For all the horror stories and bashing that come from Kickstarter, there’s no denying that some seriously great experiences come from the site, too. Defiant Development’s newest project feels like playing a customizable card game, Dungeons & Dragons, and Batman: Arkham Asylum all at the same time; if that idea doesn’t excite you, then I have no idea what will. With a mysterious atmosphere, simple premise, and engaging gameplay, Hand of Fate is an example of modern indie gaming done right.
You take a seat at the table, cards of various styles floating in the air in front of you. With a wave of the hand, the dealer orders the cards to the table, sorting them into various piles on the table. A golden token sits on the table, and green-backed cards create a map for you to navigate. The game has begun; each card representative of a piece of your memory, and the more you play the game, the deeper you travel into your own past.
Before even getting started with the gameplay, Defiant Development creates an atmosphere that makes you beg to learn more about the world you’re playing in. You play as an unnamed, silent hero who ventures through various scenes to challenge the stage boss and defeat it. As you navigate the map, randomly composed of cards you’ve unlocked, you’ll be confronted with choices to make and battles against those who stand in your way. The Dealer is just as much a part of the game as you and the cards are; like tarot, each card holds just a picture, requiring the dealer to interpret the cards and give directions. Great music and fantastic narration on the part of The Dealer make the world of the game feel even more encompassing, and that’s even aside from playing the game itself.
You start the game with a rusty axe, a shield, and ten days’ worth of food. The Dealer creates a map made of face-down cards, each of which holds an encounter of some kind. Your goal is to find the exit of each level until you’ve found the boss, then defeat the boss in combat. The consequences of map cards vary: some help you, others harm you, but each move will cost you a unit of food. Run out of food, and starvation will take ten health away from you for each move you make on the map. Since you don’t know which card will hold the exit or the boss, you’ll need to balance exploration with efficiency to find your goals.
As you progress through the game and complete challenges you’ll gain tokens from The Dealer, each of which act as booster packs to unlock more cards for you to use in the next game. You get to choose which cards of the ones you’ve unlocked will get included in each playthrough, though The Dealer will inject his own cards into the deck as well. With each boss you defeat, The Dealer’s cards become more and more difficult to handle, with former bosses even making their way into basic encounters. There are 12 bosses to defeat in the Story Mode, and though I thought I’d breeze through the game based on the first couple of levels, the difficulty ramps up quickly, offering a challenge as you try to balance food, gold, and combat.
It’s not just the mechanics that Hand of Fate gets right, but also their execution. Like any card game, an element of chance comes into play: regardless of how well you do in combat, you never know if you’ll actually find a map’s exit before hunger gets the best of you, or whether you’ll have to trudge through an entire game with only your rusty axe and basic shield because no opportunity to get better gear showed up. Curses and blessings can radically affect gameplay, and you’ll encounter multiple merchants over the course of play, each of which sell different wares at different prices to balance the scales. Combat itself is borrowed straight from games like Batman: Arkham Asylum; you’ll attack multiple foes, countering and deflecting ranged attacks when indicated by a symbol appearing over the character.
Though the fights felt way too easy when first starting the game, it doesn’t take long for the strength and skill of enemies to increase, virtually necessitating buying stronger weapons as you continue forward. Though the animations and combat arenas look gorgeous, it’s not too uncommon for larger fights to experience some framerate issues and slow down, making it harder to execute proper counters.
Frame rate drops come into play rather consistently while playing, which might be the game’s only real drawback. Around when you have 6 or more characters on screen during combat it reliably starts to shudder, meaning that you have to adapt your combat strategy to prevent getting wailed on by multiple foes. Even the end game animation, where all the cards magically fly from their positions into one large pile, regularly jumps and misses most of its animations, bringing a jarring close to an otherwise fluid round of gameplay. They’re certainly not frequent or severe enough to ruin gameplay, but they definitely are a factor.
That really doesn’t detract from the fact that everything else about Hand of Fate is a treat to play. Tweaking your decks before play requires a bit of risk and adventure, since you can’t discover what a card’s effect will be in gameplay until you’ve actually encountered it during gameplay. The game injects chance into even predictable encounters by making you choose from shuffled success and failure cards, and one wrong decision can drastically turn the tables of gameplay for or against you. For those who like to conquer the leaderboards, there’s an Endless Mode which cycles cards you’ve unlocked as you get deeper into the dungeon, providing tons of variation and randomness to gameplay.
Regardless of how you might get beaten down, it’s hard to not want to play another round every time you end a game of Hand of Fate. Aside from the great attention to visuals, audio, and combat, it’s the basic system of exploration and gameplay that makes Hand of Fate a fantastic deal (get it?) for any player willing to sit at the table.