Are you a fan of XCOM, but looking for a new flavour? How would you like some permadeath not just for your troops, but for your campaign as a whole? A little rouguelike in your turn-based strategy? As you’ll learn in this The Hand of Merlin review, that’s exactly what the game offers. And it does it in a very compelling manner.
Telling the story of near-infinite worlds, Merlin greets you by informing of the creation of one King Arthur. Destined to save the earth from corruption, Arthur has actually been created upon all of these parallel worlds. However, not every version of him will succeed. As he falls, the Holy Grail – the only weapon powerful enough to defeat the corruption – may end up in the wrong hands. It’s your duty to ensure that it doesn’t. To take it to Jerusalem, and vanquish the evil plague.
The story sets the scene for a turn-based strategy game in which you venture across maps, engaging in dialogue-based quests and XCOM style combat. The map system plays out a lot like Hand of Fate, in that the adventures here aren’t essential, but can significantly help your chances in combat. Should all of your team fall, it’s game over. There’s no option to further progress and you’re hastily booted back to the menu screen. However, as you’ll read below, it’s not quite as straightforward as simply starting over.
Playing on the ‘normal’ difficulty – the minimum level set for unlocks and Achievements/Trophies – The Hand of Merlin pulls no punches. From the very off, you’re expected to have a grasp of movement tactics, strengths and weaknesses of your warband. You’ll likely fail your first run soon into the second map. However, that’s exactly where the roguelike part of the design comes into play.
When you lose you’ll restart from the very beginning. Losing all your XP, weapons, relics (power-boosting items) and more. However, any of Merlin’s magical abilities that you’ve unlocked are available to chose from at the very start of your next run. Plus any characters you’ve unlocked can be chosen for your warband, giving you different abilities and new tactics. You’ll still start from level zero. With the additional perks and knowledge you’ve picked up each subsequent run becomes significantly easier.
The Hand of Merlin is a game of exceptional depth. There are numerous status effects, abilities and more to learn. By the time you fail your second run you’ll have enough of a grasp on the game to understand it’s core functions. However, with every further progression there’s yet more to learn. It’s this compelling nature – borrowed straight from the roguelike genre – that will undoubtedly see you invest 10s of hours into The Hand of Merlin.
While this The Hand of Merlin review may sound overly positive, there are two major gripes that could be levelled at the game. The first, there is no way to rotate the battlefield in combat. Or at least, we couldn’t figure out how to do it in our time with the game. Which nicely leads onto the second issue: the overly complicated control system.
Most actions have tooltips telling you what is needed, however there are a number which don’t. For example, after one mission we earned a relic, but our inventory was full. We had to visit the inventory page in the journal and discard a relic before being allowed to continue. However, the message informing us of this was also in the journal, and there was no instruction as to how to scroll pages. Only after around five minutes of trial-and-error did we discover that you had to hold a trigger while pressing a face button to scroll between pages, thus allowing us to continue with our quest.
Technical issues aside, The Hand of Merlin remains a hugely compelling experience. It’s challenging, but fair. It’s deep, but after the initial beginning offers a gentle learning curve. You’ll undoubtedly be keen to find out what lies ahead; what abilities you can earn, what each weapon upgrade will do, what new characters will offer when unlocked. The Hand or Merlin will grip you far longer than you may expect, and every minute of it will be enjoyable.