Since their inception, games have struggled to offer a seamless simulation of reality. Visual representation has evolved from blobs of blocky pixels to near photorealism, while audio has advanced from simple chirps into convincing, multi-channeled high-fidelity soundscapes. Likewise, input schemes have progressed from simple, single-button joysticks to movement-sensing cameras so precise that they can purportedly measure our heartrate. And while all these improvements have propelled players toward the Holy Grail of absolute verisimilitude, modest table top games have remarkably retained a high level of popularity.
One of their virtues of these tangible titles is an absorbing level of abstraction. Much like how books force readers to visualize a myriad of details, physical games harness the power of the mind- an instrument that’s more potent than even the mightiest GPU. They also offer transparency, with the minutia of melee battles gauged by a dice roll, rather than buried beneath a blanket of complex number crunching. Of course, there’s no denying the social component- with real life participants offering the type of affable companionship and competition that CPUs have yet to successfully emulate.
Although a few titles like Metal Gear Acid and Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft have delivered admirable amalgams of simulation and table top game, successful mergers remain uncommon. Unquestionably, the release of Hand of Fate reveals one of those rare commendable combinations, offering a virtuous blend of dungeon crawl, card management, and three-dimensional brawler. While the title has a few minor blemishes, a sense on distinction and a number of effective design decisions make it rather difficult to abscond from the vise-like grip of Hand of Fate.
One of the core failings of electronic collectible card games is the lackluster imitation of opponents and fellow players. All too often participants are nondescript, off-screen entities, whose personalities are commonly defined by their decision-making styles. That’s not the case with Fate, which features a mysterious, cloaked character who functions as both narrator and opponent. Beyond the ability to shuffle and deal cards telepathically, little is known about the cypher at the start of the game. Deftly, Hand of Fate weaves its expositional elements into the campaign, with the game divulging more about the antagonist and his relationship to the player. Like the best adversaries, he’s also quite the charmer, eloquently voicing events, and perpetually goading gamers along with playful repartee, rarely repeating himself.
An introductory level introduces players to the majority of Hand of Fate’s tenets. The Dealer lays cards on the table, creating corridor-like paths for the main character to traverse. Resembling the resource management of a Rogue-like, each step will replenish a bit of health, provided the adventurer is carrying food. However, once the edibles are exhausted, panic is likely to ensue- as movement consumes a sizable amount of the character’s life force. Fortunately, a shop card periodically appears, offering both essential items like food, as well as a selection of enchanted items that can bolster the player’s abilities.
One element that Hand of Fate handles adeptly is the tension of resource management. Supplies of health, food, and gold are intrinsically tied, tasking players with maintaining a prudent balance in the face of imminent adversity. But inevitably, a stinging defeat or impulsive decision leads to a shortage in one of the three areas, coercing you into the periodical gamble, with consequence determined in a selection of four shuffled Encounter cards. While a salubrious windfall can happen, all too often gamers have to persist against an increased number of enemies, or a reduced amount of health.
While Hand of Fate’s deck might seem stacked against the players (and when the dealer adds new, more punishing cards, it literally is), the title bestows a number of tools that can help even the balance. Occasionally, events emerge that extend the ability to earn a token; successfully complete these challenges and you’ll unlock new cards. Equitably, players also manage their own decks, with items like weapons, shields, and perks that add everything from stat bonuses to offensive devices regulated by cool-down timers. While these items are elective early on, as players tackle the last half of Fate’s dozen bosses, every single advantage will be needed. Halfway through the game, the Dealer ratchets up the level of difficulty, forcing players to construct the best possible deck- as that’s the only constituent that’s carries over from game to game.
Although Fate’s jumble of components gel together astonishingly well, there are a few discordant moments. Encounter cards periodically abandon the table, sending you through networks of traps to obtain a treasure or subdue a swarm of opponents. A nice change of pace from the resource management and text-based conundrums, these sequences give the title an advantageous injection of adrenaline. Mazes compel players to learn how each trap works while goblin bashing recalls Golden Axe’s retaliation, as you bash the bonces of thieves who made off with your food and gold. Battles against foes and bosses undeniably draw from Arkham’s mechanics, prodding players to strike, counter, and dodge in accordance with the visual cues that emerge above each enemy’s head.
Make no mistake, combat is satisfying. Visually, Hand of Fate shows Unity converging on the Unreal Engine, flauting high-poly characters, smooth animations, and detailed backdrops underscored by an adept lighting model. Killing a foe is especially well done, with players delivering a slow motion coup de grâce that can scatters the bones of a skeleton in a satisfying manner. But while the appropriate mechanics are in place, battles lack the absorbing risk/reward element found throughout the rest of the game. Instead, conflicts are all about minimizing the damage you take and learning adversary behaviors. While destructible objects litter the environment, their presence is largely cosmetic. Ideally, Fate could have extended a bet toward players, offering health replenishment or hidden monsters in the crates and vases.
Save for the straightforwardness nature of combat and a difficulty level that skyrockets halfway through the game, Hand of Fate is enormously enjoyable. Uniting the best elements of table top and electronic games, it’s a game that feels familiar, with still charting its own distinctive path. Mirroring one of the reoccurring circumstances of the game, Defiant Development took a gamble with Hand of Fate, resulting in an unadulterated success.
Platform: PC, also on PlayStation 4
Developer: Defiant Development
Publisher: Defiant Development
Release date: February 17th, 2015
Price: $24.99, on sale for $19.99 through 2/24 (Steam)