Image: Hand of Fate 2
Hand of Fate was a bit of a watershed Aussie game. Apart from the fact that it was uniquely difficult to describe - a deckbuilding roguelike with Batman Arkham Asylum combat and tons of RNG - it was also one of the few Australian games to be included in a publisher-approved console bundle.
That's rare. Aussie games don't get that kind of headline treatment. But Hand of Fate was always a little special, a little different. And the good news? Hand of Fate 2 has that exact same quality, nailing almost everything it does except for one crucial piece of its unusual puzzle.
The first Hand of Fate was one of the more successful Kickstarter projects in Australia, eventually releasing in 2015. To this day, it remains an unusual mix of genres. You, the player, find yourself pitched into a game beyond the thirteen gates of the world.
You sit down in front of the Dealer - voiced by the outstanding Anthony Skordi - and proceed to work your way a series of randomised challenges, with a boss fight waiting at the end of every dungeon. The dungeons are made from a mix of encounters and equipment selected by yourself before the challenge begins, as well as some encounters unique to every challenge.
The composition of the board, just like the original, is lovely to watch.
It's a bit like a choose your own adventure game, in a lot of ways. The dealer lays out a map of cards, most of which appear face down, and you choose where to go. Every card is effectively a mini-game of its own: you could run into a general store, for selling and trading goods, or a pack of raiders determined to steal your gold.
The idea is to get to the end of every challenge without dying. You have a set amount of health that carries over from encounter to encounter, as well as a supply of food that you consume every few turns. Run out of food, and you starve and consequently lose health. Die in combat, or have your health drop to zero in some other fashion, and the encounter ends.
Like the original, HOF 2 is split across a series of challenges that you can replay at will. It's easier understood in motion, so here's a playthrough of one of the earlier challenges where you're helping a companion find his lover - who happens to be a shade.
For the most part, the setup with HOF 2 hasn't changed. The Dealer's back, but this time he's - sort of - on your side. He talks about a Usurper, someone who overtook his place. (It's presumed that the Usurper is actually you, the player who defeated him in the previous game, but that's not fully outlined when play begins.)
None of it really matters, of course. It's all just a neat little setup for challenges, which have more mechanics, twists, and variations than the original Hand of Fate. Exactly what you'd want from a sequel, really.
One of the biggest changes in the sequel is mechanical: animations have been sped up, and there's a fewer needless transitions. The original HOF would take you through a huge visual sequence whenever you encountered a small merchant, for instance, but similar instances in the sequel are all handled through text.
It's sensible. Hand of Fate's presentation was always one of its strengths. The glaring weakness was the blandness of its combat, and it's the area that's been upgraded the most.
The player character and enemies work on a light/medium/heavy system now, with weapons and armour types to match. Each weapon has an ultimate ability that can be activated after a sequence of hits, not unlike Shadow of Mordor. And as in Monolith's big budget game, your counter resets once you get hit.
Beyond that, it's functionally the same as the original. You have a basic attack, a shield bash ability for armoured enemies, and a basic counter. Some enemies have to be executed after taking a certain amount of damage, and you'll come across more boss-like enemies throughout the various challenges.
The drawer-style board from the first game has been replaced with a map, which clears the more challenges you complete
But for all the improvements, the combat is still the weakest element of HOF 2 - and the combat camera, at times, is a right pain in the arse.
Rather than giving you an overall view of the action, the combat camera tends to zoom too far into the main character. That often denies you vision of enemies - an annoyance when you're dealing with multiple groups of foes, which happens fairly often - or traps off-screen.
You can move the camera with the mouse or right stick, although it acts more like a rubber band with not enough slack, snapping back to your character without having revealed anything useful.
The combat camera doesn't follow the player until after the dodge animation finishes, allowing the player to roll towards the screen - but not providing any vision of enemies that might be there.
Here's another example.
There's a spike trap immediately to the bottom of the screen, and a rotating blade immediately below that. A single dodge will put me in range of the blade, but the camera doesn't give me the visibility I need to time my dodge.
I had full visibility of the blade and spike trap before crossing over to the chest, so the camera's capable of displaying everything at once. But, despite repeated attempts to move the camera downwards with the right stick, it remains stubbornly locked in an unhelpful state.
While I'm harping on about the combat, it's worth mentioning that the enemy AI is pretty weak too. You'll regularly face large groups of enemies, but often you'll have complete freedom to wail on a target of your choice. It's a bit bizarre, and ends up making combat more of a chore than something to be enjoyed.
It's a shame that combat still isn't quite right, especially since so much of the game revolves around it. But how much combat you engage in depends on the encounter cards you equip beforehand, and as with the original, some savvy deckbuilding can make a world of difference.
Some challenges do have their favourite cards, mind you. One in particular asks you to save villages from Northerner barbarians, and it's especially difficult if you take the Wanderer on your journey. He's a Northerner by descent, and so every time you try to make camp, the nearby tradesman are scared off. That stops you from buying or selling food and equipment in between moves, which often can be a massive difference between surviving and failing.
Each challenge has a theme of their own, and you're generally encouraged to tailor your equipment and encounters so that the rewards will favour that in some way. You don't have to, of course, and you can always use the automated deck building option. It's not bad, although most people will find they have a preference when it comes to combat - so it's best if you at least customise your equipment deck at a minimum.
It's worth pointing out, too, that HOF 2's random encounters aren't that random. With enough patience, you can usually track the speed and movement of the non-combat challenges well enough to consistently succeed. Equipment can help too, granting abilities like adding +2 to the end of your total in dice gambits, or outlining one card in red whenever you have to randomly choose between success and failure.
One of the newer challenges has you spinning a wheel three times, selecting ingredients to create a potential Elixir of Life. The wheel spins fairly slowly, so it's not hard to get the ingredients you want - but choose poorly, and the potion will explode, reducing your HP and applying a curse that knocks out your companion and lowers your maximum HP.
I've put about 16 hours into Hand of Fate 2 so far. That's not enough to finish the game; some of the challenges are particularly diabolical, with my most hated one being a level that only gives you 15 HP to start with, and a curse that stops food from recovering health.
But that's the thing with sequels: they're designed to offer a whole lot more, without changing the things you loved from the original. And Hand of Fate 2 pretty much does that. I can't say I'll be a fan of its combat any time soon, and I'm not sure its underlying problems could be resolved simply with a post-release patch or some DLC. But it didn't stop me from having fun, and that's really all that counts.
Hand of Fate 2 is out tomorrow on PC and PS4, with an Xbox One launch due soon.