A Fate Gladly Welcomed
My experience with the iconic tabletop role-playing series Dungeons & Dragons, despite being somewhat limited, has been a very positive one overall. Letting yourself get sucked into a game ruled primarily by imagination, an oft-brutal Dungeon Master, and your ability to act like a Lawful-Evil half-Elf/half-Orc (or whatever weird amalgamation of a character that you decided to go with) is, under the right conditions, an incredible and fun experience. It’s also an experience that, try though it might, the video game industry can’t quite seem to replicate with 100% accuracy. Especially when attempting to craft this experience for, rather than the usual handful of living, breathing, and often times obnoxious (in the best possible way) people, a lone player in a world otherwise full of NPCs. Hand of Fate 2 hasn’t entirely “mastered” that concept either, but it’s certainly safe to say that it’s been one of the best attempts that I’ve ever had the pleasure of encountering. And it also stands as a great example for how much potential the (admittedly niche) single-player tabletop sub-genre has.
Rise, Fall, Revenge
Hand of Fate 2‘s story takes place approximately 100 years after that of the original Hand of Fate. After his victory over the enigmatic and seemingly all-powerful Dealer, Kallas (the original HoF‘s protagonist) has found himself to be the new master of the Game of Life and Death, and has used his newly acquired power to sew corruption, despair, and death across the land. But the Dealer has not simply sat back and watched as the man who bested him twisted the world into an unrecognizable mass of agony, however. Over the past 100 years, he has been honing his own skills with the Game and, after finally having fully improved them to his liking, has adopted a protege (that’s you!) in hopes of finally taking Kallas down once and for all.
Although its overarching story is made apparent from the very beginning, Hand of Fate 2 seems to focus more on the narrative journey itself, rather than the final destination. Within each of HoF2’s levels are stories which, while in some part pertaining to the larger picture (ie the final showdown with Kallas), are able to remain self-contained enough that they can be enjoyed on their own. Each of the game’s stories vary from one another by a noticeable amount — ranging anywhere from the player helping the Empire prepare for an incoming raid, to rescuing a dim-witted farmer from the necrotic clutches of his now-deceased lover — and are all unique in their own right. Admittedly, none of the writing is apt to blow you away — it’s all fairly standard high fantasy tabletop stuff — but that doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy it for the well-written, classically inspired tabletop-like that it is.
A Slight of Hand
Hand of Fate 2 may have an undeniably D&D-like presence, but don’t let that fool you into thinking that the two play alike. Despite the very similar way in which the two games may carry themselves, there’s one major and immediately noticeable mechanic that HoF2 has which helps to set it apart from the rest of its tabletop ilk; cards. Each of HoF2‘s 22 levels (plus the recently released “Endless Mode”!) take place on a literal map made of cards, which your character token must traverse. Talk about super-easy! …What’s that? You’re not falling for that? And you think the game’s actually deceptively brutal? Well, I suppose the jig is up. You are, of course, right. Technically speaking, moving a game piece across a board made of cards is easy. But, thanks to the many dangers lurking within said cards, the game ends up being anything but.
You know how, in a typical tabletop game, it’s the Dungeon Master’s job to make up a ton of events and quests to throw at the player while they’re struggling their way through whatever brutal campaign they’re in? Well, that’s basically what HoF2‘s cards are. Each card within the game hosts a certain event, with said events ranging anywhere from the mundane — such as the player needing to rescue soldiers from a group of bandits — to the unexpected — such as the player meeting a cheeky goblin who gives them a bunch of explosives and then immediately forces them to fight a horde of skeletons. There are a lot of cards in this game. Fortunately, it isn’t hard to learn the ins and outs of each of them. While HoF2 could technically be classified as a roguelike do to its permadeath and procedural generation of each level’s map, the cards themselves used within each level aren’t random. This means that, even if you end up dying because you were caught off-guard by a new event (which will happen a lot, trust me), you can at least better prepare yourself for the next round because you’ll already know that it’s there.
Of course, it’s not just the card in front of you that you’ll need to pay attention to should you want to make it through all of the Dealer’s trials. Although Hand of Fate 2 may be a board game of sorts, this isn’t Candy Land that you’re dealing with. And thus, your goal is almost never so simple as merely making it from “start” to “finish”. Each of Hand of Fate 2‘s levels contain not only a unique board through which to traverse, but a unique goal for the player to accomplish as well. These goals, admittedly, are pretty simple at first, and do guide the player along in a rather traditional manner, but begin to show a level of clever complexity as the game continues — such as with “Justice”, a level which effectively, and temporarily, turns HoF2 into a pseudo resource management game. While some of them are a bit more hit-or-miss than others (“The Lovers” ended up being more annoying than fun for me), HoF2‘s inclusion of unique level goals ultimately greatly enhances the experience overall.
