I’ve been pondering for a while how someone first came up with the idea of mixing a tabletop RPG with a deck building card game, with an action brawler. At first glance it seems like a pretty wild mix of game types. How do you manage to make all of them relevant, fun and working together in harmony? A little studio, aptly named Defiant Development, over in the Land Down Under apparently thought; how hard could it be?
When the game takes off you find yourself at a table, sat across from a robed figure known as The Dealer. Throughout your journey he acts as a dungeon master of sorts, as you take on a game of life and death, his game. The 22 challenges you will face are retellings of the events that have led you up to this moment, to this table and to this game. It’s a surprisingly lengthy game, but not in a way that overstays its welcome (took me about 40 hours to finish the campaign, including replaying some of the missions). It’s built around replayability, not only once you’ve reached the end, but during a playthrough as well.
Each of the challenges present you with one or more objectives, awarding you either a silver or gold token for surviving the trials and depending on how thoroughly you fulfilled different criteria. Sometimes all of these objectives are not made entirely clear, and it will be necessary to replay a challenge to earn that gold token, once you understand it better. This is sometimes a little frustrating, considering some challenges take upwards of 90 minutes (the first time you try them). The game also, especially towards the tail end, really manages to subvert expectation and lead you into carefully laid traps that will spell your inevitable doom. Something that often made me smile the way you do when you’ve been skillfully outsmarted and ultimately bested, but that could also be perceived as unfair and cheap.
What really takes the edge off any such frustrations, however, is the outstanding variety in scenarios these challenges offer. You might find yourself fighting through the streets of a plague-ridden city, to save those you can before the oppressive Empire purges them all. Another time you’re leading an expedition against the marauding Northerners, gathering resources to build a fort and base of operations, all the while holding the enemy off, to finally push out and take the fight to them. Long from the action of the battlefield you could hole up in a seedy tavern with a man suspecting one of his closest associates of planning his assassination. Suddenly it’s a game of clue, and a race against the clock (although not literally a timed challenge) to find the assassin and stop them!
The tokens awarded for completion are not merely there to tease those of us with an inclination towards completionism, though, they also play a part in the core gameplay loop. They reward you with new cards. Cards make up the framework of the game and come in a few different varieties; Companions, Encounters, Equipment and Supplies. Companions are, much like the term suggests, NPCs you recruit along your quest that help you out in combat and provide bonuses to the tabletop part of the game. Encounters make out the map, or game board, that your traverse. As you move over a face down card it turns over and reveals a situation that leads to choices, skill checks, gains, losses, combat, etc. Equipment and Supplies are cards chosen by the player to take on an adventure and decide what treasure you can find and what you start out with. Aside from this you also have to manage four resources. Health which you regain a little bit of every time you move, but moving costs food. Then there is also gold and fame. It’s mostly self-explanatory.
There is also a third kind of token, bronze. These are attached to encounter cards and equipment, and are unlocked by completing the encounter fully, or in the case of weapons something like “use this to kill 10 Thieves”. Unlocking the token grants you a new card, often with its own bronze token attached, which means you get these cool, self-contained side quests to explore. Sometimes these unlock platinum cards, which give you more powerful rewards when drawn. For the bravest adventurer there is yet another type of card, the brimstone card. These present a significantly more challenging task that, if failed, can lead to death.
Before you set out on a challenge you get to tailor your own deck, which influences how it will play out. The Dealer then has his own deck, with encounters you have yet to unlock. During tabletop play you will also encounter different mini-games of sorts, representing checks -some more skill based, some more luck- such as dice throws, spin the wheel or stopping a pendulum with precise timing. These are inherently stacked against you but to balance this out, the game will tell you before you start a challenge what types of checks will be more prevalent, and both companions and other cards provide bonuses to aid you in passing them.
Sometimes though, not even the luckiest dice roll or carefully laid plan can prevent you from eventually landing yourself in a good scrap. At that point, the only way forward is your warhammer getting closely acquainted with that ugly barbarian’s cheek bone. Much like in 1995’s classic masterpiece Jumanji, you’re sucked into the game and placed in a battle arena (that last bit happened in the movie too right?).
Combat is perhaps the most outlying factor of the game. It is what’s come to be commonly referred to as “Arkham style” and entails stringing together attacks, blocks/parries/ripostes and dodges, to build a combo meter and unleash special weapon actions and executions. It is quite simple but there’s a certain rhythm to it that satisfies. Enemy variety is somewhat limited, with five main factions and special enemies and bosses on top of that. Not to the point where I felt it became stale, though, and different combinations of enemy types serve to keep the encounters fresh. Overall the combat is very competent and spectacular visually. My only real gripe with it is that camera control is limited, which sometimes leads to that one enemy you want to attack being obscured behind other, bigger baddies. There is also a seeming inconsistency in when you take damage and it’s not always clear as glass why it happens. For example, when going for an execution, until your weapon lands the blow you’re still vulnerable to attacks. You can cancel out of the animation with a roll (confirmed by the devs) but this is never explained to you in-game. There are also times when one enemy will attack you with a blockable attack, and another shortly after with an unblockable one. Blocking the first will lock you in place for a short time frame, but sometimes enough for the second hit to land without any chance of dodging. All things said and done, I definitely think the combat is a good addition, rather than a detriment, though.
If you like the idea of a D&D style adventure, coupled with careful strategizing and execution of your carefully laid plans, sprinkled with a bit of Batman brawling, this is probably for you. However, if you’re more into the fast paced, loosey goosey, hackey slashey, you will probably walk away from the experience more frustrated than rewarded.
Hand of Fate 2 is available on PC, PS4 and Xbox One for around $30.