You find yourself in a caravan, a familiar face frowning at you. He spreads cards upon the table, corruption spidering beneath the skin of his hands like ink across parchment. He deals in tarot, but he is not a soothsayer, and you aren’t here to learn your future. You’re here to fight for it.
The Dealer was the soul of Hand of Fate, and he continues to imbue the sequel with his winning personality. As the designer of the game, the Dealer is a mouthpiece for Defiant Development to discuss what is happening on the table with the player, to point out what is clever, and to reveal what has changed.
And, oh, it often feels like he’s out to get you. He insults you, he overwhelms you with combat encounters, and he forces you to complete chance-based minigames to continue onwards. Each game - the card wheel, the precision pendulum, the dice game, and the card shuffling - are punishing. Whichever game the Dealer chooses never feels random, but there’s also an air of mystery around why. What makes that dice game perfect for this sidequest? Why does this challenge call for the pendulum?
They each have the air of carnival games, in that they pretend to be about skill and strategy, but the results can always be manipulated by chance. But when the randomness of the game (and the games within the game) get the best of the player, it’s not the system that the player becomes mad at; it’s the Dealer.
It goes against my instincts as a game designer. We’re always encouraged to incorporate as much meaningful choice into our games as we can; it’s important that players feel like failures could have been prevented if they’d done something differently, rather than feeling like the game system is unfair. Too much chance and you lose your players.
But Hand of Fate 2 is all about treating you unfairly. Or just fairly enough. The Dealer, with his constant prodding, makes you want to come back and prove yourself to him.
Maybe it’s because, for every frustration, there’s satisfaction in equal measure. Even when you lose the game, you can still break the tokens you’ve won and be rewarded with new cards. It captures the excitement of opening booster packs and adding to your collection, and of strategically deckbuilding in preparation for the next game.
It’s not hard to be excited about collecting cards when they’re so beautiful. The entire aesthetic of Hand of Fate 2 is spectacular, though not surprising considering its predecessor. The new platinum and brimstone cards are particularly wonderful, and glimmer like the holographic cards that used to excite me when I opened a new card pack as a kid.
Beyond the visuals, the audio also adds so much to the atmosphere of the game. Often it’s said music in games isn’t noticed or talked about by players unless it is particularly good or particularly bad, and in Hand of Fate 2 it’s definitely the former. The variation of success and failure sounds, the swell as something intense is beginning to happen in the narrative, and the little tunes played by the shifting pieces of the pendulum are haunting and perfect.
Hand of Fate 2 finds the balance between tension and humour. An intense story about people living in a city overrun by disease sits alongside a narrative about protecting a man who is constantly crunching on potatoes while he tries to find his lover. Each of the stories is creative and varied, both in narrative content and mechanics, showing just how much can be done with the game system. Sprawling city landscapes made of cards, escort missions, and murder mysteries stretch the deceptively simple system to new levels, meaning the narratives never get boring.
These modular stories are fascinating. Each area has an overarching narrative, but also has sidequests based on the cards you choose when building your deck. Some are repetitive one-offs, like being ambushed by goblins or visiting a soothsayer, while others are linear stories that you work your way through from game to game. The customisable nature of these stories and challenges allows you to visit narratives in a way that is unique to your playthrough, and to modify difficulty based on the cards you choose.
Cards and stories are key to Hand of Fate 2, which only builds upon the focus of the original game. The series knows its audience - people who like words and people who like deckbuilding - and it creates a fantastic, niche experience tailored to their interests.
Although the overall game is tight, there are a few flaws. At first I was amazed by the animations of the cards being laid out across the table, flown down to the combat arena, or packed up after a game is over, but these start to feel very slow as you repeat missions, either due to dying or through attempts to grind for better equipment. Hand of Fate 2 is a game that takes an eternity to lose; when you die, it takes at least thirty seconds to return to the table for another attempt, even if you keep your existing decks, and this pacing discourages the necessary repetition of levels.
This is a game about trial and error: it’s difficult at times to know exactly what you are expected to do. When you approach a card for the first time, the way to win its token is not always apparent; if you’re unsuccessful, you have to put the card back in the deck for the next journey, or else forfeit and lose your current progress so you can try again. This aligns with the punishing nature of the game, but it’s frustrating when coupled with the sheer time it takes to repeat a level.
Despite a few issues with pacing, Hand of Fate 2 crafts an atmosphere based on its predecessor, but also full of surprises. You will want to spend hours playing games within games within this game, even as the Dealer taunts you for your missteps.