My initial exposure to Hand of Fate was a brief sentence extolling the reductive summary of it's disparate parts: action RPG meets collectible card game. My mind's knee-jerk reaction to this was one of revulsion. I reeled in terror of the possible machiavellian exploits that this marriage could produce. I envisioned a barren wasteland pocked with micro-transaction landmarks; big green monstrosities up-selling the virtues of new cards. Blockades of malicious intent designed to syphon out the contents of your wallet. These—embarrassing—assumptions, borne of book-cover-judging ignorance, were met with a well constructed game packed with enough character and charm to woo my curmudgeonly attitude towards card driven experiences. And I couldn't be more pleased with the results.
The enigmatic antagonist that greets you, with cards and cloak, is well conceived. He breathes life into the proceedings with well written dialogue and strong acting. His dark humor and playful attitude avoid the pitfall of being overly cloying. His snide jibes, commentary, and flowery vocabulary, are believably delivered with appropriately histrionic gravitas, or refreshing playfulness. I found this character to be the true star of the show. Not to say that the rest of the affair is some humdrum production, but without him, it would feel near quotidian.
The cards are spread across a few categories; the most interesting of which are the encounters laid out on the table for the player to explore. These mini-excursions, presented facedown, often reveal themselves as self contained quagmires with multiple choice solutions that end in battle, boon, or bane. Some grant the player tokens used to unlock more encounter cards, weapons, or amour. The additional encounter cards can actually provide context, or a pleasant extension of the story, for the card that unlocked them. The intrigue of what could be hidden under their glossy backs often compelled me to explore, even after finding the path to the next map of cards.
Such an exercise is strongly recommended, the drain on your resources be damned. As you move from card to card you spend food; if you run out of food, the explorations take their toll from your health. However, a thoughtful explorer should only rarely find themselves without the required reserves to plunder further; until the later parts of the game, where resources start to become far more limited.
The cards also function as a supplement for dice rolls. Some actions present you with a line of cards, varying degrees of success and failure illustrated on them, in a clear display of your odds. They are then flipped and shuffled. Early on it can be easy to follow the cards to ensure your victory, but, as you progress further through the ranks of bosses, the shuffles become impossible to follow. This makes some of the outcomes truly random and knowing the odds, then getting the one bad card, can be demoralizing for you, and devastating to your character. Failure in these instances sees you getting dealt pain cards. These can deal damage, lower your maximum health, or deprive you of valuable gold and food.
Working your way through your adversary's decks is the primary means of progression. Each deck has a boss and a corresponding league of henchmen; defeating them lets them loose in future excursions. After defeating three of these decks everything gets bumped up a notch, your powers and the dealers included. This happens every three decks. It keeps things interesting, even if you go back to re-run previous sets.
Battle is reminiscent of other recent releases, such as Batman or Shadow of Mordor, only simplified. It is, by no means, bad, just serviceable. Battle is the weakest part of the game, but still manages to be entertaining. I never found myself bemoaning a battle, but I wasn't eagerly anticipating them either. Colorful icons appear over enemy heads to indicate the reaction you should have: green for parry, red for dodge. Generous time slowing is applied whenever an attack is launched at you, giving you ample opportunity to act accordingly; the only exceptions being ranged attacks or traps.
The flow of the game is similar to a (very light) rouge-like. After beating, or failing to beat, the chosen card dungeon, your character is reset to a default state for your next outing. But, with the unlocking of new cards, and the subsequent alteration of your personal deck, you gain extra strength. Thankfully, you can let the game manage your cards. I'm not a fan of managing cards; I've never been good at that kind of strategy. Using the recommended cards never left me feeling under powered.
I played the game on the PS4 and there is some technical issues to mention. The most egregious being the frame-rate; in later battles, when you face larger numbers of enemies in a single encounter, it can drop precipitously. On a few occasions the actual play of the game was so severely hindered that my character died. Beyond the rampant frame-rate, audio has a tendency to hitch or drop. As far as I could tell, these issues do not extend to the PC counterparts. So, if you have the option, you should certainly sway in that direction.
Glaring technical flaws aside I can still whole-heartedly recommend Hand of Fate. The experience as a whole was very entertaining and mostly unique. The game successfully creates something more then the sum of its parts; the structured nature of progression belying its true depth of character. A character granted predominantly by your table bound adversaries, card and dealer alike. It was a pleasant surprise to have my expectations put in check and to find enjoyment in a card based system, especially when I am traditionally opposed to them.