Boy, oh boy, oh bandit. The original Hand of Fate was one of those little-known games that probably didn’t blow any minds, but was enjoyable enough to warrant a general “check this out” vibe from most of those who played it, not to mention doing some things really well. I racked up nearly thirty hours on my copy before I felt I’d squeezed all the gameplay juice out of it (and you can see a review for that on my personal site, plug plug plug, etc), so the idea of a sequel that would theoretically elevate the rough-but-reliable gameplay of the first installment sounds like a mission statement I could gladly get behind. After all, it had good atmosphere, lots of replayability, a nice core concept with the card deck of random encounters, and it had that Arkham Asylum/Shadow Of Mordor/Sleeping Dogs/Mad Max combat engine that nobody has given an official name yet, and I am determined to refer to as “reaction brawler” until someone comes up with something better.
So all the pieces are there, Hand of Fate 2. Don’t screw this one up for me.
Hand of Fate 2 is out on November 7th, available from Steam.
Whilst there is a story in Hand of Fate 2, it’s basically unimportant. See, the first game didn’t have a plot as much as it had a vague, hand-waving premise to contextualise events sufficiently. You were a goon who had ended up trapped by a wizard with WAY too much time on his hands, and he'd suckered you into an unending game of chance about picking cards out randomly and having to personally endure the encounters described on each one, for good or for ill. Don’t see why he couldn’t just write a billion “you win the lottery and that girl you always liked writes her number on your hand” cards for himself and spend the rest of eternity just running through them like a flipbook, but maybe that’s just me failing to properly appreciate the dark chaos of unknowable eldritch magic.
But our wizarding friend – actually referred to as the Dealer – got kicked into the Phantom Zone at the end of the first game when we stubbed his thumb too many times (no seriously), yet has reemerged in this sequel to torment somebody new. And might I add that I appreciate the subtle background storytelling that shows us how the Dealer was most definitely brought low by the aforementioned incident. Whereas before he was dressed in garish purple robes and had his own castle with a Stargate in the backroom, here he’s working out of a clanking, gypsy caravan, his outfit drained of colour and the tiny amount of his face we can see blistered and cracked like he was the unholy offspring of a volcanic fissure, the Toxic Avenger and a KFC chicken bucket.
But the problem is that this new state of affairs doesn’t do a whole lot for establishing tension. I don’t get that all-important sense of being toyed with, and I mean that both figuratively and literally. Before it was very easy to feel like a rat in a maze, trapped in a cruel environment with a gleefully malevolent near-god who wouldn’t let you escape until you had play-tested his favourite game to death or just gone insane. But here I just feel like I’m appeasing the old bugger, reluctantly going round to grandad’s house and helping him with his board game while he grumbles about how things used to be better in the old days and how he preferred it when they had separate drinking fountains for ratfolk and lizardmen. It’s hard to feel trapped when I can see the countryside rolling past through the window, frankly.
Which lends itself to the question, what exactly am I playing this game for? In the context of the story, I mean, I know I’m playing it in real life for the review. But with nothing stopping my in-game character from leaving, there’s no thematic goal or sense of progress. OK, I got to the next stage of the game and… what? I’m not one step closer to escaping with my life, because I could escape at any point with a well-thrown brick and a quick hop out of the window. And the Dealer doesn’t really feel like a threat now, so feeling excited is a thing to be associated with the first game and not this one.
I’m also not entirely sure about the direction they’re going in trying to build the lore of this world, i.e., I don’t see why they bother. It makes sense to build on the idea of the Dealer, because he’s the one constant we have, grumbling at us over the course of the entire game and constantly dropping hints about his mysterious past. He's basically got the best parts of both Garak and Odo from DS9.
