Hand of Fate is the pen and paper RPG that you'll need neither a pen nor paper for (or friends, for that matter). The Kickstarter-funded title combines collectable card game with elements of third-person action and classic choose your own adventure tropes, to create a blend that surprisingly delivers a punishing, rewarding experience with multi-faceted gameplay. More importantly, it scratches a major itch by feeling exactly like playing a good ol' match of Dungeons & Dragons with your own personal virtual Game Master. It's pretty good fun all around, honestly.
You'll spend almost the entirety of your time sat across the table from the Dealer: your dungeon master, your opponent, and your conversation partner – it's like a really depressing game of Blackjack. Spiders scuttle along your peripheral vision, candle wax drips languidly onto the tablecloth, and a deck of cards menacingly floats, waiting to be shuffled. No explicit guidance is given before the game tosses you into the first level, a thinly veiled tutorial match that effectively conveys all of the main rules and mechanics without inflicting you to a bout of "Can I skip this?" syndrome. Everything will become natural within a few rounds, an achievement considering the overall depth and complexity of it all.
Each of the 13 main story missions has one single goal: seek out and kill the boss monster of the dungeon. What's really interesting here, though, is the way in which exploration and progress through the environment works. Cards are laid out face-down on the table in a sequence of winding pathways, each acting as a standalone location, battle, or NPC encounter upon being stepped on and flipped by the player character. These scenarios are lovingly narrated by the (rather brilliantly voiced) Dealer upon activation, often going far beyond the flavour text on the card to offer further storytelling, spouting the occasional snide quip orfaux-sympathetic piece of advice regarding the situation.
Events are impressive for the most part, making your journey actually feel like, well, a journey. Traps, NPC conversations, shops, battle encounters, and quests are all thrown into the mix here enabling some wonderfully emergent gameplay and making each outing feel truly yours. Success or failure is dependent on your choices, resulting in either reward or pain cards – you can guess what they each do.
Food as a finite resource brings some much needed complication to progression, depleting each turn to either recover or drain health dependant on if you have any in your possession. One particular instance comes to mind, where after being chased out of town by a horde of hungry peasants, an NPC enters the fray. The Devil's Choice – charming. Three enemy options appear, prompting you to choose who you'd rather battle. Upon selecting what was by far the easiest encounter, the Devil's Choice pipes up with, "Hmm? You want the easy way out? Well then, you can fight both of the other two". Brilliant stuff like this is regular – tough decisions and an air of uncertainty.
As soon as a battle commences, the environment shifts into a 3D arena, cards are thrown down, and the player character, enemy mobs, and weapons burst forth like some grim medieval episode of Yu-Gi-Oh!. Combat in Hand of Fate is basic and reminiscent of Batman: Arkham Asylum, with simple melee attacks and counters, alongside the occasional dodge roll making up your arsenal. Special weapons, armour, and relics that can be obtained through exploration on the game board add slight depth and variation, but there's nothing major here. It's all rather functional, but the clunkiness and lacking animations stifle any potential for fun to be had.
Even boss fights play out in much the same way: melee, melee, counter, melee, dodge, repeat. Traps often attempt to spice things up with environmental hazards, but it generally just leads to the fight taking place in some awkward corner of the arena instead. While it does an acceptable job at improving pacing and breaking up the tabletop segments, fighting often feels like a chore. It's disappointing, considering how immersive things are over on the game board.
An element of deck building in between matches allows players to use cards acquired through playing to customise their potential equipment and even slightly engineer the pool of possible encounters. The meat of the replay value comes in here, because besides an Endless Mode, trying out different encounters and setup combinations in order to progress through the unforgiving difficulty of the main battles is where most of your time will be spent. When the Dealer defeats you, often the solution is to simply remove one or two problem cards and replace them with more familiar foes.
Whenever a game is completed, players are thrown back to the title screen with little warning. This is arguably lazy, but it kind of makes sense. Hand of Fate is an incredibly modular game, with matches lasting roughly 20 minutes and feeling just like a real tabletop game – complete. It isn't conducive at all to extended play sessions, though, preferring players to pop on for one or two matches at a time. Unfortunately, once you've experienced cards once or twice, they have absolutely nothing new to offer; it's easy to predict what will happen dependant on each choice, and position yourself in the best situations accordingly. Like most board games, it grates after a while.
Hand of Fate comes so close to being something really special – an unexpected concoction of genres and ideas that meshes together superbly to create a really fun experience that's both involving and rewarding, at least in short bursts. But, unfortunately, its potential is cut short by a lack of options and awkward third-person game segments that should really know better.