The Hand of Merlin (developed by Room-C Games, Croteam, and published by Versus Evil) is an Arthurian-inspired rogue-lite RPG, with choose-your-own-adventure-style progression, luck-based card-draws, turn-based battling, and plenty of replayability. It arrives on console (and v1.0 on PC) after a year in Early Access, which means 8 major content updates, balancing, visual improvements, and plenty of polish. The result is a meaty and engaging RPG – despite the rogue-like elements and potential restarts – that doesn’t always translate well to a gamepad and big screen.
The Hand of Merlin has a great premise that ties into the rogue-like structure. An insatiable corruption hungers to consume a multiverse in which Merlin is the only constant. His burden? Watching over the multiverse and preventing as many of them as possible from falling to corruption and being lost forever. His grand plan to defeat the corruption fails when Arthur is betrayed and falls in battle, leaving Merlin with no choice but to recruit mortal heroes in each realm to carry a magical MacGuffin – the grail – on an epic journey from Camelot in Albion, across southern Europe, and finally to Jerusalem to save each world (or perish in the attempt).
It’s not just the narrative setup that impresses, The Hand of Merlin features reams of quality writing that incorporates historical campaigns and legends from the period of the Crusades. Although the maps you pass through always feature the same paths, cities, and landmarks, you’ll encounter different leaders and heroes whose respective beliefs dictate the state of the world. Similarly, there are dozens of different encounters to experience in each region – some one-off events, some interlinked, many narrative-driven, while others trigger combat.
You can encounter the beleaguered populace fleeing monsters and brigands; ancient landmarks and the mythical figures that inhabit them; potential allies that could provide supplies, healing, or the ability to shift your odds in another encounter; or even new heroes to replenish any that have fallen during your journey. Several encounters flesh out Merlin’s rise and fall, during which he speaks through the party to old allies and foes. Despite The Hand of Merlin’s roguelike structure and most progression mechanics tied to “normal” difficulty and above, the sheer amount of narrative content justifies the inclusion of easier difficulty levels for those who just want to enjoy the journey.
The Hand of Merlin is a complex beast – perhaps too complex given each completed run is only 3-4 hours long. I’d break the gameplay systems into three components, the first of which is overland map traversal and player-choice driven narrative encounters. You always start in one corner of a region and pick your route through multiple nodes – only ever going forward – towards a climactic battle that leads into the next region (if you survive). Each node is marked to give you some idea of what you’re getting into – think normal, corrupted, heroic, or settlement – but the potential encounters draw from a massive repository so you’ll never know if it’ll involve combat or not. The player-choice-driven encounters can range from choosing to help or ignore the plight of NPCs, relying on unique hero skills to better your odds before starting combat, or percentage-based challenges that require you to draw from a deck of face-down cards.
The second gameplay component to consider is the more traditional RPG progression elements – both per-run and persistent upgrades. Each member of your party – which is always a warrior/archer/mage combo, with new heroes unlocked for achieving in-game milestones – begins with basic gear, two combat abilities, and two passive abilities. With each narrative or combat encounter survived, you gain renown. Reach a threshold and your entire party gains a level, automatically increasing their primary attributes but also giving you the choice to boost their health, armour, or attack power. Initially, you can learn two additional abilities drawn from a pool, before specialising available abilities at later levels.
Another impactful way to improve your chances is using gold (which is also essential to purchasing travel supplies and making use of rare healing opportunities) for upgrading basic gear at blacksmiths or purchasing magical devices from relic traders – artefacts that can be used in combat sequences to bolster your party or debuff your foes. If you’re brave enough to tackle the “Hard” modes, you also get the chance to select from a list of blessings and curses before each run, further tailoring the experience to your playstyle but often resulting in deadly tradeoffs given the random nature of encounters.
