The Hand of Merlin – early access impressions

Arthurian legend with Cthulian monstrosities? A party-based RPG within a choice-based text adventure? Brutal turn-based combat within a roguelike structure? The Hand of Merlin proves this mishmash of ideas works.
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Edit – Our The Hand of Merlin review is up!

The Hand of Merlin – developed by Room-C Games and Croteam, published by Versus Evil – is an interesting blend of turn-based tactical combat, a party-based RPG, and a choice-driven text adventure, all wrapped in a roguelike package. Lynley and myself have spent the last week trying it out on Steam Early Access and these are our thoughts.

Andrew

The Hand of Merlin is a great title that encompases both the premise and the gameplay. A disembodied Merlin, weakened during Arthur’s battle against Mordred, must take control and aid a band of heroes tasked with taking The Holy Grail from Albion back to Jerusalem. By doing so, he hopes to seal a tear in the veil that threatens to overwhelm the medieval world with Cthulian horrors. 

Within the game’s lore, Merlin is a constant in a multiverse. He is trying to save as many worlds as he can, gaining and retaining new powers as each group of heroes succeeds or fails. More and more roguelike games are coming up with excellent narrative justification for their structure, and the combination of Arthurian legend and cosmic horror in The Hand of Merlin feels novel.

On the gameplay front, mechanics range from simple yet involved, to deceptively difficult. Your first decision will be which of Merlin’s “Guardian Spells” you activate for your run from his magic core. These offensive and defensive spells can be played during the turn-based combat sequences. However, the mana requirements get higher with each spell level and need to be restored by triggering unique encounters during your run. They can change the tide of battle, but you’ll always be nervous about using them too early.

Your first step is picking which of Merlin’s spells will aid you in your current run. The list of spells grows the more you play.

The next decision is your group of heroes – split into fighters, rangers, and alchemists. You start with a basic party but can unlock several other heroes of legend by achieving certain milestones. Aside from class-specific abilities, they also have a varying amount of armour points that are restored between battle, unlike health. A balanced party is, ultimately, a necessity given the high difficulty and myriad of different encounters on your path. 

Once you start your adventure, you’re presented with an overworld map with dozens of nodes, all linked by one-way paths. There are dozens of potential routes, with several different node types, but you’re always pushing forward. This limits your ability to grind every encounter before moving to a new act and increases replayability. There’s also the matter of corruption, which advances with each move you make and certain choices you make. Further adding to the replayability, the events you encounter along these paths – allies, enemies, new recruits (triggered if a hero dies), mythical locations – can all change between runs, resulting in a shifting story every time.

The most common event at each node is not actually combat, rather a  story-book style encounter that involves player-choice, chance, or offer unique hero actions. These can be simple interactions with travelling merchants, cities that allow you to gear up and rest, or neutral groups that – depending on your behaviour or dialogue choices – might turn hostile or aid you. Many combat encounters also start with a text-driven introduction, in which player choices or RNG decides on whether you gain an advantage at the start or combat or vice versa. The chance-based system involves drawing cards – a 25% chance would equate to 4 cards with only one correct pick – which feels novel at first but, ultimately, functions the same as any dice roll.

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Each hero has a class-specific ability pool that you can draw upon. Once you’ve got a full quota of skills, subsequent level-ups allow you to specialise your selection.

The gear and supplies system is fairly simple, but gives you something to spend gold on when you encounter merchants. Supplies keep your party fed as they travel from node to node (otherwise you lose health). Upgrading gear is a binary choice, granting weapons and armour more damage or armour points respectively – usually at the cost of weapon range or character movement – or providing a more balanced approach. Relics – in addition to the Grail you carry – can be found or purchased to provide either passive bonuses or allow a hero to cast a spell during their turn.

Levelling up your party is equally as simple. You get two starting abilities, and two subsequent abilities drawn from a pool for each class. Once you’ve filled out your four abilities, subsequent upgrades let you specialise those abilities with new effects or greater damage. Additionally, you’ll gain a pre-selected stat boosts optimal for each class. Just like the other non-combat mechanics, it’s involved but streamlined.

Now, I‘ve discussed a lot of gameplay mechanics that take up roughly 25% of your time. However, they’re critical to surviving the combat that constitutes the rest of the experience. The turn-based combat follows typical rules and offers few surprises for veterans: each character – without accounting for spells and abilities – get two action points per turn, but can only use each ability once (including what you might consider a standard attack). 

It’s a basic loop that’s been done to death, but The Hand of Merlin ups the stakes with its roguelike structure. There’s no reloading before a fight or save-scumming between combat rounds. When you couple the roguelike structure with the high difficulty (and text-based decisions that can leave your party surrounded), it’s hard not to feel a lot of your failures are down to luck. 

