Well, I guess I am now officially seen as a tactical RPG correspondent, as any and all tactical turn-based RPGs that come through the door seem to find their way to my desk. This is not a complaint, you understand, I do love a good turn-based RPG. The question is, will The Hand of Merlin join the list of good ones, seeing as how the developers Room-C Games have decided to take a winning formula and inject it with the sadness that is a roguelite mechanic. I’m not particularly a fan of roguelites or roguelikes, feeling that I would like something to show for my efforts in a game. Still, I strapped on my armour and dived in to a world of magic, magicians and mayhem.
The Hand of Merlin is, as you may have surmised from the title, based on Arthurian legend. To be honest, the game had me hooked as soon as the first cutscene ran and explained what was going on, as I am a sucker for tales about King Arthur. I’ve been to places linked to the Arthurian myth in real life and so this was right up my alley; a tale of Merlin, who has departed from this world and become weaker, found trying to guide a group of adventurers on a dangerous journey from Albion to Jerusalem, carrying the Holy Grail. The people behind the narrative here also have Serious Sam 4 on their resumes, but it is good to see that they can craft a very compelling story that keeps you trudging on towards the goal. All in all, the story of The Hand of Merlin is a real highlight.
The presentation however is pretty much the definition of two halves. The majority of The Hand of Merlin seems to take place on a map of the region you happen to be in, with various nodes able to be visited. A little planning will help you in your journey here: you can’t visit all the nodes, as there is no backtracking allowed, so checking out the various options on offer, and the icons that they carry, will bear fruit. This screen then yields to a text based description of what you find at the node, which can be anything from a starving man to a full-on infestation of corrupted creatures, and everything in between.
Quite often you have the chance to come up with a favourable outcome, and while chance plays a part, you can gain advantages in any following combat if you manage to pull it off. Combat takes place on the usual battlefield, divided into squares as always. The sound of the game is also bang on, with monsters screeching, swords and spells crunching and whooshing, and suitably stirring music to cheer the spirit. Another good mark here, as everything is laid out as you would expect, and the optimisation for a controller has been very well done.
So, gameplay then. The Hand of Merlin has a roguelite element to it, which means that at the start of every run you have the opportunity to select a group of three warriors; one each from a mage, an archer and a warrior. Going through the game and achieving certain tasks will unlock new characters to bring along on the next journey, which is always nice, and as every run starts at level one, there is no disadvantage to trying out different characters. On the flip side, if someone dies on a run, which is all too easy, they are dead until the next run, so you’ll want to keep an eye on your team’s health, especially in the bigger battles.
As you battle your way through the game, winning fights and performing other feats will earn you renown, which is used to level up your team. When you level up, you can gain new abilities from a randomised list, and when you have four abilities – should you survive long enough – you can also choose to upgrade existing abilities, again from a randomised pool of choices. It sounds a lot more complicated than it is, to be honest, and keeping your team levelled, and buying new gear as and when you can afford it should see you start to trouble the higher levels fairly consistently.
Combat is standard tactical RPG fare to be honest – you have a set of AP to spend, and you can spend it moving or attacking. One thing you have to manage is the cooldown of the attacks, as the more powerful options take longer to ready up again; using attacks, then having other characters use abilities that reduce cool down times is a good idea. In fact, building your team to become a smooth machine whose abilities complement each other is a really good idea. For instance, my mage has an ability that strips armour from foes, allowing my warrior to run up and smack them with a stunning blow, while my archer maintains overwatch and kills anything that moves.
Building your team up to work together is incredibly satisfying, and this one mechanic alone makes The Hand of Merlin worth the price of admission. Even losing all your active characters, which brings your run to an end and forces you to start again, acts as a spur to do better.
All in all, what Room-C Games have created in The Hand of Merlin is pretty special, mainly due to the fact that there are so many paths to take, the abilities are random, and because it’s challenging in the right kind of way. It’s a game that will have you going back for more, running the old adage of “Treat ’em mean, keep ‘em keen”.
The Hand of Merlin is available from the Xbox Store