked me and shared the experience with me.

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Here, he’s both a little lost in the noise as the game switches focus from a tight mano-a-mano card game to something bigger and, I think, his writing and voice acting hasn’t managed to recapture the bottled lightning of implied menace and false sympathy that made him feel semi-real, as opposed to just a background graphic spitting out pre-recorded dialogue. He has his moments still, but in the main I barely thought about him, where formerly I so loved to hate him. I wanted to beat the scenarios in HOF2; in HOF I wanted to beat the dealer, and that was a stronger motivation.

And that’s Hand Of Fate 2 all over. A bigger, better game than its predecessor in almost every respect, and one with a sense of journey and surprise to its gambling, fighting and dying, which makes it feel rather like a card-based, fantasy FTL. However, it has thrown out its most beautiful, meanest-eyed baby with the bath water in order to achieve that variety. Hand of Fate 2 wisely switches away from Hand Of Fate’s purity, which saves it from repetition but discards its trump card in the process.

Hand Of Fate 2 is released tomorrow (Tuesday Nov 7) for Windows PC, via Steam.

15 Comments

  1. Premium User Badge

    FeloniousMonk says:

    I hate to wax dramatic, but the original Hand of Fate was probably my biggest video game disappointment…. EVER! I was away from a computer when the reviews dropped, and they were gushing in precisely the right way to suck me in. I was crazy about the idea of this one-on-one psychological war with a figure that was relentlessly being described as “Raistlin-like”, something that my inner 8 year old just couldn’t get enough of. And the actual game was really good, right up until the most boring, undercooked, repetitive combat ever. It felt like Darkest Dungeon might’ve felt if you kept the awesome art direction and narration but swapped out all of the meticulously designed combat for something badly cribbed from a superior game.

    So HoF2’s combat is apparently still not great – the two influences named here are Arkham Asylum and Fable, and even a derivative of either would probably be good enough, but this review makes me nervous. I’ve got something like 5 hours in on HoF1 with no intention of ever going back. Fool me twice?

    • Kolbex says:

      Totally agree about the combat in Hand of Fate, but I also found the combat in Darkest Dungeon repetitive and boring.

      • Premium User Badge

        FeloniousMonk says:

        Darkest Dungeon did get repetitive and boring relative to the amount of it required to actually beat the game (particularly before they dropped the Radiant patch and allowed the game to be substantially shortened). No question: Darkest Dungeon, especially in its original form, is way too long.

        But it took me something like 25 hours of enjoyable gameplay for me to draw a conclusion that Hand of Fate gave me in about 90 minutes. Plus, I still love going back to Darkest Dungeon and making the odd run or two. HoF is just Steam clutter.

  2. Baines says:

    I never felt the dealer in the original Hand of Fate was an opponent who was out to kill you, and didn’t assume he was supposed to be viewed that way.

    • K_Sezegedin says:

      Been a long time since I booted Hand of Fate but I thought in the Lore fluff the stakes of the card game were life and death and the dealer was definitely out to beat you, though not sure how that meshed with the ad-nauseum re-starting.

      • Baines says:

        I admit that I didn’t find the lore fluff particularly interesting, so I might have missed or forgotten stuff there.

        I should also clarify. You played a life and death game, and the dealer “won” with your death. In that regard, he was out to kill you. But even with his comments, the whole thing felt rather impartial. You didn’t die due to the actions of the dealer, you died because your skill wasn’t up to the task or because of bad luck. It is the difference in playing against a casino dealer versus playing against other players, the casino dealer is playing towards a different purpose and ultimately doesn’t really care who wins or loses (at least as long as the house continues to win overall and no one player wins disturbingly much.)

        I cannot help but feel that if the game wanted to make the dealer a more sinister figure, it easily could have. He was simply too fair to feel like an active opponent rather than the method of delivering the game itself.

        • K_Sezegedin says:

          That’s true he mocked/patronized you for your bad luck or poor playing, but he wasn’t cheating.

          He was even encouraging at times though perhaps it was all part of his plan to bleed your soul dry.

          • XsjadoBlayde says:

            I think a lot of people mistake banter and mocking for evil and sinister. With Hand of Fate, it always felt like a friend putting on a cold hearted persona for the setting and I never got the impression it was trying to be anything more than casual mocking. Certainly not evil or dangerous at all.

    • caff says:

      Same, the dealer always struck me as mildly amused at my misfortune, but never an opponent. If anything, he reveals new secrets and expands the game, so he felt more like a shepherd to new experiences and treasures.

      I’ll be picking this up, and will post my own thoughts here later in the week.

  3. Ghostwise says:

    I liked the combat in HoF1 fine, in small doses. Just don’t play the game for hours, and use a controller.

  4. Crafter says:

    The combat was ok in HoF .. not amazing but ok.

    What bored me rapidly were the random events. I find the ideas of having the events coming out of a semi random deck awesome BUT I really dislike that many of these events play out randomly by asking you to repeatedly pick one card among 4 successfully.

  5. Turkey says:

    Kyrandia is disappearing! Rock by rock. Tree by tree…

    Woops. Wrong Hand of Fate.

  6. rustybroomhandle says:

    Small correction – review says release for Windows PC. It’s in fact a golden trifecta release – Windows / macOS / Linux.

  7. caff says:

    My early thoughts as follows:

    1) It’s very similar to the original, but feels like a more refined experience – I’m liking the fluid character creation and the story/campaigns.
    2) Whilst I don’t entirely agree with Alec’s comments re: the dealer, I would concede he seems a bit less malicious than the original.
    2) I’m getting some faint graphics stutter at 4K. Not sure why as my PC can handle pretty much anything.
    3) The combat seems… very similar, but it flows a lot better. I’m hoping it’s less irritating in the end game than it was in the original. Part of me feels the card game is so strong, it could stand alone and be complemented by something else other than arcade action.

    Overall I am enjoying it, I’d urge anyone who enjoyed the first to play it.

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