Wot I Think: Hand Of Fate 2
Better in every way except the most important one
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.
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.
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.
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.