The more persistent upgrades include unlocking new heroes with unique passive abilities, upgrading heroes to more powerful classes, and – most importantly – using magical essence, a rare resource found during your ruins, to upgrade “guardian cores”. Initially, only Merlin is available, but each of the guardian cores has 9 spells to unlock, separated into three tiers, each more powerful but more expensive to cast. These spells can heal or bolster the defence of your party, or inflict powerful status effects on your enemies. However, the mana they consume can only be gained from certain encounters or skills, so you need to be strategic about their use. It’s tempting to use them early on to survive tough encounters and hope there’s a friendly settlement nearby to recover, but they can also drastically reduce the difficulty of the final battles in each region.
The final gameplay component to consider is the turn-based combat, against both human and demonic foes, which probably accounts for 70% of any given run. It’s simultaneously easy to grasp but difficult to master thanks to the sheer number of hero and enemy abilities (active and passive), along with a huge list of status effects. The design is standard fare, with two actions per turn you can use for movement and basic attacks but you need to manage armour damage, which can be restored easily during and between encounters, while limiting health damage, that can not. Most specialised abilities also come with a cooldown to consider, which can sometimes leave you without viable actions early in runs.
Careful movement is vital, forcing you to take into account cover from ranged foes, overwatch zones, and any lingering tiles hazards. Priority targeting and synergising abilities are equally important as tougher foes buff their companions, summon reinforcements, lock down your heroes, or have resistances to basic attacks. That said, with some rudimentary planning and positioning, you can quickly take down advancing foes while staying out of danger but the threat escalates rapidly in the final two regions, with many of the corrupted creatures able to cover ground quickly, target multiple heroes, and damage their health pool directly.
At this point, we need to discuss the console experience, and there are a few issues. The first and most significant is the functional but imprecise gamepad controls that make the turn-based combat take much longer than it should. It’s not unplayable by any means and there are toggles to confirm actions and limit input mistakes, but it never feels as slick and responsive as a mouse. Although there are plenty of grid-based highlights for AoE spells and overwatch zones, the actual cursor position can be difficult to see and selecting clustered targets is a pain, especially if they’re behind something. There are plenty of shortcuts for quickly accessing the menus, journal, and ability bar but that brings up the second issue – large text and cluttered menus that take up too much screen space, are a pain to toggle, and clearly obscure some elements that they shouldn’t. Even late-game combat can get visually chaotic as status effects and ability tags pop up all over the screen.
A final, subjective issue – and not necessarily exclusive to the console versions – is the overall presentation quality on large displays. As an indie game, The Hand of Merlin limits voice work to a few cutscenes and features a decently atmospheric and epic soundtrack, but the visual experience is mixed. The charcoal-style sketches and animation flourishes during the narrative and choice-driven encounters are great, but the overall look of the world and the creatures within it veers towards generic, despite plenty of fine details in each location and some new overhauled spell effects. It wasn’t something I noticed in the PC build but, blown up on a larger display, the game often looks too soft and borderline blurry at times. If the team has the opportunity, a dedicated current-gen build using high-resolution artwork would be worthwhile.
So to wrap up, The Hand of Merlin is an engaging rogue-lite RPG – with a surprisingly deep narrative layer and a ton of complex mechanics to juggle – but it doesn’t always look or handle the best on console. That said, it’s far from unplayable and several issues can probably be resolved with post-launch patches. If The Hand of Merlin has caught your attention and you only game on console, it’s still a feature-complete port and solid experience. On the other hand, if you’ve got a PC that can run it, add another point to the score and stick to a mouse for the optimal experience.
A review code for The Hand of Merlin was provided to gameblur by the publishers. A combat-oriented “Endless Mode” is arriving after launch.
The Hand of Merlin (Xbox Series) ReviewThe Hand of Merlin (Xbox Series) Review
- Excellent writing that puts a spin on both historical events and legends
- Varied and unpredictable narrative encounters
- Complex RPG elements
- Tactical turn-based combat
- Smart persistent progression
- Maybe too many systems to juggle?
- Gamepad controls feel imprecise
- Large, cluttered menus
- Visually underwhelming on a big screen