I’ve nearly escaped a forest ambush and barely avoided a tree crashing on my head when voices from the shadows call for my gold or my life. I sense the danger facing me in the woods, but I’ve worked hard for what’s mine, and I’m reluctant to give it up to anyone but a merchant. So, striding into town, high on my victory, I’m dismayed to run into a passing noble who knocks me over and calls me a peasant. On any other day, I would have humbly apologized and moved along, avoiding trouble when I can. But today, I am an unstoppable hero, and I refuse to apologize to such an ignorant buffoon. So with perfect timing and a good bit of luck, I steal plenty of the noble’s food and coin and walk away with a smile on my face.
Anecdotes like these are made every minute in Hand of Fate, a hybrid card game/ARPG that mixes elements of choose-your-own-adventure stories with third-person action. Although the reach of this odd mix of styles can sometimes exceed its grasp, there is still an addictive experience to be found, full of personal stories and memorable moments that more than make up for a few technical missteps.
Hand of Fate is presented as a game within a game, with players facing off against the mystical and mysterious Dealer, a masked man who is less of a Dungeon Master and more of a patient adversary, willing to explain the rules yet always trying to best you. Dumping you into a game unceremoniously, the rules are easy to grasp, and within one round, everything is made perfectly clear. Cards are laid out in a path similar to a dungeon, with each one representing some sort of encounter. The playable character is kept in statue form, moving across the cards and facing each encounter as they come. Surpass these trials, and you’ll face off with one of 12 different boss characters.
Some cards represent armor, weapons, artifacts and other tools necessary for survival, while others present various stories to play through. There are plenty of encounters to pick from, giving each playthrough a unique feel that never gets repeated throughout the 8 hour story. Encounters can range from benevolent priests offering food or blessings to devils in the road asking you to prove your bravery. Many cards are emblazoned with a token, and the Dealer will give you the opportunity to win more cards by completing each encounter a certain way, meaning that cards you unlock are just another step towards unlocking yet more adventures to experience.
The large variety of events to play through is impressive, and the random nature makes each stage feel like part of a story crafted around your experiences. Many events even have different outcomes, meaning it can’t be played the same way every time. For example, one meeting with a goblin in disguise left me weighed down with gold, while another encounter with him left me unconscious with most of my food gone. Much of this action takes place through dialogue and text, leaving the rest to my imagination. Within minutes, I was visualizing myself getting clobbered over the head by the mischievous goblin’s stick and angrily watching him rifle through my bags.
Already, Hand of Fate presents an intriguing premise for a card game, but it takes an extra creative step and literally throws you into battles, changing to a third-person action game when you are faced with enemies. Combat in these tiny yet diverse arenas is most similar to the Batman: Arkham series, with buttons mapped to dealing a blow, countering and evading attacks, complete with flashing counter indicators and slow-motion kill cams. While it’s a fun change of pace and shakes up the tabletop environment, the combat itself is sluggish and feels slower to respond than other games with similar systems.
Animations are also less than stellar, especially considering this is a PS4 release, with characters commonly disappearing into each other. Some moments in particular brought things to a standstill, such as the Dealer’s shuffling animations or the loading screens that transitioned from the tabletop to battle arenas. Although much of the game works on a technical level, there are still too many bugs, glitches and laggy moments to ignore, and the combat isn’t nearly as responsive as it should be. The illusion is also broken up by a lack of character customization, so hopefully you like stocky, bearded men as your avatars.
However, these technical faults fade to the background as each encounter adds a new chapter to your story. Listening to the Dealer discuss various events, characters and other lore from the world is an experience akin to building a world with your friends during an old-fashioned match of D&D. Many of these experiences highlight the risk/reward nature of Hand of Fate, with many scenarios forcing you to think carefully before choosing your actions. For example, a glittering weapon caught my eye at the bottom of a canyon, and I was forced to decide if I should risk the climb down to claim it. Decisions such as these are made by choosing from four concealed cards that can spell success or failure, and these decisions often require quite a bit of luck to pull off without a hitch.
In fact, the luck aspect becomes crucial in later chapters, with bad runs of luck spelling disaster regardless of gear or gold. Hand of Fate manages to balance these encounters so that you’re not feeling cheated, meaning failure doesn’t always spell defeat. I managed to scrape my way through more than a few hairy moments and still scrounge up some gold as I licked my wounds. The difficulty is never too high, and only the last few levels are brutally challenging, but it only takes dying once to lose the entire round and have to start from scratch. It can be frustrating, but the game is so addictive that I either jumped right back in or waited a few minutes before the urge to strike out on another adventure hit me.
Beating the story mode unlocks an endless mode, setting up an infinite game between you and the Dealer that brings every card you’ve unlocked into play. Hand of Fate was meant to be played in small doses, and since each round can take anywhere from five minutes to an hour depending on how you play, it is a perfect example of how to make a game infinitely replayable. Just hours after I would quite a long session, I would find myself thinking back on my adventures and wanting to hop back in for another battle with the Dealer.
To be perfectly clear, Hand of Fate is far from a perfect game. There are far too many technical issues to ignore, and while the action segments are playable, they aren’t terribly fun and become repetitive quickly. But thanks to the incredible variety of encounter and weapon cards available to unlock and an infinitely changing game environment, there is more than enough to keep you coming back long after the story is complete. No two adventures are ever alike, and thanks to Hand of Fate‘s ridiculously addictive gameplay, you’ll never run out of stories to tell.
This review was based on a PlayStation 4 version of the game given to us for review purposes.
Although it's technically flawed in more than a few ways, Hand of Fate is an intriguing premise that delivers an old-fashioned choose-your-own-adventure style card game that's infinitely replayable.