But it’s hard to get invested in the wider mythos and world-building glimpsed through certain cards, because none of it feels important. They didn’t bother doing so in the first game, and that was very smart of them, as I presumed that the cards we’re sucked into are either false scenarios constructed by the Dealer himself, or just unrelated events across time and space that looked interesting enough for him to include in his Munchkin fan-mod. So Hand of Fate 2 can tell me now how the Empire is encroaching on the Northmen’s territory and how there’s a whole story behind the Doomsday-looking zombies, but what the hell do I care? That’s just set-dressing for my life-or-death card game. I’m still not sure these places exist even within the context of the story itself, and I can’t help but feel the smarter approach would’ve been to do what FTL: Faster Than Light did: have all the aliens reducible to a couple of easily-digestible ideas, then use those ideas as a platform for a series of wacky encounters that were all interesting on their own terms.
And in its defence, there is a bit of that here, with more of an emphasis on comedic situations than there was before. I think there’s some stuff that could afford to be snappier, but I wasn’t bored by any of it, it just didn’t leave much of an impression overall. No fear, no laughter, no anger, no determination. It’s a shame, really.
Let me say as before, Anthony Skordi is marvelous in his role as the Dealer. The character is the epicenter of the entire game, and Skordi voices him with gravitas and grim intention the whole way through, to the point where I could just spend hours happily listening to him insult me from across our cosmic game of Who’s Who. It’s a testament to what good voice acting can do, though it amuses me how indie games seem to have worked out the cheat code that older, stern-voiced men can apparently guarantee a good voice performance, what with Hand of Fate, The Stanley Parable and Darkest Dungeon.
I also really like the design of the cards themselves, which capture that old, slightly mystic look of traditional tarot cards and their ilk, with faded, cracked appearances and illustrations in keeping with the archaic, exaggerated and nearly-silly-but-not-quite look of medieval tapestries and paintings. And for all my clucking over the caravan not being a particularly threatening location conceptually, it is atmospheric and well-rendered, with that creaking, ominous look and gentle clank of hanging pots and pans as you rattle on through lands unknown.
What’s less impressive is the graphics of the arenas and of everything inside of the cards. Hand of Fate 2 lets you customise your character’s appearance, for one thing, and I immediately put it through the test I put all character customisation systems through – can I recreate my own ugly mug? Can I recreate that tangle of scarecrow blonde hair, Clark Kent spectacles, a resting expression that you could use to ripen fruit and a nose that could double as a doorstop?
“Fat chance,” replied the game bluntly. With only one face for each ethnicity and less than half a dozen haircuts, what I ended up with had Bruce Campbell’s grinning face, a blonde topknot, and the proportions of a Fable character. And when I saw the terrifying poses that Ash Williams could adopt during his fighting, I realised why they’d tried to play up the cartoonish style, because nothing from our world should be able to perform those gross contortions in combat. Try wielding duel-blades, and you’ll see your character's arms stretching around them like Mr. Fantastic. If a human tried that, he’d surely collapse from all his joints separating in one ghastly motion.
And the environments aren’t much better. I appreciate that there’s a conscious effort being made to make them more interesting than just circular clearings surrounded by forest, what with mountaintop zones and so on, but it doesn’t change the fact that they are just empty round areas surrounded by invisible walls, constructed with graphics tech that looks to be from around 2009 at best. Hey, no judgement on that last bit, I’m one of those people who thinks that obsessive chasing of graphics is a poison on the industry that indie games would wise to think their way around, but simple graphics doesn’t have to mean looking bad. Shadow of the Colossus was a game on the PS2, and it looked gorgeous then and gorgeous now. Hand of Fate 2 doesn’t quite have that, only a distinct feeling of “boy, this definitely feels like it was made with Unity.”
Hand of Fate 2 is basically just Hand of Fate, with a bit more added on. Might sound nice, but I’m not entirely sure how much is gained by those additions, nor how this installment is meaningfully improved over the first one. I'm never entirely happy with a sequel that feels like an expansion pack in denial, I guess.
But it’s the same gameplay system as before, with a randomly selected chain of events visualised as cards placed on a table. You create a deck of random things, the Dealer adds some more cards of his own depending on what mission you’re doing, then you run through them, acquiring loot and weapons, trying to get to the end of the mission and not dying in the process. Every now and you have a quick game of chance (which you do with a quick game of Find the Lady, and with about the same sodding odds of success), and sometimes events will pull you into the game personally to do a bit of third-person brawler combat with monsters, or maybe navigate a trap-laden dungeon manually.
