As a child I loved the story of "the once and future King" Arthur Pendragon. His adventures with the powerful wizard Merlin, the legend of Camelot and its Knights of the Round Table, the quest for the Holy Grail and all the other elements were a major passion for me. I loved the different versions of the myth, reading everything I could find from the "purest" original version right through the many different modern retellings and reimaginings. I must have watched the made for TV movie "Merlin" starring Sam Neil ( of Jurassic Park fame) at least 50 times over the years, even going so far as to spend a month collecting coupons from the newspaper that I could send away (with £1.99 p&p) to get a free VHS copy.
I also live for RPGs, they've been my favourite genre since I first discovered gaming on my old Commodore 64. All of which means that, on paper at least, Hand of Merlin is one that should tick a lot of boxes for me, as it contains many elements that I'm instantly drawn to.
Rogue like gameplay. Check.
Luck based card style powers ups. Check.
Turnbased, squad based, grid based combat. Big huge check.
It also has a "choose your own adventure" style progression, through a world and story that's heavily based on Arthurian legend, containing elements not just from the main myth but also from its lesser known and most obscure side stories as well. All of which, of course, lead to me requesting a copy for review… So let's get to it and see what I thought then, eh?
Now Hand of Merlin entered Early Access on PC around about a year ago but, after numerous bug fixes, a little rebalancing, some polish, and a total of 8 rather important content updates, it's now ready to launch its v1.0. Which means the full game is now available for everyone to experience. Most exciting for me though, it also means that we console players get to play it too!
Straight away we get pulled into a great story, one that uses the whole "Multiverse" thing that's become popular of late. Basically it plays out like this, there are an infinite amount of universes out there, each slightly different from the last. However something is consuming these unique dimensions, one by one, only stopping when it has devoured all that exists…
It arrives in a realm and slowly begins to spread, changing the world and creating a vast horde of demonic creations that further spread it's influence. However all is not lost.
There's is one universal constant. A powerful practitioner of magic that can reach across realms, influencing each universe. Merlin. He creates Arthur, teaches and trains him, arms him and puts him on a quest to destroy the corruption.
Unfortunately though, betrayal rears its ugly head. Merlin is locked away in a magical prison and Arthur is slain in battle, leaving the realms undefended. After many years of struggling, Merlin is able to break free of his confinement, left with only fragments of memory, and with very little power remaining, he has only one option left to defeat the corruption. He'll recruit a team of heroes in each realm, have them collect the Grail from Camelot and carry it across the land, through foreign Kingdom, back to the holy land of Jerusalem itself. By returning the Grail to its birth place, the land will be blessed and will no longer bee able to sustain the corruption. It will be free forever.
Now I loved this set up. It gave a great narrative explanation for the roguelike mechanic, giving a reason why each playthrough is slightly different each time. Different heroes would be recruited, with different skills, who'd make different choices and get a different outcome. Sometimes they'd win, sometimes they'd lose. It was just a nice addition and a joy to see the story explain a video game mechanic in its lore instead of just ignoring them completely.
In fact I'd like to commend the writing in its entirety. As you make your way across the map you'll stumble onto hundreds of different events both great and small. All are extremely well written though and the very best of them reference stories, characters, encounters or elements from the mythos of Arthur. You don't need to have intimate knowledge of the source material, it's all linked and explained very well, but those that do will certainly enjoy these "cameos". It was nice to see less well known parts of the canon used, and I was even motivated to research some of the tales that I didn't know. It's also the first time I've really understood the inclusion of a "story mode", an easy version of the game for those who just want to play through the narrative without having to get too bogged down in the gameplay.
Which can be a little complex, requiring both an element of strategy and of luck in order to be successful at it. Ultimately though the actual minute to minute gameplay is built on three components that must be mastered to be victorious and stop that pesky corruption in its tracks.
The first of these involves travelling across the world map, and taking part in the various encounters along the way. You begin in Britain, Camelot to be precise, but will make your way across France and eventually all the way to Jerusalem by journeys end. To do this you'll choose your route forward through a series of nodes that are joined together into various paths. Travelling from one node to the next requires food, starving team members will lose a percentage of health, and you can't go back to a previous node so must carefully assess the path ahead to see what you'll be getting into and whether you have the supplies to make it at full strength. Some nodes can be more dangerous than others and are all marked accordingly either normal, arcane, heroic or city and come in 3 danger levels. This shows the type of event that will happen, how much risk it'll be and also the chance that demons will be involved too. Landing on each node will have you face some sort of choose-your-own-adventure style encounter and, like I mentioned above, these come from a large pool and include a huge variety of well written examples. You might come across a young boy, surrounded by a circle of dancing little girls. Will you approach, hide and observe or interrupt? A starving traveler has collapsed at the side of the road. Will you feed him, using up your dwindling food supplies, or pass on by and pretend you didn't see him?
