I’ll admit, I never really got the point of card-playing video games. I figured, why represent bandits and treasure with cards when you can just show them as they are? So it was with some reluctance that I loaded up Hand of Fate, but as soon as I saw the mysterious hooded dealer levitating beautiful swirling clouds of cards, any preconceptions I had melted away. The way he deals the cards and speaks in those neutral, slightly mocking tones is downright mesmerising. But there’s more on offer here than mere style; Hand of Fate has substance, in greater quantity than I could ever have imagined.
As the name suggests, this game is all about the cards. You build a deck of equipment you want to use and encounters you’d like to have, and the dealer jumbles them up, adds a few tricks of his own, and sets you on your path. You progress through the dungeon from one randomly chosen encounter to the next, never sure whether the next step will have you cross a river, do battle with bandits, or be robbed by goblins. In many of these cases you are given the chance to tip the scales in or against your favour, depending on how the figurative dice roll. Succeed multiple times and you will breeze through your journey unscathed; fail over and over, and you will be lucky to escape with your life. I learned the hard way that even something as apparently positive as a treasure chest can lead to ruin, as its traps seriously wounded my hero, who then failed to even get the blasted thing open. Fate knows no mercy.
Balancing your health, food and gold is no easy task as you progress through the dungeon, as many cards will call for the sacrifice of one resource in exchange for another. Simply moving a step costs you one food while restoring five health, but if you run out of food, then every step will cost you ten health instead. You can use gold to replenish both of these, but getting gold in the first place rarely comes without a cost of its own. This is not a game where you can just have it all without any effort. In fact, much of the time you’ll be lucky to make it to the dungeon’s boss without being broke and half dead from starvation. The harshness of this world makes it hard to do the right thing sometimes, and you may find yourself exploiting the vulnerable just to stay alive. But this just makes it all the sweeter when you can afford to be a hero, because you know how unforgiving the cards can be.
Once you enter a fight, however, the cards come to life. Combat is simple yet robust and surprisingly reminiscent of Sleeping Dogs, being a frantic one-on-mob brawl that rewards quick reflexes and crowd control. Even though the game recommends using a controller, I found the keyboard and mouse configuration very natural and responsive. In addition to your standard attack you can roll, counter melee attacks, reflect ranged attacks, stun blocking enemies and perform finishers on downed foes to immediately put them out of the fight. Once you start gaining equipment effects, blessings and weapon and artifact abilities, things can get pretty hectic, and incredibly satisfying.
You won’t last long without the right equipment, though, the value of which depends more on your play style and how fortunate you’ve been than simple statistics. For example, the Desperate Measures mace deals more damage the lower your health, while the Self-Righteous blessing—which increases damage the more blessings you have—isn’t much use on its own. Even more extreme is the Ring of Poverty, which makes you broke when selling it, but in return grants you an increase to your maximum health proportionate to the amount of gold lost. This is a huge boon if you’re rolling in coin, but completely worthless if you’re already penniless.
The cards you play and the choices you make determine what cards you unlock and thereby the paths you take. For example, when propositioned by a rather polite vampire to sell some of your health, if you can sate his appetite without being utterly devoured in the process, you will unlock a card that takes you to a blood auction, where you can put your health up for bid. This subtle theming creates a personalised experience that reflects not just your intentions, but your underlying nature.
The story mode pits you against twelve members of the dealer’s court, and their dungeons that have been prepared with specific challenges in mind. For example, taking on the Jack of Plagues forces you to endure famine as you dodge mobs of food-stealing peasants and enemies that drop no loot. The key to surviving these myriad challenges is to be flexible with your deck’s composition. In my case, frustrated at always running low on supplies, I geared my encounter cards towards gold so I could simply buy whatever food or health I needed whenever I happened upon a shop. However, as I pursued this strategy I found myself struggling through dungeons with only basic equipment. I finally realised this was because I’d neglected to include encounters that grant equipment into my deck, so I had no means of accessing all the great equipment cards I’d loaded the other half of my deck with.
Grinding earlier dungeons to develop your deck isn’t an easy path to success either, as progressing through the story will load your deck with locked hostile encounter cards of whichever enemy type you’ve previously fought. So while the Jack of Dust dungeon was child’s play on my first try, coming back to it after having battled Ratmen, Lizardmen and Skeletons hugely amped up the challenge. As more basic cards tend to be played early in a dungeon, you’ll also need to push on to longer and more difficult dungeons to get to use and unlock the upgraded cards. Fortunately, if you ever feel like you’ve completely fouled up your situation, you can always reset your progress and start again.
The alternative to story is Endless mode. This is more freeform, starting you off with nothing and running you through completely random dungeons, without scripted challenges for you to overcome. After each completed level, a new disadvantage will be thrown at you, such as a loss of food, persistent injury or a curse that forbids you from selling anything. Everything you do adds to your score, which is totalled and multiplied at the end based on your performance for you to boast (or shamefacedly admit) to your friends.
It’s hard to find evidence that Hand of Fate is actually in early access, rather than being a completed release. In all my time with the game, the biggest gripe I have is that there isn’t an option for full-screen, nor any customisation of your hero’s look beyond equipping gear. That the worst I can say about this game is that it doesn’t cater to my specific preferences as well as it could really shows how superb it is overall.
If you have any reluctance to try early access games, for fear that their unfinished state will prove far too frustrating, don’t let that put you off trying this one out. Hand of Fate is more solid, polished and downright fun than most games in their finished state. Its stylish design, intricate depth and element of chance make this a game you’ll play over and over again. Now, time to show the King of Dust who’s boss!