I didn’t realize how much I’d missed the Dealer from 2015’s Hand of Fate. Why would I want him around? He’s a bit of a punk. In Hand of Fate 2 he mocks me for playing favorites when I repeatedly pick specific cards for my loadouts. When I fail, he rubs it in: “What an unfortunate time for your skills to leave you!” But he won me over for other reasons, such as when he draws the High Priestess tarot cards and remarks that I once again find myself in the company of prayer and religion.
This isn’t just for flavor. Much of Hand of Fate 2’s appeal is that it feels like a one-on-one session of Dungeons & Dragons being DM’d a slightly sadistic friend, with some battles resolved with some light Batman: Arkham-style action combat. But it probably wouldn’t work as well if the Dealer didn’t feel so real thanks to impressive personality and voice acting that compensates for the fact that he’s covered head to toe in robes, other than his scabby arms. Much as in the first game, his enigmatic charisma is enough to mask some of Hand of Fate 2’s handful of significant flaws.
The basic concept remains the same: an unusual but satisfying mashup of collectible card games, action RPGs, and choice-based games like Oregon Trail. It defies easy classification, other than to say that it’s a cocktail that works. Acting as a Dungeon Master of sorts, the dealer magically slaps down encounter cards from both his deck and a selection of cards you choose to craft a partly randomized story, with conflicts being resolved either through combat or through gambits involving dice, pendulums, or wheels of fortune.
But as the Dealer himself says, “Every element of the game has improved, even those elements which at first seem familiar.” He’s not kidding. Hand of Fate 2 is the vastly superior game, as it enhances the already attractive basics with new encounters, companion characters, better combat and weapons, and a host of smaller changes. Whether it’s the artwork or the balance, virtually no element was left untouched.
The structure of the story, for one, has been redesigned to better suit the deck-building aspect. It’s now a collection of over 20 “challenges” that gradually unlock over a three-dimensional board inside the Dealer’s wagon. They’re basically small, self-contained tales in their own right, being only loosely tied to a larger story about a conflict between the “empire” and the zombie-like blight. The resulting wide variety keeps the scenarios interesting, along with the differing conditions and handicaps for each one.
The opening screen for each scenario gives you clues as to what you’ll find ahead, smartly allowing you to build your deck to face the challenges ahead with cards you’ve won in previous challenges. In the Temperance challenge, I found myself constantly faced with situations where beggars wanted food from me, so I packed in cards like Friendly Innkeeper that gave me free food when I uncovered the cards. The Strength encounter my least favorite kicked off by knocking off 90 percent of my health and preventing me from regaining it through the conventional means of food cards, thanks to a cursed item. To compensate for that, I added in cards like Winter Solstice, which gave me a chance to boost my base health when my board-game piece uncovered the card. That strategy wasn’t always successful, as I sometimes failed to survive in combat with so little health (because the health pools for the combat and card-game portion are shared) but it gave me a fighting chance.
In time I managed to get through it, and Hand of Fate 2 presented few more rewarding moments than that. Fortunately, it’s not that hard to figure out which cards you need to bring along, as the abilities relevant to the challenge at hand are highlighted in blue on the card selection screen. Little interface improvements like this abound. You can now alter your character’s appearance at will in camp, for one and switch between hairstyles or even genders on a whim. Even the art on the cards is better.
Combat itself is still largely a simple matter of countering and evading attacks and building combos in order to unleash special abilities, but it’s fun and fluid now, enhanced with a much wider selection of enemies. There are diverse weapons options, like two-handed maces and daggers besides the ol’ sword and board. Cool new limited-use artifacts add to the fun, allowing you to do things like toss out traps or briefly boost your damage by 200% three times per challenge.
If the chief goal behind making Hand of Fate 2 was to add depth, it succeeds admirably. That’s especially true for the four new companion characters, who bring extra abilities both into combat and on the table. They’re most obviously useful on the battlefield thanks to their powerful support abilities, such as the Viking-like Colbjorn’s charge that stuns grouped enemies or the tricker mage Malaclypse’s ability to toss a shield on you that absorbs one hit. Yet they’re also godsends on the tabletop, too, as Colbjorn comes with an ability that lets you roll an extra die if you failed one of the many, many dice rolls. Alternatively, the ability for the blacksmith Ariadne lets her add a fifth card in the gambits that unfold like a game of four-card monte. Those are extremely useful.
A system of risk and reward helps keep these abilities in check. I first thought Colbjorn’s ability was a little overpowered, considering the crazy frequency of dice rolls in Hand of Fate 2, but then I realized that using his die (and his powerful special charge ability) keeps him from joining you in combat scenarios for three turns. And as much as I love Colbjorn’s special abilities, sometimes it’s just smarter to bring along Malaclypse and his shield (such as in that challenge that knocks off most of your health). You can also only take along one companion per challenge, which makes you’re always making a sacrifice for an advantage elsewhere.
Constant little choices like these make Hand of Fate 2 a much richer experience than its predecessor. It even allows you to follow the personal stories of each companion by slipping one of their cards into your deck and taking them with you on a challenge. The business of the sidequests doesn’t differ much from the standard scenarios of dice rolls, combat, and the like, but they enhance the roleplaying by letting you follow four text- based stories with a payoff of additional cards for loot or encounters. Depending on character, they run the range from funny to tragic, and each is satisfying. As welcome as these sidequests are, though, sometimes they’re at odds with the perfect deck setups you made for a scenario, as you don’t really know what’s going to happen with a companion quest card until it’s played.
These bad-luck moments never stung too much, though, as I was already used to the pain Hand of Fate 2 dishes out. The inherent randomness of the card game can be wildly cruel, thwarting even the most intelligently designed decks with poor dice rolls that eat away at your cards for health, gold and food until you die and have to start the challenge over. Sometimes the Dealer will draw cards that force you to fight against so many enemies in the combat scenarios that victory seems hard to come by even with a string of precise evasions and counters.
Normally I hate this kind of randomness. With Hand of Fate 2, though, developer Defiant has managed to create a system where I usually felt somewhat in control and able to mitigate runs of bad luck, which is entertaining enough that I didn’t mind playing through a challenge again if I failed. Failure makes me think I haven’t perfected my loadouts instead of giving me the impression that I’m merely a puppet to chance. That’s one of the reasons why I’m especially looking forward to the currently locked Endless mode, which guides you through a totally randomized story and invites replays long after the roughly 14-hour campaign is finished. Unlike the first Hand of Fate, I suspect I’ll still be interested in playing it months later.
Just be warned: much like its predecessor, Hand of Fate 2 has a tendency to slip into repetitiveness if played in long sessions. This time around, though, it takes much longer to reach that point. The variety of the challenges, in particular, helps to stave off the slog, as their sometimes crazy objectives give new meaning and urgency to familiar encounter cards like The Damsel in Distress, which rewards you with free supplies with a successful dice roll or dumps you into combat with brigands if you fail. You still have a chance to get loot if you win the combat, but during that 10-health challenge I was much more eager to avoid combat. In fact, it probably would have been wiser to leave Damsel out of the deck altogether, but it’s hard to walk away from a chance for free food, gold, or health.
Naturally, the Dealer laughed at my incessant desire to help people when the card pops up. Salt in the wound, especially when I ended up losing some of my precious health. But I can’t help but laugh where’s the fun in walking on by? I think he knows that, too, and that’s why I look forward to many more sessions.