Silly me, I almost forgot to mention the most important aspect of this game. No, not cards. The other most important aspect of this game — chance! Oh, come on, don’t act surprised. I already told you that this game is a single-player tabletop. And no tabletop is complete without those small polygonal objects of hope and despair known as dice. The number of times that you’ll be rolling for your life is far too high for me to count, but trust me when I say that you’ll be leaving things up to chance more times than you’ll be comfortable with. And things don’t stop there! Along with its copious amounts of heart-pounding, sweat-inducing dice rolls, HoF2 adds in other activities as well, including pendulum, card wheel, and card shuffle events which, due to they way they’re set up, actually end up being more about skill rather than luck — a very welcome change of pace if you ask me.
Stacking the Deck
The Game of Life and Death may be in the hands of the Dealer (sort of, anyway), but that doesn’t mean that you don’t have any say in it. Before the beginning of each level, players are able to select a number of cards to be shuffled into the dealer’s deck. These cards come in four categories — companion, encounters, equipment, and supplies — and are absolutely vital to making it through any of Hand of Fate 2‘s given levels. This is because, while many of the cards within each of the Dealer’s decks are designed to challenge the player, the player-selected cards, when properly applied, can greatly ease the burden of the challenges being thrown at them. Of course, as is true of every card game, simply having good cards in your deck doesn’t guarantee victory. HoF2, being the cruel mistress that it is, randomly deals your cards out onto the map in the same manner that it does with the pre-selected ones. Because of this, a potentially good setup will end up failing more times than not. But, so long as you keep trying, you’ll draw that winning combination at the right time eventually!
It’s also important to note that many equipment and event cards, as well as each of HoF2‘s levels, come with tokens attached to them. Just what are tokens, exactly? Well, they’re basically booster packs whose contents are pre-determined. And, since there’s no form of currency in this game with which to buy tokens, there’s only one way to earn them; by completing unique objectives! When it comes to level tokens, your objectives are always spelled out onscreen. Equipment card token requirements are made clear, too. You don’t get that lucky with card tokens, though. Sometimes collecting a card token is as easy as letting an event play out. Most of the time, however, things aren’t so straightforward. HoF2‘s heavy reliance on ambiguity in regards to its highly coveted event card tokens left a mixed impression on me overall. Yes, there was a part of me that enjoyed and gained satisfaction from discovering event card token requirements. But there was also a part of me that tended to get frustrated after a few failed attempts. The game already tells you how to get tokens from levels and equipment cards; I feel as though they should have just done the same with event cards.
Curiously enough, Hand of Fate 2, despite being “D&D Except With Cards” in nearly every way possible, heavily deviates from the norm when it comes to combat. Although, based on everything else, you would expect combat to be a typical tabletop affair — complete with clever character placement and dice rolls which always result in critical failures at the worst possible times — any and all skirmishes take place as actual action RPG fights. Pretty weird, huh? Yeah, I thought so, too. But here’s the weirdest part; they’re actually good! Rather than feeling like a hastily thrown-together mechanic which was added last-minute in order to help the game stand out, HoF2‘s real-time combat is a fun and welcome change of pace. Battles are simple and straightforward, with players essentially being allowed to do little more than attack, block, and dodge, which, while too shallow for the likes of full-blown action RPGs, works in this game’s favor by forcing players to carefully monitor their enemy’s movements — lest they find themselves hacked all the way down to 0 HP. Sometimes, developers add strange things into games that leave you scratching your head. But HoF2‘s action-oriented combat is proof that strange things can also be good at times, too!
It’s all in the Cards
Single-player tabletop-like video games aren’t easily made, and I still feel as though we’re far away from having one which can properly emulate the presence of other people. But there’s absolutely no denying that this game is a big step in the right direction. Aside from the occasional bouts of frustration brought on by the Gods of RNG whom this game oh-so-frequently provoke, Hand of Fate 2 is very solid overall, featuring a surprising amount of depth, a high replay value, and an oddly placed yet still quite fun action RPG fighting system, and is a game that tabletop fans should definitely take consider picking up.
FINAL VERDICT: 4/5
Available on: Nintendo Switch (Reviewed), PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC ; Publisher: Defiant Development ; Developer: Defiant Development ; Players: 1 ; Released: July 17, 2018 (Switch) ; ESRB: T for Teen ; MSRP: $29.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a copy of Hand of Fate 2 given to Hey Poor Player by the publisher.