Not all is as it seems when magic and strange characters are involved so think carefully. Sometimes the outcome is decided simply through these decisions, picking the correct dialogue choice basically, sometimes you'll pick a specific hero to take action (with each having a percentage chance of being successful), while other times still you'll find yourself picking an outcome from a few facedown cards, each with a random outcome upon them. These can be positive; granting a reward of some kind, or negative; drawing you into battle or causing some other bad result. This injects a random element into the proceedings, and means that even an encounter you've had before can go differently the second time you experience it.
The second component to the gameplay is made up of all the usual RPG progression elements you'd expect in a game of this type. All the stat, equipment, boosts and power related choices you make both before each run and during. Your party is made up of three members, one each from the Warrior, Wizard and Archer classes. You begin with only one hero in each class but can unlock more by doing different achievements and feats during a run, allowing them to be used in every run from then on. Each character begins with their own basic starting equipment, as well as two class specific combat abilities (like throwing poison potions or charging across the battlefield) and also two passive abilities (boosting an ability with extra effects, increasing damage in certain situations and so on). These can totally change up the options available to you in battle, making certain tactics more viable or opening up totally new ones. By completing combat encounters, or as a reward from narrative ones, you'll gain "Renown" which basically functions as EXP. Reach a certain amount and the entire party will gain a level, increasing the primary stats of each hero but also grants a few points you can use to increase their health, armour or attack power to boot depending on your choice. You can also pick a new power from a few random options, granting you three in total, and then later even specialise each ability you have to increase its effectiveness and power. Management of the gold your party has is essential too, as this not only allows you to buy the food needed to travel and to buy healing at certain locations, but is also the way you acquire new more powerful weapons/armour from the blacksmiths you'll encounter in cities. It can also be spent at vendors for very special magical relics that can charge the course of battle with powerful buffs, healing effects or curses. These effects are very powerful, often changing the tactics available to you in some special way.
These are all "for this run only" upgrades though, however there are also persistent ones that last across runs and can be used to change what options are available in your next attempt. Unlocking new heroes is the most obvious, allowing new characters to be chosen when picking your initial starting team members. You can unlock upgraded versions of each hero too, allowing you to start with more powerful versions.
And then there's "Magical Essence" as well. This very rare resource can be collected over many runs and is basically a currency used to unlock more Guardians. These are the powerful wizards that guide your quest and, although Merlin is the only one initially available to you, you can collect a few different ones as you play. They each have access to a collection of very powerful spells, 9 for each Guardian across three tiers, and allow you to spend mana in exchange for their effect. Healing characters by a huge amount, granting hugely advantageous buffs or causing brutal damaging effects to enemies, these spells can easily change the course of battle but must be used extremely strategically. The mana used to power them is a very rare resource to find in a run, only given occasionally as a reward in a few narrative events or in exchange for large amounts of gold in settlements, it's easy to find yourself without the necessary resources to cast them when needed. It's also tempting to use them early in the region to quickly take down a powerful enemy or deal with a particularly difficult battle but their true effectiveness shows in the late areas of locations. The last battle in each area, against powerful boss enemies, is where they truly shine and can make these difficult fights much easier. If you use them early you'd better hope you can fill your mana before this fight or you might find yourself overwhelmed. Which brings us to the third element in our trilogy of gameplay components.
The turn based combat.
Making up just over half the time you'll spend in each run, it's a major focus and constant consideration during your adventure. It's the part where the run can go horribly wrong and where unsuccessful runs are most likely to end. Although it's easy enough to pick up, it becomes difficult to master. The sheer amount of hero and enemy abilities, spells, buffs, debuffs and various status effects leads to so many potential weaknesses and outcomes to consider that it's very possible to find yourself with an ineffective team build. Luckily the game does a great job of easing you in, with many explanation screens popping up and easier battles at the start letting you work things out. Mechanically it's the usual turn based, squad based combat we're all familiar with. Taking place on a grid, each character has a certain amount (two to begin with) of Action Points that govern how much each one can do in a turn. These are used to power the ability to move, attack and use special abilities with the aim being to remove all health from the members of the other side, while preserving your heroes health as much as possible. So standard stuff basically.