And the new additions are few and far between. Yes, the cards you can pick from are different, but not in any true sense of the word, with nothing here that couldn’t have been in DLC for the previous game. The biggest new addition is that there’s multiple games of chance that the game might put you through, as Find the Lady is now joined by a dice rolling game, a roulette wheel, and a reflex-test-metronome thing.
OK, but why? They all functionally do the same thing, and none of them are enormously fun or tactically rewarding. Find the Lady was tolerable in the first Hand of Fate because it felt like a simple way of sorting out chance games whilst sticking to the card game motif, but this is misplaced effort if I’ve ever seen it. Was anybody asking for more of these mini-games? No, we were asking for more in the way of the combat engine, and that also doesn’t seem a whole lot different than before.
Alright, I’ll admit that there’s now a triumvirate of weapons – fast ones, slow ones, normal ones, because of course – but they all operate functionally the same way, and though it told me that heavy weapons are good on burly soldiers and fast weapons are best for thief-stabbing, I didn’t find it really made much of a difference, and just tended to go with whatever had the highest damage rating regardless of the rock-paper-scissors match up.
I realise I’m sounding incredibly negative on a game I’m actually more just middle-of-the-road about, so let me clarify that the base gameplay is still serviceable and will probably intrigue those of you who didn’t get around to playing the original. There’s even a few minor improvements on the previous one, with challenge that isn’t just based around enduring stacks of penalties and a more varied mission structure (including a very good one about deducing a traitor with the vague clues given to you), but I’m not sure I could approve of a game that feels so much like the first. A lot of the original game’s flaws still haven’t even been remedied, including the whole token shenanigans.
You remember those? For those of you who are unaware, one of the game’s ideas is that certain cards will give you tokens if you can complete certain criteria on them, and those tokens are redeemed at the end of the match (no matter whether you win or lose) to acquire more cards for later games. That’s a very good idea, as it compensates for difficulty by allowing us to progress in a small way no matter what the end result, and keeps card acquisition as a fundamental part of the game, golf-clap, golf-clap, well done, well done.
But the issue is that the objective needed to obtain a card’s token is left secret until after you’ve already completed it, so it just becomes an exercise in perseverance and guesswork. Early on I received a card with a token attached and a big picture of a creepy forest on the front, and I assumed (not unfairly, I think) that the way to get that token was to clear said creepy forest. But every time I selected the option to venture in, the game would chastise me in a vaguely bewildering way and force me onto the next card, meaning I had to wait until it came up again in another match to try again. Turns out the way to get the token, after numerous failed experiments, was to just go and have a hot chocolate at the log cabin on its edge, and never even go into the woods themselves. That’s what gets you a reward, you valiant, Ovaltine-swigging hero.
Sorry, what? What?! Why is that the logic in play?! What kind of twisted system is this?! That’s like having the button to destroy the Halo ring hidden under a workdesk in the first level in the Pillar of Autumn! That’s like Nathan Drake finding the lost pirate treasure at the back of his fridge! That’s like if Andrew Ryan was just chilling in the lighthouse, if Gwyn was inside Siegmeyer’s armour, if Liam Neeson was in the Vault 101 bathroom, and if the Origami Killer was a character we were playing as and the game was straight-up feeding us false information to cover itself!
Look, I’m not as angry as all that, because there’s not a lot here to really get angry about, with the exception of a few noteworthy and rather frequent bugs (including one that plastered a “huge failure” card on the screen that I couldn’t get rid of, thanks for that confidence booster). I think I’m just a bit disappointed because the first game showed great potential, and this one… Well, doesn’t. It’s the same thing as before, but not quite as unique or polished. I know the developers can do better than this, and more than that, I really, really want them to. In the meantime, buy and play the first Hand of Fate. That's still a good game.
|+ Anthony Skordi's voice work is superb||– Broader canon feels unnecessary|
|+ Mission structures are improved||– Lacks overall tension or thrill|
|+ Difficulty is better managed than before||– Very little that feels new|
|+ More nuance in design||– Prone to bugs|
|– Backdrops could be a lot more epic in scope|