Face-to-Face with Hand of Fate

“Hand of Fate is a card game that comes to life,” says creative director Morgan Jaffit in a video from the game’s Kickstarter page. “From here, we want you to be part of the process of final design, development, tuning, polish, and final release.”

After spending two years within Kickstarter and Steam Greenlight, Hand of Fate met its funding goal in December of 2013. Following a year of alpha and beta testing, Hand of Fate was officially released on February 17, 2015 for PC, Xbox One, Playstation 4, Linux, and OSX.

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We begin with Hand of Fate’s imaginative story mode. The player sits at a table lit by a candle’s flame. You are face-to-face with a mysterious character known as The Dealer. The Dealer explains that he has meticulously prepared this game to the point of perfection. You are challenged by this cryptic fellow to study these cards, build your skills, and defeat any foe he brings forth. The Dealer shuffles, the cards are laid facedown, and the game begins.

Hand of Fate is less of a full-blown card game like Hearthstone or Magic: The Gathering, and more of a ‘choose your own adventure’ with cards as the means to introduce the player to new characters, weapons, and encounters.

A single bronze figurine represents the player’s current position on the board. The bottom-left hand displays the player’s health, gold and food. Health is the player’s lifeblood. Reach zero and the game is over. Each turn consumes one food, and traveling between levels consumes two food. When the player runs out of food, 10 health is lost per turn until either food is obtained or starvation reduces the player’s health down to nothing.

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Gold can be used to make purchases at various shops, healers, and tinkers. Each shop provides the player with an opportunity to acquire resources. Some shops have specializations like healing, food, equipment, or the removal of curses.

The deck consists of ancient magical tarot cards. There are four categories of cards with the deck: Encounters, Equipment, Gains, and Pains.

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Players can choose to swap encounter cards before playing against The Dealer.

Encounters are laid facedown on the table. These are the pathways the player must take from start to finish. When a player moves over an encounter card, it is flipped; revealing its contents. Encounters can be anything from a treasure chest, a bandit ambush, a maze of traps, a helpful priest, or a chance to buy supplies from a shop.

The primary goal is to defeat each stage’s guardian, and eventually, The Dealer himself. The very first guardian is the Jack of Dust.

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The Jack of Dust waits for you at the very end of the first stage. Between you and him are his minions. This can include cards like the Four of Dust, which are four opponents of lesser difficulty. Enemies come in varying suits, with face cards being the strongest opponents.

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A dark transitional scene at the start of a combat encounter.

During encounters such as bandit attacks or ambushes, the player is teleported inside the game to fight in lethal combat (which will be touched upon later in this review).

Many encounters are little more than game of chance. Take the Golem Hunting Party card, for example:

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If the player chooses to attack them, the possible outcomes are shown face up. After a few seconds pass, they are then flipped and shuffled:

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Sometimes, it is actually possible to observe the cards as they are being shuffled. Having a sharp eye is beneficial in situations like these.  However, some players will find that simply, ‘blind luck’ is the most common key to success.

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There is also the possibility of “Huge Failure” and “Huge Success.” As the player progresses in the story, the stakes are raised and the penalties for failure become increasingly severe. Conversely, the rewards for success become even more significant as the game’s difficulty grows.

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Like encounters, players can also swap equipment cards before starting the game.

Equipment cards are the player’s gear collected throughout game. These can be a piece of armor, an enchanted ring, an artifact, or a weapon. The player starts with a basic shield, light armor, and an axe. In addition to non-elemental weapons, there are elemental weapons like Frost Fang:

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There are four variations of elemental weapons: IceFire, Shock, and Holy. Each element has a special effectiveness when used against a given enemy. An ice weapon such as Frost Fang freezes and slows down opponents, giving the player a few seconds of precious time.

There are multitudes of unique items in Hand of Fate. Combinations of earned gear make for a noticeably more powerful character. A single piece of gear has potential to change the outcome of an entire game. Be warned, though: there are some encounters that, if failed, can result in the loss of hard-earned equipment.

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Gains are given as rewards for completing encounters successfully. These can include some gold, food, a choice of gear from the armory, or even a Blessing.

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Blessings can be awarded from encountering maidens or priests. They can be stacked together in order make the player become an altogether stronger character. There are some instances where the result of a given encounter will completely change due to the player being blessed.

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Unlike gains, pain cards are acquired from failing encounters or making poor decisions. These can be a loss of health, loss of gold, loss of an item, or a curse.

Curse cards provide active effects that have negative actions on the player. In some games, the Dealer will inflict multiple curses before the game even starts. One might want to consider finding a priest to remove a curse, if one has the gold to spare.

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For example, the Cowardice curse prevents the player from being able to choose a combat option if there are multiple choices in any given encounter.

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The story mode level-selection showing the player’s progression.

The story mode contains 12 stages with a face-card opponent at the end of each. Every third level cleared awards the player an item of The Dealer’s personal property. These items will increase both the player’s and the enemy’s base stats.  While both starting gear and stats grow stronger, the opposition will also grow more difficult in attempt to balance.