What makes it slightly different though, is that characters have both a health bar AND an armour one. Health only begins to be damaged when armour is completely depleted (except when certain armor avoiding effects get involved) and while armour is restored automatically at the end of each battle, health is not. This makes keeping the armour bar filled WAY more important than usual. You want to make as much effort as possible to avoid losing health as restoring it is much more difficult, requiring rest (with takes up food) or expensive healing in town (which requires gold) to get back. Luckily though, the starting Mage character has a magic shield granting potion that can be lobbed each turn, restoring any lost armour from your team. However it, like all the abilities you can get, has a cool down tied to it meaning it'll be a few turns waiting between uses. Early in a run this cooldown can even leave you with nothing to do in a turn but using a standard attack or moving your character, meaning careful consideration and management of skills is very important especially on higher difficulties.
As is movement. Getting across the maps in battle can take quite a few turns, especially for the Mage who can only move a few squares at a time, even if you use both your Action Points for movement. You also have to take cover into account, hiding behind objects that litter the battlefield in order to avoid ranged attacks from enemy armour. Or to set up your own overwatch areas and avoid enemy ones.
Or to make sure you avoid any areas affected by poison clouds or burning oil.
Picking your targets, deciding who should be taken out first, as well as actually reaching them is important and so is getting your heroes into position to back one another up, synergizing their attack abilities to be most effective. The enemies work well together, buffing each other, taking cover, pinning down your Warrior or going for your healer. Tougher enemies will draw your attention while allowing the weaker team members to whittle away at your armour. All this goes double later in the game when corrupted opponents get involved. They can move vast distances in a single move, call reinforcements, take major punishment and have abilities that not only target all members at once but can negate armour too, attacking your people’s health directly.
So these three elements, working together create an experience that's engaging, tactical and entertaining. You can earn new elements as you go through each run, allowing the next one to play out very differently from the last. The amount of different options available makes this an experience that is massively replayable and the different narrative stories require many playthroughs before you'll have seen them all.
It's a fun game. However it's not without some minor flaws or issues. Firstly, the console experience of playing with a controller. Now it's pretty obvious the Hand of Merlin was designed as a PC experience, to be played with keyboard and mouse. The port to console has required a gamepad to be the primary control system though and, although certainly functional, it's not without its problems. This is most obvious during the turn based combat sections where precise control feels a little off. Something as simple as highlighting a square to move to can be difficult, even more so when text, effects, enemies and stats are overlayed on top. Now you do have to confirm actions, so you've plenty of time to get it right but it never feels as good as playing with a mouse. I was lucky enough to play a few runs on my friends PC and found the controls much more fluid and responsive. When using a controller though, and even when on the big screen, the actual cursor position can be difficult to see.
Outside of combat the game uses different buttons as "shortcuts" to the various menus, the inventory, journal, ability bar and so on but this also has a problem. It's all a bit clustered and cluttered, with large text and huge windows taking up too much on screen real estate. They can be a pain to switch through, and much of the time will cover up other parts of the screen you need to see. On screen UI during combat can also get really crazy with multicoloured numbers, text and particles going off everywhere, as all the used abilities trigger in one turn and show their damage and status effects scrolling everywhere.
There's also the general presentation too. Now this is admittedly not just a console issue, and it's one that's entirely subjective, but I found Hand of Merlin to be a little inconsistent in the looks department. During the narrative sections there are hand drawn, faux woodcut charcoal style pictures shown to set each scene. These look really well done and there's a huge variety to see. These are works of art in certain areas, showing the best of the graphics. On the map the various locations have well done, if a little generic looking, sprites for the locations which do the job and look decent enough but aren't going to blow anyone away. In combat though things become…well not as good. The human characters, including your own heroes, are generic as hell and instantly forgettable. You'd think your heroes especially would be more unique and recognisable but you'd have difficulty telling them apart from a generic villager NPC in any other game. Spell effects also don't look too impressive, being little more than the usual "poof" of particle effects we've saw a million times before. When blown up on the big screen, I play on a 52inch TV and I know many play on even bigger, there was also a jagged blurred look to character models that was particularly noticeable against crisper background elements. If the team ever gets the chance to update the visuals, creating high resolution heroes with character and a more unique look would be a great addition.
As it stands though, Hand of Merlin is still an interesting and engaging experience. Arthurian legend fans will be captivated by the story, while RPG/Strategy fans will get caught up in the "every time it's different" style gameplay. The mixture of mechanics gives plenty to do and think about and there's a ton of elements to change up each run. While it might not handle the best using a console, and have a few troubles with it's UI and menus, it's still an adventure that every RPG fan should consider. If you're primarily, or only, a console player it's one to take a look at. It's deep RPG mechanics, complex combat, rogue like elements and party management systems all come together to create something rather unique. If you have chance to play with mouse though, you'll have a slightly smoother time and could even up that score below by one point.
*Note: A copy of this game was provided for the purpose of the review.
Final score: 7/10
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