I thought I killed the man sitting across from me two years ago.
Granted, I'm not even sure he, the iconic Dealer, was technically alive in the original Hand of Fate, where he served as game master of a high-stakes card game played for blood and souls in some strange realm between life and death.
Hand of Fate 2 finally reveals what Kallas, the protagonist of Hand of Fate, has done since he defeated the Dealer: he's seized the throne, almost completed genocide of all non-human races, and brought a sickness upon the land and its people. That sickness is quite literal, and you first spot it from across Hand of Fate 2's gaming table, forming bulbous, green-black crystals on the Dealer's exposed arm.
Defiant Development brings the greatest strengths of their original product back in this sequel. Innovative gameplay combines Arkham Asylum-style action combat with roguelike progression and deckbuilding, all in a frame that evokes nostalgia for Dungeons and Dragons modules. The Dealer is your dungeon master, and he's a big fan of laughing at your mistakes and commenting on your decisions.
Each adventure that you must conquer before the final battle requires you to employ a different strategy. You'll dramatically overhaul your deck between one level and the next, especially as you unlock new cards by earning completion tokens off old ones. Sometimes, you need a lot of food. Other times, you'll need piles of gold and equipment that lower the difficulty of dice rolls. An important new addition to the game is that of the Gambit — minigames based on timing, perception, and chance that determine how badly you succeed or fail when you attempt actions in lieu of combat. Gambits often provide unexpected, hidden, or simply better rewards when you opt for them instead of a combat sequence, nicely reinforcing what appears to be a growing disgust the Dealer feels for brute force and violence.
You play as Isondry, a "hero" (we can never be too sure about these things, especially after how masterfully Hand of Fate subverted expectations with Kallas).
Isondry can be male or female, with basic customization options such as skin tone and hairstyle. You can change your mind about Isondry's appearance at any time, and as many times, as you like. Their personality remains the same, and it's there that Hand of Fate 2 rises to and exceeds the main expectation that I held after loving the original: a game within the Dealer's game about uncovering character traits and motivations. Isondry's psyche manifests in the cards and the way you can interact with them, just as the Dealer's emerges from his commentary and the way he designs his game.
Just as the first game's protagonist primarily saw — and offered to the player — violent and selfish options in decision-making situations, Isondry wants to be seen as bold and heroic, and is always taking risks and accepting challenges. Where Kallas was a violent and power-hungry lone wolf liable to cannibalize any allies or followers he gained — a trait he has retained even after becoming ruler of a vast population that now suffer from it — Isondry is a mercenary glory hound without any particular personal quest, who instead latches onto the goals of others. Your first companion calls you a "coin-slave." Three-quarters of the way through the campaign, I'm still thinking about what that term means, and to what degree Isondry is greedy or lonely, and whether the Dealer's making a huge mistake choosing this new ‘hero’ as the instrument of his revenge against his previous opponent, Kallas.
I adore the Dealer's dialogue. He's truly the centerpiece of the experience.
He's such an amazing character that he can talk about anything, and it's interesting. When he talks about theme and story elements, he can't be beat. For example: "For those who care about accuracy," the Dealer proclaims, as he hands you the Bullseye Ring. Then, he adds: "Myself, I think the story is more important than the truth." He has a way of revealing details about himself as he's delivering backhanded praise. He's often disapproving and bored, yet occasionally admiring. You'll even catch him wistful for more magical, stranger days. In the same breath, he mocks you and reveals key story information.
It's a treat to see the Dealer's new game room — the inside of a carriage that, as Isondry plays cards with him, carries them both steadily towards a confrontation with Kallas. The weather changes outside the window as you complete challenges. Your canteens swing from the roof. Books line inset shelves. It's a truly elaborate carriage, speaking richly of its owner, and every bit a match for the macabre, mysterious purgatorial chamber where he once dealt for Kallas.
I still have my complaints about the action combat sequences, which essentially haven't changed since the first game. There's no penalty for dodge-rolling endlessly. Blocking and dodge rolling don't happen until half a second or so after you press the appropriate button, which is usually too late to save you. You can apparently revive your companions as many times you want in combat, which in combination with evading constantly to keep yourself alive at low health can make tough encounters feel cheesy. The camera must be adjusted manually in combat, but you really don't have time or keystrokes to spare to do that. It's fortunate combat isn't the main focus of Hand of Fate 2, given these issues, although it remains something you'll engage in only slightly less frequently than random encounters in a Final Fantasy title.
Hand of Fate 2 blends gameplay and storytelling into a masterful narrative the likes of which you rarely see. Its characterization maintains perfection by introducing another protagonist with doubtful, albeit different, motivations for playing the Dealer's game, and for traveling with the Dealer toward his revenge. The challenges within your cards unlock ever greater challenges, and greater rewards, allowing for complex deckbuilding options. Your Dealer has something to say about every card and every path you take, taking equal pleasure both in congratulating you and kicking you when you're down.
Is it better to be lucky than good? Would you rather be blessed by the gods, or rich? Do two people really learn more about each other through play than conversation? Hand of Fate 2 argues it's always a little of both that takes the day. Regardless of how everything turns out in the end with Kallas, I don't think we're going to regret climbing in this carriage, coin-slaves. It's truly been an excellent game.
The Verdict: Transformative
Hand of Fate 2 brings the greatest strengths of its predecessor back in this sequel. Innovative gameplay combines action RPG combat with roguelike progression and deckbuilding. Small quality of life issues in the controls do little to detract from the masterful storytelling of this title. The Dealer's voice acting is always on point, and a large collection of cards and challenges allow players to organically adjust the difficulty of their playthroughs.