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‘The Goblet’ showing the first set of unlockable upgrades.

In Hand of Fate, there are four primary ‘suits’ of enemy cards. The Dust suit, representing Humanoids, Skulls which represent Skeletons, Plague indicating Rats, and Scales marking Lizards. However, there are some special enemy cards which do not have any suit at all, such as the Minotaur Maze card:

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The suitless Minotaur Maze card.

Successful completion of an encounter can also grant the player a token. Tokens are the keys to unlocking more cards. From there, the deck can be customized. If the player decides that a card is not particularly useful, it can be replaced for another. A freshly unlocked card needs to be encountered at least once in order for its effects to be revealed. This requirement builds incentive for players to try new cards as soon as possible.

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A token being unlocked to reveal new cards.

Before entering a level, the player has the choice of either customizing their deck or using the “recommended” deck for the respective level.  Encounter cards with a token attached to them indicate that they have not yet been successfully completed. In some cases, an encounter may require a very lucky draw in order for its token to be awarded. Some of the more troublesome cards can even be removed from the deck entirely once they have been successfully completed.

This brings us to Hand of Fate’s combat system. When an encounter has reached the point of combat, the player teleports into battle with their presently equipped gear. The world within the game strikes a surprising similarity to the world of Fable. These environments are a far-cry from the tranquil candlelit table between the player and The Dealer. Like a match of Chess Boxing, the combat is a drastic change of pace from the tabletop experience. Players might find themselves exhausted by the end of a hard-fought battle.

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The player swings a steel mace to fend off the Dust.

The combat in Hand of Fate is very comparable to the “Rhythm” system of Batman: Arkham Asylum. A physical strike followed by various timed dodges, rolls, blocks and counters will favor players with quick reflexes and a sharp eye. Some attacks are not counter-able, as indicated by a red flash around the enemy’s head. Players will also have to face enemies with various ranged attacks. Although these types of attacks can be reflected, there are times where the counter mechanic actually prevents the player from avoiding simultaneous ranged attacks; resulting in virtually unavoidable damage.

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The Two of Mages and the player fight atop a tower.

Some of the combat stages consist of an evil tomb, a high tower, and the deck of a ship, to name only a few. These various environments force players to stay on their toes and use the environment to their advantage. The smaller stages feel even smaller when faced with a large group of opponents or even with a single facecard.

The ship’s deck is an example of a very confined space. With a combat system that hinges upon the player’s ability to move quickly within a given area, a stage this small can turn a skirmish into an overly frustrating brawl.

Earning unique weapons and equipment make for a rewarding experience. The ability to swap weapons and gear between turns is a crucial aspect of the deckbuilding in Hand of Fate. If a player does not wish to keep a particular piece of equipment that they find during the game, it can be exchanged at the nearest shop for gold.

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Players can make quick changes to their loadout between encounters.

The starting gear consists of a rusty axe, basic shield, and light armor. Eventually, players will come across enchanted helmets, rings, bracers, and artifacts. Artifacts are special effect items usable only during combat and have a timed recharge. They also have a limited number of uses until the item disappears, as indicated by the yellow marks beneath the name. Several of these are area-of-effect attacks that can stun or kill multiple foes at a time.

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Activating this artifact in combat will enhance all weapon attacks with a poison. The yellow symbols below the card’s name represent the number of available uses left for that artifact.

In addition to the story mode, Hand of Fate has an unlockable “Endless Mode” that pits the player against the dealer in an endurance test. The game continues until the player either dies or starves.  All of the player’s artifacts carry over, but so do the negative effects of these artifacts. Enemies gradually become stronger with each completed level, leading the player closer to an inevitable end.

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Composer Jeff Van Dyck created a classical score that pairs well with each encounter; be it time spent at the Dealer’s table, a shopkeeper, or in the middle of heavy combat. There are a few minor graphical details missing in Hand of Fate, such as a water splash effect for when foes tumble into the drink or issues with corpses floating above ground when they should plummet to their final resting place below. When played on a system that exceeds the recommended requirements, the game held a very stable 60 frames per second in 1080p, except for the high density enemy areas and a few animations involving elemental weapons.

Anthony Skordi is voice actor for The Dealer. Some will recognize Skordi’s voice talents from his work as various characters in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. The Dealer’s constant taunting and one-liners are clearly written to get under the player’s skin. Skordi truly brings this card-wielding sorcerer to life in Hand of Fate.

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At $24.99, Hand of Fate can appeal to a wide variety of gamers: RPG, Tabletop, Roguelike, and action-adventure fans should find Hand of Fate an enjoyable single-player experience. Defeating Hand of Fate’s story is no easy task. My own personal goal was to complete the story as quickly as possible in order to test the endgame mechanics. With this in mind, the main story took 40 hours to complete, with more hours still being spent inside endless mode in an effort to unlock the remaining tokens. Endless mode provides re-playability, while story mode is an endurance challenge on its own. Defiant Development has not only created a very unique title, but also set the bar in the genre of tabletop action RPG as a whole.