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I found I rarely had enough gold to kit out the entire party, so focussing on a single (relatively) unkillable hero to draw aggro is a good choice.

That said, combat information is clearly conveyed to the player. Your movement and attack range, enemy attack ranges (including those in “overwatch”), cover effectiveness, AoE targeting, and chance-to-hit percentages are always visible (and there’s no “95%” bullshit). However, it still feels like you need to use every class ability and turn to its full extent to survive these encounters, and that’s just considering human foes. When you begin to face monstrous creatures from beyond the veil, there are even more status effects and unexpected movement skills to deal with.

On the other hand, selecting the “easy” difficulty feels like a step too far, with your heroes receiving major buffs to health and, more specifically, your armour points that regenerate between fights. Mistakes are rarely punished and combat only starts to feel threatening in the third act. It feels like there’s a need for a default “normal” difficulty that’ll provide a more accessible middle ground. 

Overall, I enjoyed several hours and a dozen runs of The Hand of Merlin (most brutally short). It’s got a strong foundation, masterfully blending several gameplay elements into a surprisingly cohesive package. As for improvements going forward, I’d like to see a more balanced difficulty curve and, perhaps, a gameplay mechanic appropriate for encounters with monstrous creatures. A Darkest Dungeon-style sanity meter for text-based encounters or turn-based battles could add even more variability to the experience.

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Combat can feel brutally tough but the game ensures you have all the information you need to make tactically sound decisions.

Lynley

I love turn-based tactics games. This stems from my days playing D&D around a table with friends at school, which quickly found its way to CRPGs (like the Goldbox games), eventually X-Com, and dozens of subsequent games. So any game promising me high fantasy coupled with tactical, thoughtful gameplay is going to grab my attention.

And Hand of Merlin has certainly done that. More brutal than an X-Com “miss” when the game tells you there’s a 95% chance to hit, yet never so brutal as to discourage you. This is a game that I have spent only a handful of hours in, but one that I am definitely chomping at the bit to get back to.

The one minus for me, a minor minus, is the rogue-like game structure. The brutality of the gameplay, and the fact that on “normal” difficulty your armour doesn’t completely regenerate between nodes, makes failures all the more devastating and creates the sensation everything is spinning out of your control. Cities, villages, and nodes where you can rest are few and far between, so aggressive tactics that leave your tank character weakened will bear rotten fruit two or three nodes down the line.

Of course, player choice plays a huge part in this. Choosing all out aggression in combat will hurt you and deciding to investigate a ruined tavern with a seemingly dead Abomination will lead to wholesale party destruction. Never has it been truer – discretion is the better part of valour. The same goes for when you choose rewards and items to carry. That rune may give you a great stat boost, but the additional rations may just save you backside when trying to get to the nearest town without starving.

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A common sight in The Hand of Merlin. On the upside, at least I unlocked several new spells to aid me in the next run.

Planning is also important as you need to balance expenditure between healing, items, and gear upgrades. Gear and items can make you close to invincible for a battle, but the need to eat and maintain your strength for the next tough battle is always on your mind. Your route, too, can be the difference from extending your run to ending it in tragedy early. Knowing where towns and cities are will save your bacon and make it a tad easier to survive.

The party composition feels a little unbalanced at present. Having one tank in the knight, and then a ranger and alchemist that both feel fragile, leaves you a tad vulnerable when it comes to blocking enemy tactics. With the latter characters both being ranged fighters, you will more often than not find yourself using an action point to move these characters around instead of healing or attacking. Luckily, the enemy tends to make baffling decisions at times. I’ve seen an attacker damage a character in the first round before moving onto another character the next, giving you some breathing room. For me, a four-member party makes more sense, giving the player more options as to how to balance the party to their play style.

You experience the narrative via a book-style delivery and while it isn’t a wall of text – such as the ones you get in most CRPGs – it could be off putting for some. Reading each page thoroughly is the difference between making a decision leading to a reward or into battle. This design suits the game perfectly and it’s like I am a child again, reading The Sword in the Stone or a classic Choose Your Own Adventure book. It also means that the dev team has more resources to pour into the game, ensuring that it runs well and has as many features as possible, instead of spending time animating cutscenes and hiring voice actors.

The Hand of Merlin may be an early access game, but it is one that you can glean hours of fun from. Technically, I cannot see any lack of polish in the visual or gameplay system, and it is certainly rock solid with zero crashes or bugs in all my time spent. There are tweaks that can be made – Andrew mentioned a few and I certainly think party balance needs to be looked at – but nothing that should make you wary or suggest you take a wait-and-see attitude.

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